Monday, April 22, 2013

Of Course It's True That Professors Grade Easier Than TAs

Last week when I was in a cafe waiting for my mediumskimicedmocha, I overhead one student say to another, "Of course it's true that professors grade easier than TAs", and the other student agreed with that statement. 

Of course! I rather liked this indication that we professors might actually become nicer with time, as opposed to more cranky and mean.

But do you agree with these students? (ignoring the 57 million variables for which we cannot scientifically or otherwise account in discussing this issue now in this blog post and comments).

Some considerations:

- If you used to be a teaching assistant and are now a professor, assuming that you have even a shred of objectivity about this issue, do you think you are an "easier" grader now than when you were a TA?

- If you are a professor now and you teach a class with teaching assistants, do you think you are an easier grader than your TAs? Is this generally true?

- If you are a teaching assistant now, do you have any idea how your grading "hardness" compares with that of the course instructor(s)?

Over the years, in some classes I have been an easier grader than my TAs and in other classes I have not, but if I had to generalize over my career, I would conclude that (1) I am an easier grader now, as a professor, than I was when I was a TA, and (2) I am commonly (but not in every case) an easier grader than most (but certainly not all) of my TAs. I gauge the latter by how many complaints I get about TA grading and, when faced with a grading dispute, whether I think the TA assigned a reasonable grade or was too harsh. [The latter case creates the tricky situation of needing to be fair to the student without undermining the TA, a topic for another day.]

There are likely many explanations for the TAs-are-more-severe-graders phenomenon, but some obvious ones that spring to mind are:

- We are more idealistic when we are just starting out in a career. We have standards, and these are not as flexible as they become later, when we have been teaching for years and might be more willing to reward a glimmer of knowledge as opposed to being severely disappointed that an answer is not as correct or complete as it should be. That does not necessarily mean that we old(er) professors are jaded and have lower standards (though it may).

- At least at the beginning, when we haven't had much experience as a teaching assistant, we don't have much of a basis for comparison and perhaps not much perspective to guide us in the more subjective aspects of grading things involving writing and equations and diagramming. When I was a TA, it was the rare professor who provided much guidance about grading issues such as partial credit, so I mostly made it up as I went along. I figured/hoped that as long as I was consistent, I couldn't go too far wrong.

- A related explanation: Some inexperienced TAs don't have the confidence to give partial credit for partially-correct answers. I recall a time -- many years ago -- when I (the professor) provided a TA with a detailed answer key to an exam. Fortunately I looked over some of the graded exams before handing them back to the students because I ended up having to re-grade several questions entirely because the TA had been inexplicably harsh. For example, in the answer key that I gave to the TA, I had indicated that the correct answer for one question was something like "kitty cat". That was the complete, official name of the thing that was the answer to the exam question, but it did not occur to me that the TA would give students no points if they only wrote "kitty". I should have written on the answer key that "kitty cat" or "kitty" or "cat" were acceptable for full credit, but it didn't occur to me that the student couldn't deal with this level of variability in student answers. Anyone who wrote one of those words clearly knew the answer, so why take off any (or all) of the points? I think the TA just lacked the confidence, and for some reason didn't even want to ask me about it while he was grading.

Now I am wondering: Assuming that I have become easier as a grader with time, have I plateaued or does the grading-easiness trend continue with time (and with what slope on a grading-easiness vs. time plot)?






36 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think it's plausible that TAs are more harsh graders than professors. Most TAs are grad students with little or no experience teaching. But what they do have experience with is being students. Being that they were accepted to grad school, they were probably good students with high standards fit themselves. So I think it makes sense that TAs would grade more harshly, comparing their students to their own performance as undergrads, whereas professors have a wider range of students to compare the current cup against.

Alex said...

My TA experiences were mostly in a time that I only vaguely recall. But, as a professor, I think I'm becoming softer over time, sort of. I'm asking easier questions but grading them a bit more stringently. I feel like asking easier questions gives me more license to be strict. If they can't even get this easy thing, then it's OK to give no partial credit.

