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).


  1. I do tend to hand back work folded in half/upside down. I often grade papers on the last page, so this is less necessary, but then it’s also easy to put the grade on the back. With exams, grades are usually on front, but I “hide” that as I return them.

    So, I don’t know if this student’s concern is widespread, but I guess I am aware enough of its possibility to mask the grade a little and it’s second nature to me so I don’t think about it when doing it. No one has ever said anything one way or the other to me.

    (one time, students saw a stack of papers on the front table, and started rifling through them when i stepped out. I was furious. But that suggests that many of those students didn’t care about privacy).

  2. I often have students clearly hiding their exam results from friends in the class, usually lower performing students with higher performing friends. I arrange my first test page with the name at the top and the grade at the bottom. That way I can just fold up the bottom part of the top page to hide the grade with the name still visible. It takes very little time to messily fold up a class worth of front pages.

  3. I return face down– it gets automatic after a while. Many of my colleagues write scores on the 2nd or last page, but that is a pain for entering grades and they usually have smaller classes.

  4. I used to dislike sharing my scores with others and can understand where this student is coming from. If asked directly if I was comfortable sharing in front of others I would lie and say yes, but really I preferred to be private.

    Revealing scores was often a lose-lose. If I got the highest score I would worry other students were resentful. And if I didn’t get the highest score I would worry about my “street cred”. I know that sounds super shallow, but oh well.

  5. I never minded my grade being known, but I know a lot of students do, so I try to be careful. It is hard when passing back papers in a large lecture hall—the biggest class I’ve had lately was only 46, but I had to hand back stuff twice a week. If I can’t put something directly in someone’s hands, I do pass it face down, but I don’t hide the grade on the inside—it is hard enough recording 90 grades a week when they are on the face of papers.

  6. Our classes are much smaller (the largest I’ve ever taught was shy of 40 students), so I can usually hand papers directly to students rather than passing down a row. Even with that, I do try to hand them back face-down.

  7. I turn the paper face down (as several mentioned) when passing it, or I fold it half (long side) and pass it on. Some students are more sensitive. May be a good idea to give a general talk about your test grade is not a measure of your worth etc. as the sensitiveness comes from feeling bad. A talk by the professor on acceptance and self-worth is more powerful than similar talks by family and friends.

  8. I always write the grade on the last page for exactly this reason. When I was a student, grades were super important to me, and if I got a bad grade, I would far prefer no one else knew.

  9. I understand the students unease. They might sit right next to their friends and those are the people they particularly do not want judging them.

    I’ve always written the score on the last page. There is always extra space on that page (we have an honor code the students sign on every exam) and it makes as much sense to go there as the front.

  10. For exactly these types of reasons, we changed our system and exams are not returned by the academics anymore. Our exams are returned by staff in the main office, where the students can go at any time during opening hours and individually if they wish. Students really like this system. Then there is a feedback lecture a day or two later where we do what you do (comment on stats, go through answers etc.).

  11. I automatically fold them or turn them over if they will be passed along a row (without ever having given it much thought). But I don’t understand why your student couldn’t sit at the end of a row in the class when exams were being handed back, so that ze didn’t have to worry about the exam being passed along and zir grade seen by others. Seems easier than skipping class and having to get the exam some other way.

  12. I went to a Midwest SLAC and I appreciated that, in general, profs put grades on the last page of the exam or were sensitive about covering up the score (i.e. folding over or passing face down or curled up). I’d err on the side of changing distribution practices.

    I can see someone having the perspective of “suck it up, its going to be harsher in the working world,” but this very particular scenario of handing back grades in a large group isn’t really reproduced in the working world. Its a scenario that’s unique to the college environment and if it helps someone cope with a particular stressor that’s unique to college I think it is worth doing.

    Sidenote: I’ve been reading for ages (read most of the GMP blog?) but haven’t commented before and don’t usually comment on blogs I read. I appreciate reading your perspective on things!

  13. Another vote for face-down. My students tend to sit in clumps of buddies, and I think they are very sensitive about a buddy potentially seeing their grade (as opposed to a random student they don’t know). So, I hand things back face-down — easy enough for me to do, and a student passing the exam along would have to really obviously flip over the paper to peek at zir buddy’s grade.

  14. Oh, and when we’re using blue books I’ll also tally the score on the inside front cover of a blue book. That’s also a privacy method that adds 0% hassle for me.

  15. Thanks all! I am very glad you decided to de-lurk, Bullfrog — welcome! Yeah, it looks like I will have to focus on handing papers out face down. Entering grades for a 100+ class is a pain when scores are written somewhere inside, so that’s a no-go for me.

    But I have to admit that, in my heart of hearts and likely because I come from a different culture, I cannot understand what the big deal is. It’s your score, you got it. If if’s a bad score, well, you did poorly on that test, you should study more or better next time. What’s the big deal if someone sees it? It’s not like it’s a fake score that you didn’t actually deserve. But maybe I am being a crotchety old prof, forgetting how it is to be barely out of one’s teens, how important peers are, and that many kids don’t yet have a strong sense of self, independent of external validation. And flpping tests over when handing them out is easy enough.

    One thing that Bullfrog’s comment reminded me of is how well this secretiveness later serves various inequalities in the corporate world, where someone may make considerably more than you for the exact same job, but you are well trained never to ask and never to share. I suppose not knowing how you fare with respect to others in a similar job makes it easier for everyone to think they are being appreciated and well compensated, even if in reality it’s not true.

