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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 24, 2009

The Catheter of Damocles and the Perils of Grading 'Effort'


First, thanks to those who wrote showing concern about my condition. Although the hernia was very painful, it was not a danger and I'll be released from hospital tomorrow. Others also wrote words supporting my previous blog entry about not feeling responsible for student success or failure, but were unable to post comments for reasons that are still unknown to me (although it may have been me that screwed something up- I'm working on it).

Here's a little anecdote from the hospital, which is directly attached to the medical school I teach at, that may make you think about getting on a student's case or failing them because it may come back to haunt you:
During my convalescence I woke up one morning with absolutely no feeling in my private regions, including my entire butt. What I could feel though was a nasty pressuring pain from the left side of my abdomen. I called the nurse who told me that my bladder was backed up with urine- but with complete numbness down below I could do nothing about it. So, she called in the doctor, who just happened to be- you guessed it- an ex-student, and hardly one of the most diligent I have known. Not only that, but I remember haranguing him in class a few times for his lackadaisical attitude and I believe I made him do three re-tests until (reluctantly) passing him. Now here he was with all the power in the world over sensei, and was about to insert a catheter into my nether regions and all I could think was "He wants revenge!"
And that he could get it!

Well, as it turned out, he did his job well enough. He inserted the catheter (due to the numbness it was painless although still disconcerting, as any male will testify) relieving the bladder pain (in fact, it had built up to a critical point). It turns out that the numbness had not been caused by a rupture or other orthopedic complication but due to the anesthetic node (placed in my spine) becoming slightly dislodged, a much less serious condition.

Unfortunately, he then proceeded to drop many of the brownie points he had earned by asking me how to say ‘shinkei’ (nerve) in English (I communicated with all but one doctor in Japanese). That an orthopedist didn’t remember such a basic term was unnerving (pun intended).

So, if someday you are in the operation room and that student you harangued and badgered now looms over you with a scalpel you would be right to be afraid, to be very afraid. Those of you who teach at police academies or public officials may also want to keep this in mind. Of course, the other side of the coin is that I was able to get some special 'recognition' treatment from doctors and nurses too (and in the case of the former, the interesting register problem of exactly who should call who 'Sensei' comes into play).
But that's another entry.

Points for attendance, effort and participation- a dilemma

I bet most of you give out points for the above, right? Most teachers I know make it account for anywhere from 10-30% of a student’s final grade. After all any type of communicative English class is based upon process, carrying out tasks, facing challenges, using the language within dynamic contexts. But I’ve noticed a problem. Let me illustrate it using two students as models, Kimiko and Shohei.

Kimiko is a genki chatterbox. She is always cheerful and perky. She sits at the front and makes eye contact with you. She responds to your jokes, in fact any comment. She calls you over and enjoys asking questions in (often broken) English. She greets you in the hallways. You can hear her carrying out the tasks in the classroom because her enthusiastic voice rings out above most others. You learned her name in the first class.

You notice though that she has been absent twice, late once and forgot both her homework and textbooks on occasion. You also know that she has the habit of finishing tasks rather quickly and then ubiquitously chatting in Japanese to friends. When you chastise her she bats her eyelashes.

Then there is Shohei. He is pasty-faced and rather disheveled. He sits at the back of the class. He rarely makes any facial expression. On the rare occasions you hear him speak his voice is monotone and he does not make eye contact. He probably doesn’t greet you in the halls and I say probably because you’ve never really remembered who he is. When monitoring an activity in class he participates, but not so audibly. But you’ve never seen him sleeping or acting as if he has a divine get-out-of-this-activity-free card in his pocket. You also note that his attendance is 100%.

So, you have your tests. One is a role-play test, so more dynamic and unpredictable language skills are being tested. The other is a paper test, a little more discrete-point focused, with more writing, showing understanding at a more detached level.

And... Shohei whoops Kimiko’s butt on both tests. In fact, Kimiko makes some pretty fundamental mistakes (albeit while batting her eyelashes). Obviously, for all of Shohei’s standoffishness, diffidence, or anti-social personality, at some level he is making the effort to soak it in, while Kimiko is hit or miss.

I’m willing to bet most teachers would give the higher participation/effort points to Kimiko because of her engaging personality (no, she need not be a cutie pie), but in fact it may be Shohei that, in his awkward unsocial way, is making the greater effort to learn and master the subject. It’s something that the teacher will almost never be able to see, let alone gauge.

Food for thought.

« My students' English skills- it's not up to me | Main | The So-Called Off-Season or No, I am not eating a banana pancake in Kuta as I write this »


It looks like the comment section is back to normal, thanks to the good folks at Eigo Town.


Mike, I never give marks for coming to class or for batting eyelashes at me, of either gender; however, if they miss 3 classes in one semester without a valid excuse (and after one final warning) they're out. They're told that on day one.

"Points for attendance, effort and participation - a dilemma"

- a nicely illustrated point.

Active participants with extrovert personalities - do they consequently score better?

Even if we try to incorporate models for multiple intelligences, for example, and also grade students based on areas such as 'interpersonal intelligence', how do we objectively measure and grade it?

To be honest, I think there are going to be flaws with any method or grading system, but a greater variety of measures may help balance the playing field and lead to 'fairer' assessment. In other words, accounting for different types of skills required by a range of measures (e.g. weekly tests, in-class task assessment, course work, final exams, oral interviews, etc) as well as perspectives (e.g. peer assessment, self assessment, teacher assessment) help mitigate against biases present in each one.

Lastly, returning to the main theme of the article - I wonder if one other point isn't being overlooked - that partication and effort seem to be grades that reflect a kind of social contribution to the classroom learning environment rather than language performance per se.

The other factor that makes me uneasy about grading students in my compulsory English classes at university is that their results in tests (whether interview based or written) are far more likely to be based on their level coming into the class than on how much effort they put in during the course. Shohei could well have gotten worse at English over the duration of the course, but if he started off with a much better level, you'd never know. Kimiko may well have improved more during the course by being active...

My problem is that I haven't figured out a fair way of dealing with this in my classes. Any ideas?

For most of my communication classes (which have reading, writing, and listening components as well), I have a 40% participation and effort, 40% homework, and 20% final exam framework.

The participation and effort is indeed difficult to determine. Loud students do get noticed more, like Kimiko, but I try to counter that by walking around the classroom frequently, listening and engaging the students while they do their activities. They get credit for trying, basically. Making mistakes doesn't count against them at all here, though speaking Japanese does. I give a lot of chances for students to volunteer, which is their big chance to get a lot of points--students who engage in model dialogues with me, act out a conversation in front of the class, etc. Asking questions also counts. I don't have a fixed absence policy, but each absence lowers their participation and effort grade considerably.

I give students a mark every week, usually while I'm taking attendance. This is important, especially in large classes since I'm sometimes bad with names (good with faces, though). When I give final grades at the end of the semester, a look at all the marks I've made for the student and reflect upon how they've done in class.

I think the priority here on participation helps students to realize it's importance. The more they engage, the better they do in the course generally. I downplay the final exam. It's a cumulative course that recycles content--you need Unit 1 skills to do well in Unit 2, etc.--so if they have attended, participated, and done their homework, they should be pretty proficient. Most of the material is picked up in class rather than studying at home. The homework is consolidation of what they covered in class.

I have also experimented with an additional clause to this grading system: that students must achieve at least a 60% in each of the three categories to pass. As an extreme example, I had one student who came to all of the classes, seemed to be an average participant, but then got a 12% on the final. There weren't mitigating circumstances, she just didn't know the material very well. But her final calculated grade was just above 60%.

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