Demotivational grading

Mar 27, 2015 • Jeremy Gray

In my final year of undergrad I was a student in a newly created major. One of the professors took it upon himself to create a “capstone” project, a 10,000 word essay on some topic of human genetics. This was worth a relatively small grade for the work required (I think 20% of a course), but was according to this professor “a way to finish off your major”. I and many other students took this seriously - A final undergraduate thesis is not typical of NZ degrees (unless you take honours), but we treated it like this. At that stage it was by far the largest and most involved piece of work most of us had completed.

Once the essays were handed in, the professor began joking every lecture about his grading scheme: that he would drink wine and grade until he couldn’t read, we should expect whiskey stains on our essays, he would drop them down the stairs and the distance traveled would be the grade given etc.

The essays sat with the professor until the end of course, and we were not given them back without specifically applying and making an appointment. My project received a high grade, but had only 3 comments written on it, and all he said upon handing it back was “well done”.

This was very demotivating - we had completed a large piece of work only to have the professor make light of it and seem to belittle our efforts with the pain it would cause him to grade them. The actual grading of the project was the minimum possible. The way the professor had talked about the project made me feel like it would be taken seriously but instead was treated like a chore. I felt like the professor had challenged us to produce something worthwhile, and then not lived up to his end of the bargain.

In retrospect it seems like the professor had overloaded himself - he was relatively new, and sensibly marking a 10,000 word essay from 40 students is a massive undertaking. To mitigate the demotivation, I don’t think there was much to do after the fact. I could have booked another appointment and asked for more feedback, but the best way to address it would have been to book appointments to discuss the project before it was handed in. That way I could have gotten feedback before the professor was swamped, and could have tempered my expectations of the grading.