Grade Anxiety for Professors

Oct 26 2010 Published by under teaching

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.

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12 responses so far

  • gorrion says:

    Thanks for this post! It was very timely for me today as a TA dealing with students.

  • studyzone says:

    I didn't enjoy grading as a high school teacher, and I certainly don't enjoy grading now at the college level. I'm at a school where I'm more likely to have struggling students than students who argue over every lost point. Part of my problem is that I get too emotionally attached to how my students perform, to the point where it seems like I care more about their grades than they do (I'm in a 12-step program to overcome this problem). At this point in the semester, I've identified those students who consistently pull Ds/Fs and just don't care - no amount of prodding or emailing from me will change the situation. I also have students who consistently perform at high levels, and probably would no matter who the instructor is. The ones that hurt he most are the students who barely pull a C who you know are trying their hardest to learn the material, and probably spend much more time studying than others. I have three particular students like this - one whom I suspect has a learning disability. I cringe every time I grade one of their assignments because I want _this_ one to be the payoff for all their hard work, even though the end result is the same. It makes me question my abilities as a teacher, even though I know my teaching is not the primary problem. The only way I see grading getting easier for me is to develop a much thicker skin (and I'm not sure if I can do that).

  • I enjoy teaching my classes. I even don't mind the grading. I hate the aftermath. I hate it when students cry in my office. I hate it when they come with a sob story to beg for points, or plead for extra credit after the fact. I always feel like such a hard-ass saying no.

    In the end, I got decent evaluations, though, because the silent majority of students appreciates clearly stated rules that are applied evenly to everyone in the class. That is what I try to remember when I get stressed out about poorly performing students.

  • Jean Grey says:

    I remember turning in exams in college and grad school. I hated looking at the professor, but not because I felt animosity towards them (for whatever reason). It was quite the opposite...I always felt like the professor was going to be disappointed by my mistakes.

    And when I did do poorly and a professor took the time to write an encouraging note inviting me to discuss my performance, I was always so grateful. This diminished the feelings of embarrassment/shame and made it ok to talk about the exam/quiz/whatever and get the help that I needed. And I think I understood the subjects better and received better grades because of it.

  • tess says:

    Am I unusual? I ask my TA to do most of the grading (and then read over to see how the students are doing) and the TA also returns the assignments so I don't have this awkward moment. I prefer to grade their final papers though (and like assigning writing rather than tests).
    About grades, I have a very clear policy on my syllabus. Any regrading request needs to be in written form within 7 days of grade announcement. I know I sound like a hardass but it was advice given to me by a senior professor and it's dramatically decreased awkward interactions with unhappy students. They're always welcome to ask for help on the material, but purely grade-related discussions (negotiations) are minimized. When someone asks for an exception, I tell them it would not be fair to others. I haven't taught long enough to say how well this is working but my evals have not been too bad...

  • Lisa says:

    As a student, I felt the same as Jean Grey, I hated to disappoint my professors.

    Now as a professor I have the anxiety problem with handing back exams. In my intro class which is quite small it is not as bad- I feel i can connect with the students better, speak to them as individuals and coax them into learning more. For the most part students have to try to fail this class.

    In the large GE class which I TA the situation is much different. I do not lecture nor is my input for the exams considered. The students just took their midterm (8 essay questions, 2 pages expected written each in 80 minutes, all the students ran out of time). it is particularly hard to hand back these exams when the average is 50. My input/ insight on these exams is ignored, the head prof simply thinks the students are incompetent (not the case). It is very difficult for the foreign students who are already struggling a bit with the language. In discussion sections these students are articulate and express themselves well, demonstrating that they understand concepts and can think critically about issues. This doesn't translate well to the exam and giving them their midterms back is so very difficult, there is always crying.

    any suggestions on how to convince students not to give up? how to assure them that its not worth dropping the class? how to help them prepare better for the next exam? One of the big problems is students who try so hard & get a grade below average. Often they feel like they did all they could and just give up. oy vey, midterm time= stress.

  • i have no idea why it would cause you any stress at all, but apparently it does. i do sympathize with you being so sympathetic towards the students, but i do think that you should relax. The student is concerned with his score, not with how you feel about the score or with your lack of smiling at him/her when you hand out grades. Moreover, the student won't blame you for his bad grade if he's worth fretting over in the first place, so you are effectively above blame when it comes to test-grading 🙂

  • besides, you profs are all softies! i had a prof that visibly enjoyed giving bad grades, and openly made fun of students that gave wrong answers. It was pretty funny, but i did flunk his exam once. One time he asked me something about antitrypsin, and the answer i gave made him say: correct! if you want to demonstrate that you didnt understand a thing we discussed! hahahahaha

  • zandperl says:

    Out of curiosity, did you get students' written permission to email them their graded quizzes? My school has been repeatedly emphasizing that sending grade information via email (an unsecure medium) is against FERPA without written permission from the student. And many of my students wouldn't give such information because they share home email accounts with family members, and they don't use their school email accounts or else they set them up to forward to that shared email account.

  • Science Professor says:

    I have a secure way of sending grades and files by email using the course website system. I don't know if it's completely secure, but the university provides the site, and it has a grade/file upload capability, so that's what I use.

  • Liz in Ypsilanti says:

    I am not a science professor or student; but a secretary at a large university, and I work for scientists. Here is a story from my undergraduate years at a small state college 30 years ago. I was a history major (one of about 50 in the college), and in my freshman year I served on a committee with one of the history professors. The first class I took with him was in the summer term between my first and second years. I didn't bother studying for his mid-term because I had learned that every professor tested for different things, so I would blow off the first exam, learn the testing style, and then do very well on the rest of the exams with that professor.

    So, I got a "C" on that midterm, and the following day the poor fellow was coming down the hall to get a cup of coffee where we summer folk gathered, and he saw me and put his head down. I hollered down the hall, "Dr. So-and-So! You're not as tough a grader as Dr. Such-and-Such! When I didn't study for his first exam, he gave me a 'D'; you let me off easy!" His head snapped up, he got a grin on his face, and his whole demeanor relaxed. "I wondered what had gotten into you!" he exclaimed happily.

    If the student approaches exams as learning opportunities, then the exam takes on meaning beyond evaluation. That's not in the control of the professors, but it is a statement that more professors could make. I learned a lot from the exams I took (and the comments thereon) in my college years.

  • Lynne says:

    I ~never~ discuss individual grades or exams during class or even after class. I think such matters should be handled confidentially and one-on-one in my office. I use Blackboard to post grades. The student can only see his/her grades, the class average, and the grade distribution for the assignment or test. I get very, very few sob stories or grade negotiators. I use scantron graded tests, so no subjectivity is involved. Further, in class, I always praise the class overall and say how excited I am that there were X number of As. I think that knowing fellow students earned an A makes it difficult for a complainer to beg for points. Also, looking up their grades on the web between classes provides students with time to digest the news. After 30 years of college teaching across 5 universities, I can honestly say that giving bad grades no longer bothers me in the least. I do my very best as a teacher. All the students are provided the same learning opportunities. It is up to the student to take advantage of those opportunities. Some do; others do not. I realize that students come into my class with varied backgrounds, interests and talents. However, again, all I can ever do is the best I can. The rest is up to the student.