Giant stack of grading!

I have foolishly scheduled the exams in my two classes back-to-back…so it’s therefore twice the usual size. Furthermore, like a good liberal-artsy professor, my questions include a couple of subjective, explain-why-you-think-this-answer-is-right sort of questions that are going to be hellish to grade. How do you humanities professors cope?

Now sinking into a sea of red ink…


  1. says

    As a formal non-humanities liberal-artsy professor I was always told to use the “first-impressions” method. You assign the grade based on a quick read and then rationalize the grade if the student questions it. I’ve never actually used that technique, but was often tempted to try it.

  2. says

    Doesn’t seem to be fair, though. I have a set of rubrics for those questions — they should at least mention X, Y, or Z, for instance, and A is a common but incorrect response — but they still cover so much ground, and I have to be prepared for the pleasant surprise of a student coming up with something original.

  3. Alverant says

    How do you validate “explain-why-you-think-this-answer-is-right” answers? Technically I can answer each one “aliens said so” and you can’t mark me wrong because that is why I think the answer is right.

  4. magistramarla says

    Keep doing that, PZ. Many of your students may have never seen a subjective question on a test in high school, so it’s up to you good liberal professors to teach them how to think.
    When I put subjective questions on my tests, I got in trouble with an administrator. I was “encouraged” to write tests with multiple choice answers and she told me that the students should never see a question on a test that they had not seen before in class or in a review. No “surprises” about which the parents might complain would be allowed.

  5. PaulBC says

    I think the rubric idea is good. I have considered that for technical questions in interviews, and I wish I had the self-discipline to write one, though I usually have a clear idea of what I’m looking for.

    In the unlikely event of a brilliant end run around the question as stated, I would give due credit, but still want to make sure they understood the concepts I was trying to test. This is possible in an interview or oral exam, but not a written exam. I would say that if it really happens, just give them full credit, make a brief note of what you expected on the exam paper, and fix the question for next time if necessary.

  6. Doubting Thomas says

    How about if they think the consensual answer is wrong and why? Maybe can come up with a new (reasonable) argument.

  7. dhall says

    I don’t give subjective questions in exams, but when my students write papers for me, whether in my history classes or other classes I teach, I explain that while I won’t necessarily grade anyone on his or her opinion–it depends on what the topic is and some other factors–I will grade on the presentation as well as the sources/evidence they use to support that opinion. Their opinions and mine don’t have to mesh, but they do have to show that they put some thought into their work and conducted a decent amount of research to reach their conclusions. About 80 students will be handing in papers at the end of next week, from four different classes, so I definitely feel your pain, PZ. I’ll feel it more personally soon too. I’m also trying to get enough work done ahead of time to be ready for the deluge.

  8. congenital cynic says

    I feel your pain. I tried, a couple of times, asking those “explain” type questions in a physics course. I nearly perished from the pain of reading the answers provided by engineering students. I don’t do that any more. It would lead to bouts of heavy drinking.

  9. numerobis says

    You bring back memories of one homework set we assigned where there was an explain-why question that was in our minds a short-answer… but we had neglected to say as much. We mostly got answers of the right length, which took for frickin ever to grade — but worse, we got essays from the keener kids. One was several pages long, with figures. I’ve never made that mistake again.

  10. says

    There’s nothing like an exam to turn STEM students into pre-law majors. They come up with the most contorted chains of reasoning to justify their answers in hopes of cadging a little more partial credit from the instructor. Of course, I carefully avoid “Why do you think that –?” questions because of the snappy come-back “but I really think that, so my answer is correct!” I haven’t abandoned “explain” questions, however. Is the quadrilateral PQRS a parallelogram? Yes/No? Gotta do better than that. Explain!

  11. Al Dente says

    I’ve always thought that math and science should figure out the answers themselves. I got tired of having to do all the work that lazy math and science didn’t want to do.

  12. OldEd says


    Why is is always LIBERAL Arts professors (or students, or whatever…) What ever happened to the CONSERVATIVE Arts professors (or students, or whatever…..)

  13. Lonely Panda, e.s.l. says

    I teach digital logic circuit design. In both the weekly design problems and on the exams, I try to make sure there are multiple good solutions to try to break the students out of their years of conditioning of using memorized steps to find “the” solution. The grading is certainly slow going and I occasionally get answers (usually very wrong, but in a very original way) that make me reevaluate my rubrics, but I think having room for creativity is worth it. The variety keeps the class interesting for me too!

  14. sugarfrosted says

    I feel your pain, slightly. I recently began grad student life and started grading math homeworks (upper division undergrad, so it’s proof based, so writing is important.) So many of them are so horribly written that I have a tough time understanding them. I hope for your sake more biology students can write decently.

  15. randay says

    A retired university English teacher, I couldn’t avoid subjective questions. Most important I would set a word limit. A small or even medium excess would be accepted, but if it went further, I would mention it on the paper and reduce the grade. A funny thing was that the only students who complained about grades were the ones who would have had a low grade regardless of the length.

    It happened that I may have given a lower grade than usual to a good student. I would ask them what they thought. Almost always they replied that they knew they were below par that day and accepted my evaluation.

    One page on topic and well expressed could get a top grade while a few pages not fulfilling that criteria could get a lower grade. In general, the more they wrote, the more they were repetitive, off-topic, or even contradicting themselves. All that said. the value of some papers was clear on first reading. Some others required two or three readings after which, for better or worse, I changed my opinion.

    In any case, it is time consuming.

  16. David Marjanović says

    How do you validate “explain-why-you-think-this-answer-is-right” answers? Technically I can answer each one “aliens said so” and you can’t mark me wrong because that is why I think the answer is right.

    Just define “think” in a way that is strict enough to exclude “believe”. :-)

    No “surprises” about which the parents might complain would be allowed.

    America, the wondrous land where parents are not fucking ashamed to whine to professors on behalf of grown-ass adults.

    I know, I know: they’ve put decades of their income into this, so they’re acting rationally to protect their enormous investments. Other countries manage to avoid this effect very easily.

    Why is is always LIBERAL Arts professors (or students, or whatever…) What ever happened to the CONSERVATIVE Arts professors (or students, or whatever…..)


    The UMM is not a liberal arts university.

    It is a liberalarts university. With a hyphen.

    It’s a university where you can study today’s successors of the liberal arts.