Do we all have some grading bias?

Gulp, someone said it. As much as we take for granted that students are graded solely on their work alone, we know in our hearts that our personal biases towards each student can play a factor in how we assess them. If you’re an automaton who’s unaffected by your students’ behaviors and thus immune from human emotional trappings, please feel free to stop reading

But if you’re like me, what those kids say and do, day in and day out, affects us. It subconsciously affects the degree to which I’m willing to go the extra mile for them. It affects subtle differences in the tenor of my emails, the degree of my willingness to set individual appointments or take parent meetings, or how much I offer other teacher goodies, such as the occasional test extension or retake.

Don’t worry; I’m going to denounce my biases, eventually. I’m getting there, just in case you’re prepared to sound the alarm on me as a favorites-picking, in-or-out crowd making, subjective grader who’s devoid of any teacher ethical code.

In case you do send this to my past and present bosses, tell them this: The reason I know that my student biases are minimal is because I’m openly talking about this stuff. I’ve been thinking about it for years, and as a result, I’ve developed both specific practices as well as a general consciousness for how to squash it.

Before we squash it though, let’s unpack this notion of bias. What if I asked the question: is all bias all that bad? Working with students entails a constant stream of social interactions. If someone is entitled, aloof, doesn’t take responsibility, disrespectful, etc., doesn’t it make sense that those of us in their midst may be less inclined to put ourselves in the path of their wrath?

It’s an uncomplicated exercise in social psychology. Be pleasant and try your best, and good people will go to bat for you. Or, be abrasive and see if your teacher accommodates you, or how your relationship partner feels, or if you move up the ladder at your job. I have no qualms admitting that through my actions and non-actions, I’m sending a message about the type of behavior I value. Specifically, traits including kindness, consideration, hard work, transparency, trust, and vulnerability will be implicitly rewarded. Traits that undermine those elevated feelings will not be.

Once this common sense realization is out in the open, our real work begins. Those students who don’t yet embody the aforementioned personal traits need us to teach them. I’ve come a long way and I’ve become secure enough in myself to ask a student who’s acting venomous, “Are you ok? You seem frustrated. Can you try to rephrase your question to let me know how I specifically can help you?” Or we can explain the merits of students taking responsibility for their actions, by saying, “I know you’re upset about your test grade. I was sitting here all week during office hours, staring at the wall. Where were you?” And if he/she says, “I had to do x, y, z…” you can empathetically reply with, “I see that you’re super busy. You can email me beforehand asking for alternative times, or simply ask for help and we can work it out. Or perhaps look up the topic on YouTube. This is what being proactive means.”

That’s the underlying truth: all our students need us to go to bat for them, but in different ways. In a sense, that is bias. We approach each student with the awareness that they may need different morsels of wisdom from us. Some students have the socio-emotional skills, but need help with the material. So we cater our offerings to that need, sitting and working with them on content. Other students may have a relatively higher understanding of what’s going on, but lack work ethic or consideration of others in class. Thus we approach them from an angle that addresses what’s holding them back, by holding up the mirror and explaining how their actions need improvement.

It is through this awareness that grading bias and other forms of bias are eradicated. We must create a relationship with every individual, figuring out how we can best serve them. Through getting to know them more, we’ll inevitably learn that their outward frustration is really inward sadness. Their salty tongue really stems from inner turmoil or insecurity. Gently slicing through that noise directly models how to get them closer to adopting the very personal skills we wish to imbue.

And finally, here’s a list of actionable ideas to continue the fight against our own subconscious biases during grading times:

  • Grade tests one page at a time. Suppose you have a stack of tests. If you grade the stack by marking up the same page for everyone before grading the next page, you’ll create a real-time grading system that’s consistent for everyone. Plus, once you get to the second page and beyond, you won’t know whose test you’re grading, so it’s fully anonymous. Not only is it anonymous, but it’s also actually quite efficient, because after a while you’ll know the solutions by heart, so you can whip through the answers without the aid of a test key. I’m so obsessive about establishing anonymity that even when I begin to grade page one, I’ll literally look up at the ceiling, grab a test from the pile, use my hand to cover the top corner where the name is, and only then look down and begin to grade, with the name constantly obscured. (Naturally, this page-by-page technique doesn’t work with continuous assessments, like essays. You can still choose to not see the name though.)
  • Use online grading systems that offer anonymous grading options for written submissions. I swear by Juno; it’s awesome because I have no idea whose quiz I’m grading. I like checking how they did only after the fact; it becomes a fun “grade reveal” for each of them.
  • Leverage non-opinion assessment formats like multiple choice, true/false, etc. But don’t get carried away with these and end up doing them too often.
  • If you offer participation credit, be specific about what that entails. Participation is a massive gray area, which is fertile ground for teacher bias run amok. In your syllabus or class webpage, break down what a 100% in participation entails. I highly suggest using this grade as a carrot to encourage elevated values, e.g. “Student regularly offers to help others in the class, without waiting for the teacher to request it.” Or, “Student commits to proposing one or more solutions whenever he/she faces a problematic situation.”

I’ll conclude with this. Our mission is to constantly search for what makes each student’s face light up. Get them to talk about their skateboard, or their favorite video game / TV show / band, sport, fashion choices, prom dress search, shoe style, hair dye color, hiking trail, religious passage, Super Bowl commercial, actor/actress/film, radio station, etc. Whenever I find the source of inspiration or enjoyment within my students, I immediately shift to being their student. I ask questions, remain curious, and paraphrase what they said to demonstrate active listening. Those individual bonds transcend us beyond any possibility to bear bias for one person over another… so bye-bye, bias.

Robert Ahdoot is a math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom and in studio, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10-plus years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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