April 09, 2009
Forward Grading, Backward Grading
Posted by Gordon Smith

Last fall I posted "On writing backwards," which inspired a much better post on the subject by Orin Kerr, with excellent discussion in the comments, and another good post by Michael Risch (which was aimed mostly at answering a question about research tools in my post). The gist of backwards writing is that you come up with the idea first, then do the research to flesh out the idea. Of course, the idea always evolves and sometimes changes completely during that research phase.

Enter Colin Miller, who is interested in grading styles. (It's that time of year when we see lots of grading posts on the lawprof blogs.) Colin is a forward writer and a "forward grader," which he describes as follows:

When I draft my exams, I try to anticipate the possible answers that could be given for every question and create a preliminary answer key that assigns a maximum number of points for each issue and sub-issue. After students complete their exams, I skim through several of them to determine whether there are any additional issues that I need to add to the answer key.

He wonders if there might be a correlation between writing and grading styles. Are forward writers also forward graders?

Hmm.

If you take a look at the comments over at Orin's post, you will see that people use different styles depending on the task. And in my initial post, you will my disclaimer: "backwards writing doesn't work on empirical pieces ... at least for me." So I suspect that the answer to Colin's question has more to do with how one perceives the purpose of grading than anything else.

In my view, grading is more about ranking students -- creating a curve -- than about comparing students to an ideal answer. So I am more likely to avoid Colin's method and do something like what he describes as "backwards grading": "read an entire exam and then assign a score to the exam [or] assign a score after reading each answer to each essay question on an exam."

So here's how it works for me. I never write a detailed answer key, but I have an outline of the main issues with some notes about how they should be analyzed. I begin by reading a random sample of the student answers, just to get a sense for where they are concentrating their efforts. My exam questions tend to be fairly focused, so the students almost never miss the main issues. Students distinguish themselves by the quality of their analysis, not by the quality of their issue spotting. By reading a sample of exams, I get a good sense for the variation in the answers, and then I proceed to grade. During the course of the grading, I write a general memo to all of the students with observations about the exam. That memo doesn't function as an answer key for grading, but it helps students to evaluate their own performance afterwards.

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