When professors do go soft, I don't think it's because we get jaded. (Though we definitely do get jaded.) I think it's because there's a cottage industry of presentations, workshops, publications, educational products, etc. that all push us to be more "progressive" and involve lots of discussions on the theme of "You have to understand, your students aren't like you..." (Wow, really? What was your first clue? Was it that they're only semi-literate, or that they can't do math?) There are a lot of pressure gradients that drive us to go soft.

Anonymous said...

The questions posed may not be directed at someone like me as I am currently a TA and not a professor, but I have notice attitudes among TAs to be unforgiving to students and particularly harsh to wrong answers. TAs who only recently have been in the same situation as the students might have higher expectations. They may also be uncertain if they are allowed to give partial credit if it is outside of the 'marking scheme'. I usually give partial credit or full marks if its a variation of the right answer but we were warned to try to follow the marking scheme so the marks would be consistent over all TAs (this was for a big class). This wasn't directed at me but I became more cautious and I think it actually made me more harsh.

Maria said...

I am a teaching assistant, and I try to give the student credit if they have partially answered the question - I see no point in overly harsh grading.
I am however much, much more strict about things like working ethics and behaviour in the laboratory (in my field we have a lot of practical trainings). Recently I had to sent an official mail to the coordinator of a practical class, because I encountered extremely rude behaviour of students towards the assistants: coming late without notifying us, constantly checking mobile phone during the work, being distracted and not focussed on the experiment. I had a serious word with the students, but found it anyways useful to document this kind of behaviour by writing a report to my supervisor. He didn't seem to be bothered as much as I was.

Anonymous said...

For international TA's, grading hard comes naturally as the system in their country is not as liberal with grades...

nicoleandmaggie said...

Graders are often paid by the hour. Professors are not.

PML said...

A couple ideas:

1. TAs have to answer to professors and unless we show them examples of acceptable interpretations of a grading key, they might not feel justified in taking such liberties as giving partial credit to 'baby feline'. I wonder, how many depts formally train TAs in things like this? If we don't train TAs to grade, how can we reasonably expect them to know how? Of course, we have to let them in on our specific criteria, too, on a course-by-course or exam-by-exam basis...

2. There's sometimes a mismatch between the caliber of grad student and undergrad. For example, many of my peers in grad school went to elite private universities for undergrad, but the students we were grading were at a major public institution, with significantly different (lower) admission standards. My first time grading, I had to significantly adjust my standards. The top students were just as awesome as I expected, but there was a much larger range.

Mrs. Smith said...

I agree that TAs end up grading more harshly than professors. I think it can be a combination of things.

I think the confidence plays a part - I remember a TA giving me 0 points on an esterification problem because I hadn't shown it *exactly* as the prof did.


Also, I think many grad students are not native English speakers and therefore if you don't have the exact wording, etc that is on the answer key, they mark you off.

I think the other part may be a bit of smugness or like someone else said projecting their experience as undergrads onto their students - I recall my adv o-chem lab TAs talking about how difficult they were going with grading.

another anonymous person said...

I wouldn't say that I'm an easier grader, but I am a more understanding grader. I look for whether a student understands the concept that I am testing (in a STEM class) and I try to look past some of the more... interesting language problems. My GTA looks for how the answer is phrased.

Anonymous said...

I think there is some truth to the fact that TAs are closer to having been undergrads and therefore have higher standards for them. I think I graded more strictly as a TA than I did as the instructor.

Another thing TAs are much harsher about (in my experience) is with giving zeros for plagiarism and cheating. I've seen many instances where a faculty member wanted to just give a zero on the plagiarized portion of the assignment and the TA wanted to give a zero on the whole assignment and report the incident to the dean. The faulty never seem to want to officially report those incidents. (Probably because they can turn into a bureaucratic nightmare)

Strung out cyclist said...

Not that it's related, but the thing I discovered while a TA is how much advantage you have over the students you're grading. I started out painstakingly writing out my own solutions, then realized you don't have to do that. You just wait 'til all the papers are in, find the solutions you like best and copy those...

Anonymous said...

I am teaching this semester without any TA. I think its a pure torcher to read/grade students' assignments/term papers. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy every other aspect of teaching.

No wonder, most professors take it easy and grade it easy.

Anonymous said...

