How to Cut the Number of Points Available in Comp Courses

Frugal Scholar  has decided, in response to student complaints posted on Rate My Professor to the effect that she doesn’t provide enough points in her courses, to up the number of available points to 1,000. To make this happen, she will assign a bunch of 20-point activities, and to turn the result into an intelligible score for the final grade, she will divide the result by 10.

She compares this strategy — rightly, as we will see by the end of next semester — with J.C. Penney’s scheme of increasing their prices and then giving people coupons and sales. Consumers, we are told, would rather think they’re getting a bargain on an inflated price than to be offered “everyday low prices” (i.e., realistic retail prices) all the time. Students, like consumers in general, are very stupid about numbers, and so are easily flamboozled.

On the other hand, generating 1,000 points will not be easy. It will require Frugal Scholar to assign flurries of little 20-point exercises, each of which she will have to read and assess. Even if they’re rote things with simple “right” and “wrong” answers, they still will occupy time out of class. And since she’s at one of those colleges that inflict five sections a semester on everyone, even tenured faculty, that means 20 or 30 returned papers x 5: 100 to 150 papers per assignment to read.

If she can get through a given paper in 2 minutes, that’s 200 to 300 minutes per mind-numbing assignment: three hours and twenty minutes to five hours per assignment. And believe me, in each section at least two or three nimrods will turn in something that’s such a tangle it will take lots longer than 2 minutes to explain why the student scored 3 points out of 20. If she doesn’t take that time up front, then she will find herself spending even more time explaining to her chair or her dean why she’s discriminating against that poor little soul.

This is COLLEGE, for cripesake. If you have to assign a thousand points of busywork to keep students on task through the semester, they shouldn’t be in college. And you shouldn’t have to waste your time grading 20-point dingbats here and 20-point dingbats there because they can’t score passing grades on real assignments.

Toward the end of my own reluctantly reborn career in teaching freshman comp, I decided I was not going to read 20 or 30 busywork assignments (x 60 students!) meant to inflate their grades when the assignments that were required by the community college district’s policy came to four essays in 101 and three in 102.

This conclusion came about after a couple of full-timers described how they operated their sections. With a five & five teaching load, they certainly weren’t knocking themselves out reading 87 gerjillion 20-point assignments.

I gave students one, count it (1), opportunity to turn in a draft, which was to be “as close to a final paper as you can make it.” This occurred before the first required essay; it was graded as though it were a final paper and commented upon in detail, with instructions on what they needed to do to score a decent grade. Those who were clearly illiterate were instructed to take their papers to the writing center and work with a coach before turning them in to me.

To keep them busy, I compiled a 60-page workbook of exercises, which they had to do in class. Instead of grading that stuff, we discussed their responses in class. This, as you may imagine, handily consumed a fair number of class periods. Since most of them had never heard of a style manual and few understood (or cared) that pasting passages off the Internet into their papers amounts to plagiarism, it gave them opportunities to practice MLA style and other key matters without being beaten about the head and shoulders.

And then I assigned the topics for each paper — for each student — at the beginning of the semester. Each classmate had to give two oral reports preparatory to submitting a given paper:

1) What specific approach did they intend to take to their topic? How did they intend to focus the essay, and what specific research material did they intend to use? (All of their papers were sourced and documented — yes, even in 101, and no, most of them had never written a sourced paper in their lives.) They had to turn in an outline with this report.

2) Report to your classmates what you have learned about your topic and why it should matter to us.  With this report, they had to turn in a preliminary bibliography.

I also assigned them to groups by closely related topics, so they could help each other with their research. They spent time in the library to do research (many of them spent the time socializing) and time in the computer labs drafting their papers (many of them spent the time on Facebook).

They got scores for the oral reports — meaning I didn’t have to use unpaid time out of class to read the equivalent garbage they would turn in when I used to ask them to put the stuff in writing. I used the first report to determine whether they were on track in terms of subject matter and focus, and the second to see whether they were actually doing any work on the assignment. Additionally, they got scores at random for the exercises (they never knew when I was going to ask them to turn one in).

That enormously reduced the amount of time I had to spend reading careless schlock. Instead of a spreadsheet that extended to and disappeared over the western horizon, the gradesheet had (for Eng. 102, for example) 12 scores, 6 of which were oral reports. And since adjuncts at Heavenly Gardens are, by explicit written policy, paid only for the time they spend in the classroom, it reduced the number of hours I had to spend working for no pay.

It did not change the grading curve.

It did not change retention levels.

Ultimately, it did not make me dislike the low-paid, futile job any less. But it did make it bearable for a few semesters.


  • Finds and Links | Funny about Money

    May 12, 2013 at 7:51 am Reply

    […] instructor to come up with flurries of small assignments (which, as Frugal says, she already does), an issue I’ve addressed at Adjunctorium in response to Frugal’s post. Since in fact you could assign as many or as few points as […]

  • frugalscholar

    May 13, 2013 at 4:46 am Reply

    Oops–guess my writing was unclear! I already HAVE lots of little assignments–1 pointers. These are easy and designed to keep students working–at least a little–in between major assignments and exams.

    My course will not change much: all assignments will be worth 10 times more, making 1000 points.

    The only difference will be that the 20 1-point assignments will be graded as 10-point assignments. Grades, I think will be lower b/c I will no longer give automatic fill credit for turning it in. Now I do that with 1 point assignments–at the end of the semester, I look at 3 random assignments and award 1-5 quality points. I will save myself the extra step.

    So the number of points is an illusion.

    I do think there is an issue with the # of assignments. At my fancy liberal arts college, i had two in English courses: a short paper and a long paper.

    Students now want zillions of assignments–backbreaking labor with the number of students/courses I have. They are conditioned by their experience in h.s., where there innumerate teachers assign points in a way that obfuscates the whole process: e.g. my children would have an English class with 3200 points at end. An assignment would be worth 300 points with 20 for grammar, 15 for thesis sentence, 40 for vocabulary, on and on, with 80 for creativity (i.e. a collage cover sheet).

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