Day: August 26, 2016

Graded Exams Distributed by Drones. Not

American academics all know about FERPA. Basically, in college, a student’s education records are not to be disclosed to anyone but the student without the student’s explicit consent.

In day-to-day operations, that means we should not be sharing information about the students’ grades on homework or exams with anyone but the student.

I am more careful than many of my colleagues in this regard. For instance, in my hallway, there are still piles of last semester’s graded uncollected HW for classes taught by some my colleagues, with students’ names and in some (misguided) cases even the student ID number clearly visible on the assignments. These piles linger until they are collected or thrown away.

I have been collecting HW and returning comments and grades electronically for years, so nobody but the student (and me and the grader, if I have one) can see the student’s HW scores.

As for exams, I think multiple choice exams are an abomination, so my exams test the student’s ability to set up as well as solve a problem, and have to be graded by a human, which in the absence of adequate TA support is generally me (yes, even for 100+ people).

When I bring back graded exams, I don’t leave them out there in piles for people to collect, as doing so would make everything visible to everyone, and would also cause chaos and mayhem, with everyone digging through the giant pile. Instead, I come in 10 min early and I start distributing exams — I call each of the students by name and hand over the exam to them. I go through the whole pile 2-3 times as the students trickle in, and am usually done 5-10 min into the class. Then, as everyone has gotten their paper, we go over the course stats and I do the problems on the board. (By the way, I try really hard to learn all students names, and usually by mid-semester I know everyone’s names even if the class is 100+ people; giving the exams to each of them individually really helps remember who’s who.)

Sometimes students ask me if they can pick up the exam for one of their friends who didn’t come to class, and I only allow it if they can show me that they have received a text or an email from the friend to the effect of “Joe, could you please pick up my XXX 123 midterm? Thanks! -Jane”

But, other than that, I find that students don’t particularly care about their classmates’ scores and are focused on their own. Often, I will have several students in my office after the midterm wanting to discuss their grade and I ask every single one of them if they are okay with the others being in the office as  we discuss the exam or if they would prefer to be alone; the vast majority of students don’t mind if there is anyone else around.

So I think I am mindful of student privacy and try to make sure the information is not needlessly or carelessly shared.

Which is why I was really taken aback by a student comment I received after last semester’s class.

This was a student in a large class, where students sit jam-packed in rows, each row seating 6-8 people. If someone sits in the middle of their row and not in the first or last row of their block of rows, I have so send their paper to them through the hands of the folks closer to me, because we are as yet not using drones for targeted distribution of graded exams.

This student (I don’t know who, since this came out in anonymous course evaluations, but I have a hunch) complained that me returning exams was causing zir (zir=him or her) a lot of anxiety, because when I return exams I am not subtle; the score is written on the front page and, since the student sits in the middle of the row, all of the students to the left or zir (or right, depending on where I am at that point) see zir core, as they pass the test on to zir. Apparently, me returning exams this way, in which the student’s score might be seen by 3-4 people who generally don’t give a toss and just pass it along, is causing this student so much anxiety that ze avoids coming to class on the days when I am supposed to return exams. The student requests that I pass the graded tests face down, or that I write the total score and percentage on the second page (as opposed to the first page).

I have been a prof for 12 years, and was a TA for years before that, and it never occurred to me this would be an issue, so I want to see what people here think.

On the one hand, I do not want to violate students’ privacy, but I had no idea that someone would be this inconvenienced by a practice that I feel is really benign. I also really don’t want to cause people anxiety, if I can help it. But, I also need to be able to do my job and do it in a timely manner. I have no intention of writing the total score on the second page, but I could return the papers face down; however, remembering this extra step — to flip the exam paper after calling the name out and right before sending it down the row — will take me some time to make a habit, because I do walk around with giant piles of papers with the names up (so I could actually see the names and distribute them).

On the other hand, my gut reaction to the comment was that the student was overreacting and was being unreasonable in zir expectations. First, this student greatly overestimates how much others in the class care about zir scores; I don’t think that I have ever seen anybody glance at the paper of someone whom they don’t know and who just happens to be sitting in their row. Second, the student does not know or appreciate the fact that many, many precautions have been taken to ensure zir privacy already, and that in a large class it is very hard to do work that involves exchange of graded materials between instructor and students in anything resembling a timely manner, unless everything is done electronically (or I actually get those drones).

My gut reaction is to dismiss this comment as whiny and overly demanding, but I do not trust my gut, because I am aware that my gut is calibrated to the school system I went through, where everyone knew everyone else’s scores (all exam scores were posted in the department lobby, and in grade school and high school all grades were read to the whole class); everyone knew who the smart kids where and who the not-so-smart-kids were, so shaming was liberally employed as a way to push people to improve performance.

So cannot dismiss the comment is whiny and overly demanding based on my gut. I do not know if I should dismiss it at all as a one-off and go back to business as usual, or if this is something I should think about henceforth when distributing graded exams.

What say you, blogosphere? Ignore as one-off and/or unreasonable or act to correct my exam-distribution practices? I seek counsel from those among you who have had more experience in the US educational system, which has much higher expectations of student privacy than Europe or Asia (I don’t know about South America, Australia, or Africa).