The worst TA I ever had would hold office hours at which he provided absolutely no help. I would say, "I am confused about number 4. Can you help me get started?" and he would say something like, "Everything you need is in Section 5.3.1." "Yes, I have read Section 5.3.1 and I do not understand how it applies here." "Well, everything you need is in there." And I would leave, exasperated, and my best efforts would get a big fat ZERO. He is now a professor and I hope he has become more lenient.

Perhaps because of this experience, I was a very lenient grader as a TA. There were two types of students that I had little patience for: (1) The person who turns in a blank page, or a page with an excuse on it. Copy down the problem. Take a gander. Write something -- ANYTHING -- and I'll throw you a few points. (2) The person who takes an easy problem, the kind that boils down to "plug these numbers into equation 3.2," and derives the answer from first principles in a pretentious way. Did you not read the instructions? I was always smugly pleased when I could deduct points for some error that could have been easily avoided by just taking the darn thing at face value.

Then there were a whole bunch of problems that the prof had been using for years, that required extensive literature searches to solve (ridiculous). Here the students who got points were the ones that had the good sense to come to office hours and ask what the heck was up with that crazy problem. If students didn't ask, how was I supposed to know they needed a hint?

Nick said...

(I'm still a grad student and was a TA) Call me lazy but I ALWAYS erred on the side of leniency, because then I knew I would be less likely to have try-hard students come and try to fight for a couple marks.

Anonymous said...

I find myself grading easier now that I am a professor. I give more partial credit and give students credit for getting a glimmer of what I want them to learn. But I am still considered a pretty hard grader. I also spend much less time grading than it took when I started as a TA. I used to sweat every half point wanting to be fair to everyone. I don't think the quality of my grading has gone down, it just gets so much more streamlined the more you do it and the more confident you get.

Anonymous said...

I am still a TA, but I have noticed that in the years I've been doing this I've become a little more lenient. I've noticed that now I'm the "easy" grader when I grade exams with other TA's, because I'm more interested in seeing that the student understands the general concepts rather than the student gets the verbatim answer the professor wrote on the key.

Anonymous said...

As a former TA (for a variety of class levels), I agree that TAs grade harder than professors.

For exams, the TAs and professor would grade together. While we gave plenty of partial credit, the TAs were far more likely to penalize students for careless errors, while the professor was more likely to dismiss these as "typos," "unimportant differences," or "it's clear X knew what was going on" and give full credit. Yes, X knew what was going on, but was careless and sloppy and therefore shouldn't get the same grade as Y.

Also, if I did what X wrote on the page, I would have an explosion not the desired product; hardly an "unimportant difference." In this field, carelessness can have dire real-world consequences, and that fact should be impressed upon students early in their careers.

That being said, I grade far more leniently when the questions or material are more challenging or require more insight. (Or require me to read a lot of text.)

Anonymous said...

Over the past few years as a TA, I think my grading has become less harsh in some respects, especially as I realize what helped me learn most from my own undergrad assignments. Thinking back, I was most likely to gain something from a graded assignment/lab if I received written comments or suggestions or more questions back, and I tended to ignore it when points were simply taken off. So, I've made a conscious decision as a TA to take the time I might otherwise spend determining exact points, partial credit, etc., and instead I write a phrase or two of suggestions for improving an answer or extra elements to consider in the future (along with taking off a few points as appropriate). I hope that students find this as helpful as I did, and are less likely to simply dismiss the graded work as "finished for good".

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Over the years it has probably gotten harder to get an A from me, but easier to get a B or C. My average grade now is most likely a B, rather than a B-.

The few times I've had TAs, I've seen that their grading is a bit more random than mine, and that they were less aware of subtle errors in student answers (particularly on programming assignments). On the whole, I'd say the TAs were more lenient than me, because they missed errors that I caught, not because they were trying to be more generous.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting that you attributed TA's lack of willingness to give partial credit to a "lack of confidence". I think I agree, mostly. But it is also due to a lack of pragmatism, lack of quantitative understanding of what grades represent (hard as it is to believe), and lack of caring.
Overall I do agree that TA's are harsher because they interpret the answer keys so narrowly.

This discussion underscores the need for faculty to discuss grading with TA's!

