Saturday, October 18, 2008

Grading Essay Exams

Let's talk. How do people grade essay exams that include points for image IDs?

Some people place considerable weight on correct ID; the more recent trend seems to be away from ID and giving full weight to the essays. I fall in between, feeling that it is important for students to have some grasp of the ID and to be able to demonstrate that. This, however, can creating grading problems.

I've just finished grading 40 midterms. My overall reaction to these exams was quite positive: nearly every student wrote pretty good essays that showed they had listened in class, read the readings, and thought about the concepts. Of course, some students have a more advanced understanding of concepts than others, some have a better eye for detail, some write faster, and some even write in well-turned phrases. But the vast majority showed they understood the material pretty well, and even those who didn't weren't producing failing essays.

But perhaps I made a mistake in saying that the ID portion was less important to me than the essays. People freely left out dates (within 10 years generally gets full credit on this exam) and medium ("statue" is not a medium, thank you--"stone" is acceptable and I prefer "basalt" or "marble"). Most people did well on titles, and not so dreadfully on artists. But still. A significant number of people, including some of the best essayists, missed enough on ID (1/2 point each for title, artist, date, and medium) that there is no way that I can apply the usual 90% and over = varieties of A formula. This means that in order to be fair to the quality of the essays, I have to figure out some kind of grading curve.

I am not numerically inclined. The real evaluation of these exams lies in the extensive comments, which I think will help this (clearly motivated) class improve no matter what their current status. But I do have to give them grades that make sense and that indicate which parts of the exam were better done than others--hence the point system.

I'm curious how others are grading this type of ID plus essay exam, which is, after all, a very standard format in art history.


Travis Nygard said...

I usually break the identification and essay into two questions on an exam, with a set number of points for each. Perhaps 2 points possible for identifying a work properly and 10 points for the essay. And then I tend to focus on the skills we have covered in class when I grade. So if it is early in the semester and the major skill we have covered is describing an image with an art historical vocabulary, then that is what I am trying to reward.

One of my friends has a great system for exams that I am interested in trying. She gives out a series of potential questions in advance, each of which requires some type of independent thinking and preparation. For example, a question might require finding a primary source or an image not discussed in class. The students can bring in one sheet of notes on this outside material to help them on the exam. And she collects the sheet of notes. It makes the essays more interesting for her to grade and also makes them more engaging for the students.


Prognostika said...
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