I graded my first set of philosophy assignments last week, and it got me thinking about wondering about how we grade ourselves. And we do, evaluating our responses and our methods of choosing them. We judge things in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, and better and worse. Having to grade a philosophy assignment forced me to think about how I evaluate the merits of responses and how I can do that better, and I wanted to share that today. 

But let me start from the beginning. It was a pretty straightforward assignment, and I’m happy to say that the students did very well at grasping the concepts from class and applying them in practical cases. I can’t go into more detail about it for confidentiality reasons, but the act of grading was interesting, because grading a philosophy assignment is unlike grading a lot of other assignments. With a Latin or math assignment, it’s strictly a matter of checking each term off and every construction is straightforwardly correct or incorrect, with little wiggle room. With philosophy, it’s a bit different. It’s not all subjective, as a few people have mentioned to me. There’s a fact of the matter about whether a person is accurately defining or using utilitarianism or virtue ethics, but the question becomes “How well are they doing it?” Usually that involves establishing a rubric or metric, and then seeing how well the students’ answers meet its expectations. Are they identifying key issues? Are they looking ahead in their plans? Are their claims reasonable? These are all relevant to the evaluation.

The thing I noticed while grading is that a lot of the answers were good. There was a bit of choice, but the students were all essentially answering the same question. But it didn’t follow from that that they all deserved the same grade. Some answers were better than others, appreciated more considerations, and applied the theories better. On my second read through of the assignments, I became more attentive to the subtle differences in their answers. It was my job to rank those answers and give them a grade. This brought to mind a few considerations, namely:

  • Each student is answering the same question
  • Each student’s answer is conceivably their best effort, because part of their goal is getting a good grade.
  • Some answers are better than others, by virtue of their grasp of the theory, their application of it, and their attention to nuance. 

None of these are particularly revolutionary, but after grading forty answers to the same question, I began to notice that my own understanding of the nuances was increasing. Each paper had to be given a grade, and each of those grades had to be defensible. Before I put a number down in ink, I would think about what I might tell a student who came to protest their grade, and how I would explain why I gave them the grade that I did (which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t change, I’ve made mistakes before and I will again, but at least the initial grade reflects their work and understanding).

It occurred to me about then that, when faced with issues, exhibit much the same behaviours in evaluating our solutions. We evaluate things all the time, whether they’re situations, people, our actions, or other people’s actions. It’s part of the process of sorting the world into bits that make sense, and it seems fairly straightforward to think that there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re also pretty uniformly bad at it. Much ink has been spilled on the psychology of problem-solving and philosophical decision theory, and a big part of that is about how we rank solutions. But what got me thinking about it is that it seems to involve the same three considerations.

  • Each of us is answering the same question, in that we’re looking for solutions which apply to our question, and not another.
  • Our answer is conceivably our best effort. It may or may not be, but we can at least acknowledge that it’s in our best interest to put forth our best effort.
  • Some answers are better than others.

The question worth asking is about why some answers are better than others. Another way to phrase that is to ask what criteria we’re grading things by. We are grading our solutions, after all. Over the next little while, I want to take a bit of a look at the kinds of things we might want to include in that rubric, and why we’d want to do it. What’s the most important thing for you when deciding on a course of action?


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