@Anon 10:24: I am a mid-career professor, and if I find that a student has willfully plagiarized any problem on a homework set, they get a zero on the entire set. And they get a letter to their college advisor. However, if the plagiarism seems to be less willful and more inadvertent, then they just get a zero on the problem in question and a warning -- with a clear explanation of what is and isn't ok.

Brugg said...

Hard or easy, aren't all the grades curved or percentiled anyways? As long as one is consistent between subjects, erm, students.

Anonymous said...

First up, I really enjoy your blog.

As a new faculty member, I will mention that I definitely think I am grading easier now than when I was a graduate student and, compared to my TA's, I am definitely an easier grader.

I think that part of it comes down to confidence in judging student intent: whereas a TA might see that the answer is wrong, and not feel confident giving it credit, I might notice that the idea behind the attempted solution is pretty good, and be comfortable giving it more credit.

Anonymous said...

One of the profs I TA'd for was notorious for calling her students idiots while grading her notoriously difficult exams. Needless to say she was a harder grader than anyone else I ever TA'd for. I am pretty sure that if I had tried to take one of her exams I would have been an "idiot" too...

As for the average prof vs the average TA... well I think I was more likely to give partial credit than most of the profs. My co-TA's... not so much. I think that maybe sometimes it's easier just to give a zero instead of trying to figure out exactly how much partial credit a particular answer deserves.

Alex said...

One of the profs I TA'd for was notorious for calling her students idiots while grading her notoriously difficult exams.

Sometimes it's cathartic to sit in your office and grade the test and scream about what you'd like to do to the high school teachers who let these kids pass and enter college.

Every time I grade a freshman lab report I find myself wanting to punish a high school English teacher...

Anonymous said...

As a current student, I see a lot of variety among what kinds of graders TA's are verses professors. The TA's I've gotten for the lab sequence are very laid back, and look more for effort during the experiment than anything else.

Also, once I helped my stats teacher in high school grade papers. It was difficult. He told me his guidelines for partial credit, however, I still managed to grade several papers wrong. When you are trying to grade by someone else's guidelines its just plain hard.

Anonymous said...

My reason for grading easy: if you grade easy, and students get a better grade than they expect to, they don't come and bother you for more points. That is worth grading easy for!

Anonymous said...

I think that the next question is: did you become a softer referee/editor over time?

MineralPhys said...

I'm a professor, and I am becoming a much more lenient grader with time. In fact, I'm becoming increasingly interested in nontraditional grading schemes. But, when I work with a TA, I want to make sure that I'm the one who makes the difficult decisions. I don't love good-cop/bad-cop, but I don't think it's good if the TA is bad-cop to the Prof's good-cop.

sciprofmum said...

We use strict marking schemes so grading is similar between me and my TA but the TA gives much better feedback to students!

Anonymous said...

I TA for an introductory writing course in which the professor urges me to grade students much more harshly than I'd like to (based, I think, on his unrealistic assessment of their writing and even English abilities, and also on his optimism about the level of instruction he is providing).

I know from previous semesters, however, that when students get angry and upset about these grades--distress I have to bear the brunt of in section and in office hours--the professor will sometimes feel sympathetic and urge me to be merciful.

O, Jupiter, grant me the freedom to require excellence from such a distance, and to mete out punishment and reward from such a lofty place, letting the Empire's drudges scrub away the consequences!

Anonymous said...

I am a teaching assistant and have been for a few years. I tend to give lots of partial credit and grade on the "easy" side of things and always have. As a student, I feel that everyone needs less stress, and as a teacher, I feel that my students tend to be more interested in the subject when they feel like their hard work is paying off (and yes, students are working hard - something a few of the profs I've worked for find hard to believe). I think there are better ways to challenge students and get them to work hard than making a high grade completely unattainable.

Some professors don't mind, a few think I am too harsh, others think I need to grade harder. IMO, it depends on the prof really and whether the prof views their class as a "weed out" class (a mentality I have yet to understand), or not.

Anonymous said...

I am an easier grader now than when I was in grad school. When I was a TA, I wasn't really concerned whether the students pass or fail, just that they have the correct answers. If they fail, they fail. Same thing when I started teaching, my main concern was did they understand the material and is it reflected in the exam scores. However, I soon learned that the school is more concerned with "% of passing students" than anything else. So, yes, sad to say, my standards are lowered bec I need a job.

