Thursday, November 23, 2006

Quest for Marks

I've been a Teaching Assistant (TA) for many courses here at SFU, probably because I don't have the marks to get scholarships, fellowships and other funding, so to avoid draining my supervisor's budget too badly, I get paid by the department of Biological Sciences to teach.

I actually don't mind the work. It interferred a little with my research during my M.Sc., but not in a really significant or particularly damaging way. My own procrastination tendencies did much more damage there.

I've TA'd Bisc 100, 202, 302, 329, and 422, every one of those courses twice except 329. I'm currently TA-ing 302, Genetic Analysis. I just handed back to my labs (Weds and Thurs) the reports they completed two weeks ago, about a lab they did analysing the inheritance of eye colour in Drosophila melanogaster. Most people's marks improved a little from the previous lab reports I marked, about fungal genetics.

Anyway, I've just had a couple of students come by, to discuss the marks they got. Nobody got any more marks, although one student did make a pretty good case for her Introduction section being better than I originally marked it. I suspect I was not in the most generous of moods when I marked her paper, but marking-and-emotional-state is a topic for another discussion, where I can really get into detail about my opinions.

This little meeting triggered some of my memories of the tactics and arguments some students have used in the past in the ridiculous quest for more marks. This particular lab report is moderately important: it's worth 10% of their overall course mark, and was marked out of 50, with a quantised mark structure of 0.5 - ie, the minimum difference between two papers' marks was 0.5/50, or 1%.

The argument I got today was "that's based on a misunderstanding, why did I lose marks?". This is a strange one. The issue in question is a section wherein they had to describe the advantages and disadvantages of working with D. melanogaster. The instructions were misunderstood as advantages and disadvantages of the particular laboratory techniques used. Yes, if you misunderstand what you're supposed to write about, you will lose marks. This is unfair, how, exactly?

Other weirdnesses have centered on external factors, like having a job or stressful home life (not my problem!), or English-as-a-second-language (yes, we work in English here), or even last-minute deadlines (we assigned this weeks ago - why did you pull an all-nighter?).

On tests, I've had students complain that since they work more slowly than others, they should get either more marks (typically, the "creative" idea they have is to make the total smaller by omitting the questions they didn't get to) or more time. If you have a real disability, the appropriate student-services office can help, and will arrange longer exam periods for you. Otherwise, yes, your ability to answer questions rapidly is worth marks - leaving a question blank is exactly equivalent to answering it totally wrong. On a tangent, right-minus-wrong tests are fucking stupid, too, especially when the test is explained poorly. They don't discourage guessing unless the possible number of wrong answers is large, and it's made clear that a blank is deleted from the total.

Then, of course, there's the ever-popular whining. "Please?" "C'mon!" "But, but..." are all very common. Do these ever work for anything? Have you ever acheived any goal, ever, by deploying such tactics? Urrgh...

The annoying thread running through all of these is the total lack of empathic analysis built into any of these arguments. Turn the argument around, either to my point of view or to the point of view of other students. If I give you a bonus mark for whining, then I'll immediately get swamped by other whining students. Do you think this is something I want? If I allow you to argue your mark up, how is that fair to the other students, who might have similar (lame) excuses, but cannot get in to see me at this time?

More random whining from Martin, I know. I just don't feel like doing anything productive right now, so I'll file this under "procrastination" as well as "teaching".


Carlo said...

Actually, I got two particularly bad ones last year.

A) A girl came into my lab and sat down next to me, saying I'd marked her unfairly. I explained that I hadn't, we went over it, and in the end she still disagreed. Therefore she decided that she would not leave the lab until I gave her the marks. She just sat down next to me while I worked, piping in every 10 minutes or so with, "I disagree". I told her to leave, but she wouldn't , and I wasn't about to touch her with a 10ft pole. Finally after like 45 minutes the Post-Doc in our lab, who is quite meaner-sounding than I, told her sternly to get the hell out. She finally listened. It was weird.

B)A girl had gotten a %79 in the class (B+) and came into my lab asking me to give her one more mark, which would give her the A- she absolutely needed to get into med. school. The second I heard that I told her I wouldn't even listen (nothing pisses me off more than pre-meds). Anyways, she cried and cried (Not metaphorically) saying that this was the lowest mark she'd ever got, and that she knew that she was smarter than 79% blah blah blah. You can probably figure out what was going through my mind. She started getting belligerent, and finally I told her 'tough luck' and asked her to leave. So she started going around the lab to the other TA, and course instructor (very insular bunch) until finally the Post-Doc threw her out (he likes doing that).

My most hated argument is "Well, I feel that I...". To borrow from Mystery Science Theater 3000:

'And if you were marking yourself that would mean something!'

Now get out!

TheBrummell said...

A) is freaky weird. That's almost call-security level behaviour.

B) is weird, but less threatening - crying as an argument tactic is one I haven't met yet (huzzah!), but again: where did you fucking learn that this behaviour gets rewarded? Do I look like your father?

I've thankfully never had a student refuse to leave or ask a labmate to intervene on their behalf. AAAAggh... I can't get over this... why would someone expect that to WORK?

I've also never had the "I feel that..." line, but I'll have to remember the MST3K response if/when I do.

Anonymous said...

"I need a better mark than this so I can go on exchange to the castle next year."

Fuck off!