A reader wrote to describe how she hates returning exams to students because some students will be getting back exams with low grades, or at least grades that are lower than the student wants. This is stressful for the student, of course, but also for the professor, in this case one who is relatively new to professoring. My correspondent wonders:
Have others felt this way? Does it ever get better?
I definitely feel that way, even now. I guess that means that the feeling may never completely goes away, and that's probably a good thing, even though it is stressful. I wouldn't want to get to a point at which I didn't care that some students were in distress about low grades despite trying hard in the class. Even when I teach a large class and don't know many of the students, I do know some and therefore feel terrible for them when, despite coming to my office hours and sending me questions by email, they get a low grade. It's even harder in a smaller class in which I know all the students.
During my first year as a professor, I felt bad for students who were getting back an exam or problem set with a low grade. I had always done well in classes, and getting a grade lower than B would have devastated me. I tried to smile at these students in what I thought was a sympathetic way, and I encouraged them to come talk to me to get help. To my horror, I got a comment on my teaching evaluations that said "She enjoys failing students. She smiles when handing back exams with low grades." In his or her unhappiness and anxiety, a student interpreted my sympathetic smile for glee. That freaked me out for many years, and for a long time I did what I could to avoid handing anything back directly because there seemed to be no good solution: a smile was bad, lack of expression could be interpreted to indicate that I didn't care, and a frown didn't seem right either.
Should I smile broadly at those who got A's, smile faintly at the B's, have a neutral expression for the C's, and then work my way through various stages of frowns as we descended into the lower grades? It was absurd, but I didn't know what to do.
The good news is that exam-return stress has decreased for me because now I am better at creating exams and I am better at conveying the consistent message that I care about the class and the students.
The times when I still feel bad are when a student who worked hard gets a low grade. In these cases, I may write a note on their exam -- something that is either encouraging or informative or that asks them to talk to me -- and I try to figure out what the problem was. Sometimes I can tell that there was a particular type of problem or a particular concept, and then I can help them with that for the next time. Most of these students know that I am trying to help them, so they don't feel angry at me for their low grades.
I hate giving exams (it is stressful to watch a class full of students taking an exam), I hate collecting the exams (some students won't even look at me), I hate grading (hate hate hate grading), and I hate handing back graded exams. Fortunately this is a small part of the course, and in between, there is a lot to enjoy about interacting with students, talking about interesting Science, and seeing most of the students do well.
Despite my loathing for all things related to exams, which I do have to give in all but a few of my classes, I wouldn't want to eliminate the human dimension of them. There would be some benefits to having students take exams alone with a computer, which graded the exams and gave them their score, but I refuse to give multiple choice exams and it is essential to my teaching that I know exactly how the students are doing in the class on each exam and therefore that I be a part of the exam process.
This term I had a new experience with exam-return. It was actually a quiz, and I was out of town for a few days, so a TA gave the quiz. I like to return quizzes and exams in the very next class if at all humanly possible, so the TA ran the completed quiz pages through a scanner that made a pdf document that was then e-mailed to me. I graded the scanned quizzes while I was out of town, made annotations on each, and returned the quizzes by email to each student. This worked well overall, but it was also kind of strange. When I hand back graded quizzes or exams in class, I typically do it at the end of class, and then students have a few minutes to ask me questions about their grades or my comments or whatever. I have an immediate sense for how the class is feeling about the quiz and if they are any problems or concerns. With the emailed quizzes, I got no information; there were no replies other than a few one word "Thanks" emails. I can't say I missed the stress of handing back quizzes, but I definitely felt more disconnected.
So, reader who sent the original questions, you are not alone, it does get better, but as long as you continue to care about your students, I think there will always be an element of exam-return stress. I hope that your stress will soon change from high levels of dread to a lower level of background concern.