  16. I teach 60-90 students in a class and I find it takes too long to hand assignments back to individual students at the beginning of class. I put all the grades on the back of homeworks and on the second page of the exam (the first page is an honor code statement students have to sign to cut down on cheating) so everyone can just pick up their stuff at the front of class without seeing anyone else’s grade.

  17. The student is being whiny and over demanding, but it doesn’t really matter. If they are going to complain about it, then you have to take the complaint seriously, given FERPA. I would recommend folding all the exams lengthwise after you enter the scores, so that it will be easy to remember to keep them folded as you hand them back.

    Of course, it would also be a lot less trouble if overly sensitive students would sit at the end of the row.

    I agree that secretiveness has all sorts of negative consequences. It doesn’t just serve to protect the feelings of the students with the low scores. It also prevents the high performing students from being recognized as such.

  18. It seems to me that if the student really cared deeply about this, ze would have made a point to sit at the end of the row on exam-handing-back days after the first instance.

    Nevertheless, yes, ze is probably within zir rights to complain. It’s pretty easy to master the folding-in-half-lengthwise trick, and that’s probably quicker, and get the point across better, than turning upside down. Either way, somebody’s going to forget (or not have heard) who it goes to halfway down the row, and will unfold it/turn it over to look. That’s the argument for the score on the 2nd (or last) page method, but that’s definitely less convenient for recording scores.

    I don’t deal with this much, because I, too, do electronic turn-in and grading most of the time. But it may be easier to comment on writing (what I teach) electronically than on the sort of exam question you give (and the students would have to master answering electronically, and have devices, and all that).

  19. To Contingent Casandra, I have frequently taught writing courses (for engineers) and about half of my feedback to students is about their writing. I find paper copies much easier to comment on than electronic ones. PDF markup tools are still much harder to use and slower than a pencil. (Also by working on paper, away from a computer, I’m much less distractible, so the grading actually gets done.)

  20. I had to learn to write the grade on the last page because it was easier than to put up with the endless moaning from the oversensitive and the easily traumatized.

  21. Speaking of knowing what everyone’s grade is, I was talking to someone from the French system, and he was saying that teachers there often returned work with verbal comments like “bad job as usual [c’est nul comme d’habitude]” (paraphrasing here). Not the US!

    I’d love to have classes of 40-something. Usually more like 100+ for me. But I think I usually manage to return things to students pretty close to in their hands. Probably the seats are more spaced out?

  22. I try to be sensitive to the students’ egos. I usually hand the papers back at the beginning of class and I have students gather round so I can hand each of them their test one at a time. But my classes are all less than 30 students.

    I mostly teach graduate students who are in a program anyway. I tell them when they start that their scores/grades are not actually private, because their program director will be checking their grades and scores on exams and if there is a problem they will contact the student and arrange for tutoring or other remediation. Thus while the school does have the standard privacy policy it conflicts with how the education programs are actually run.

  23. For my really large class (200+), I’ve always had to return exams via boxes, or it would take up way too much time. I put the scores on the last page, which is annoying, but more practical. I put a summary of the results of all the problems (printed grid saves time), which makes the adding obvious (and I get fewer complaints about wishful adding mistakes). Students appreciate it too. Many of my students are very concerned about keeping their grades to themselves.

  24. When I TA’d it was suggested that we write the total score on the back of the exam or on the 2nd page to protect student’s privacy to the extent we could. Since it took no more time than to write it on the front, I thought why not and did it (except when I forgot).

    This sort of thing for me falls in the “no big deal/no extra time for me so why not” category.

  25. I set out all the papers in a row, in alphabetical order, and the students come pick them up. Due to certain unique characteristics of where I teach (which are also… highly identifying) the students really, really don’t care. If I ever got a complaint, I’d have them write their names on the back of the last page so I could turn them all over. (Can you make them all write their names on the back page?)

  26. Re: ‘what the big deal’ and secretiveness in the workplace around performance.

    I understand what you are saying there and agree with the point that if you get a bad score that should seek out help and study more/better. Personally, I didn’t really care and usually had a decent sense for what kinds of students my peers were anyway.

    I think hiding a score when handing a paper back isn’t tied with knowing how you fare with respect to others though. If you got a 95%, you know you did well (probably better than most) and if you get a 70% you know that there are significant area’s where your understanding is lacking and that others did better than you. Plus, teachers will usually give a quick debrief about the score distribution or you can overhear other students complaining if it was a really hard test and everyone got a lower-than-normal score.

    It seems like from your description (causing a lot of anxiety to the point of not coming to class) ze might be self-conscious about others seeing how they did and/or this might be a specific anxiety trigger for them. Not coming to class doesn’t really seem to make sense, but maybe that’s the best way ze has to cope. Speaking out and asking for a relatively minor change in process is also a decent way to cope, and would also be reasonable in the workplace.

    It would be interesting to know if the student was getting low, middle, or high grades. I know in a workplace, the ‘need for improvement’ kind of feedback is 1:1 but praise is sometimes public. No one likes their faults announced to a group but some people absolutely hate getting publicly praised or acknowledged.

    Personally, I am very aware of how I am doing (at school and at work) relative to the standard of success (i.e. did I do all the reading/homework/review problems, did I go over my graded homework/test to see where I went off, am I meeting my performance goals at work) and how others are doing (work for the govt, so pay is easy to google). It would help in the workplace if we were more open about relative job performance and compensation though.

    Thanks for the welcome!

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