Anonymous said...

I just wrapped up my second semester of grading and I absolutely agree with this statement, but for totally different reasons.

I graded for a class where the professor was great about giving us very exact homework solutions. Then after a few homeworks I could predict exactly what mistakes the students would make and would write up a partial credit rubric before I started grading so I could be consistent, and keep records.

What I noticed over the semester was that the professor was a much easier "grader" when it came to "trouble students". The students who don't come to class, ask the TAs convoluted hypothetical questions to get us to tell them the homework answers, possibly even copy, or simply complain about ever single possibly unfair point lost. I'm not talking about university scale action, but just implementing harsher parts of the homework and attendance policy for the class.

The professor put a lot of effort into the class, as did I as a TA, as did many of the students; I still don't understand how it's fair to capitulate or ignore these students.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I'm a harder grader than my TAs, sometimes not. I've seen a class of TAs who just want to grade everything super fast and grade super easy so there won't be any complaints. It usually works but the only way to catch it is to really look into how your TA is grading. I had some problems with a TA last semester who just had no understanding of how people learn and was upset that I was seeking input from the TAs on students' final grades if they were on the borderline. He thought that exams were the ultimate measure of what students know and the entire grade should be based 100% on exams - and wasn't swayed when I pointed out that a 1/2 a point on one exam, basically a judgement call on partial credit on one question, would have changed a student's final grade and I just don't think any grading is that accurate. I suspect the TA would think that were being a "hard" grader and perhaps the students would perceive it as such, but I think it's really just being a foolish grader. I definitely give assignments that I always intend to grade easy - reading quizzes, class participation - because what I really want is for them to learn. If giving them 10% of the grade for free if they just drag their butt to class motivates them, they'll learn better and I'll have a lower rate of students dropping or flunking out. I guess I'd say my goals are different - students (including TAs) are still very much motivated by grades. I want to grade fairly but the grade is not the end goal.

MyStupidAdvisor said...

From my experience most professors grade easier than TAs. In my graduate years I was a TA for 5 different courses and really enjoyed teaching, grading, designing exams and interacting with undergrads and grad students.

In my first course, I was a hard grader. As an international student I was not familiar with the concept of "effort points" which is a partial credit given to students for trying to solve a problem even if they are conceptually wrong. I would give partial credit for partial correctness but not for any scribble. Once a professor told me that if a student has written anything they get a 5/10. I still don't understand that but I did as I was instructed. I see the reasoning behind effort points but do not agree with giving effort points to "anything".

If you have international students it would be helpful to explain how you want them to grade. Tell them about partial credit and how you feel about effort points. Just tell them how easy or hard you want them to be.

In my these five courses I was never provided with any kind of solution keys ever. When I asked for keys, one professor even made fun of me and told me that I have to know this basic stuff. But he also criticized me for being too hard on a homework set so I stopped being hard but the he complains again this time I'm too easy. As a professor you can't expect your TA to know how to grade the way you prefer. You need to provide a solution key and explain in detail what you expect.

My other experience is that professors don't really want to get involved in honor code violations. In a closed-book exam I had a student using the constants for the Antoine equation. (These are substance specific constants and nobody knows them by heart). When I reported that to the professor he basically ignored it. He didn't even reply to my email. I don't see how this is fair to other students. As a professor I would not report that to the honor council either but I would at least talk to the student.

Once I was a TA for a professor who would complain every time the class average was high. I was happy that the students learned and were able to do their homework and get good grades but this professor didn't seem to enjoy this fact that his students learned something and are basically good.

I really enjoy teaching and holding TA sessions and office hours but didn't really have a good experience with the professors I worked with. Only in one of the 5 courses, I was given concrete responsibilities and instructions and knew more or less what was expected from me.

Pagan Topologist said...

It has been 45 years since I was a TA, but I have the feeling that I was an easier grader then than I am now. My memory may be faulty, but I think my expectations have become more finely developed and I tolerate less. The one exception was when (in an emergency situation) I taught a course in probability to grad students in non-science departments. I was scared of letting people through the course who did not understand it thoroughly, and I gave significantly lower grades than I would now.