There are wonderful things about being a GSI.

Grading is not one of them.

For every hardship we foist upon students in the form of an essay or exam, our students return the favor 25, 50 or 75 times in the form of exams to grade or essays to evaluate.

Some undergraduates — a distinct minority, but a vocal and annoying one — vigorously question the qualifications of GSIs to evaluate undergraduate work. These students need to take a deep breath, count to 10 and realize that GSIs and professors put a great deal of work into developing clear, fair grading standards for exams and papers.

All GSIs have stories about students who just couldn’t accept their grade. I once had a student formally challenge six of the seven grades she earned on essays. Another student once followed me around for 10 months whining about the ‘C’ he earned on his final exam essay because he “needed” to get into law school. He even thought it would be a good idea to call my personal cell phone before 8 a.m. to plead his case.

My personal favorite was the student who failed a midterm and refused to accept that there could possibly be anything wrong with his exam other than me not being able to read his handwriting. He seemed quite offended that I wasn’t willing to serve as his personal typist on future exams to eliminate the problem.

So how did I justify his grade?

The blunt answer is I know a great deal more than my students about the topic I teach, and I judged his answer worth a ‘C-.’ Deal with it, punk.

The more nuanced answer is that GSIs spend quite a bit of time developing questions that try to objectively measure knowledge. We endlessly discuss grading rubrics and rigorously cross-check our grades to be sure that we’re awarding similar grades to similar answers.

Last term, for example, I taught a course in which the lion’s share of GSI-professor meetings were devoted to discussing specific multiple choice questions for quizzes and exams. After an hour, we would leave the meeting having analyzed and reworded each question within an inch of its life. We were reasonably happy that we were asking clear, challenging and fair questions about the subject material.

That work was worth it, because multiple choice questions are the best way to measure objective knowledge. A well-written multiple choice question removes all of the subjectivity of grading. Jeffrey Mondak, a political scientist at the University of Illinois who studies Americans’ relative levels of political knowledge, wrote in an American Journal of Political Science article entitled “Developing Valid Knowledge Scales” that simply asking someone to identify Joseph Biden might lead to a number of correct answers including “U.S. Vice President,” “a Democrat” and “that guy with a really bad comb-over.” Scoring a correct answer introduces levels of subjective judgment. In contrast, a multiple choice question with four incorrect answers and one answer stating “vice president” clearly tests knowledge of Biden’s political significance.

The problem is that multiple choice questions are only good at testing simple forms of knowledge. They can’t do much to measure deeper understanding and nuanced reasoning, which is the point of going to college in the first place. That’s why we make you write essays and show your work when you do calculus problems: We want you to demonstrate your mastery of more complicated subjects. Of course, evaluating these ideas necessitates the subjective judgment of an instructor.

To cancel out unwarranted bias in our subjective grading, GSIs spend long hours working together to go over essay questions after the tests and papers get turned in. We look over each other’s students’ papers, arguing over what grade to assign them. We usually agree quickly, although a few cases always prove to be tricky.

But even with all that work, we still get questions. Many questions are reasonable requests for explanations and many students go away with a better understanding of why they earned a particular grade. And occasionally, GSIs do make mistakes.

But at the end of the day, a few blissfully ignorant and profoundly stubborn students still want us to justify an essay grade.

Again, here’s the answer: Because we’re teachers, we know more than you about the subject of this course, and we say so.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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