3 Oct 2016

Lab Report Grading

Submitted by Anne Bentley, Lewis & Clark College

After completing nearly every household task known to humanity, I finally sat down to grade the semester's first batch of inorganic lab reports. One hour later, I had scores assigned to 12 abstracts. And now I find myself procrastinating even further by writing this blog post.

Why do I find grading lab reports so daunting?  I give my students clear expectations (or I hope I do), and each report is handed in with its grading sheet on top. The overall score for a lab report in my inorganic lab course is usually broken down into sub-scores for the abstract, experimental section, results & discussion, and a score for grammar and figure formatting.

Despite my efforts to clarify and simplify the grading process, it's still a challenge. This year I am asking my students to meet with me individually for a 15-minute writing conference in between the 1st and 2nd lab report due dates. My primary goal is to be able to provide encouragement and specific pointers in person in order to minimize the ouch factor of seeing a report littered with green ink. I'm also hoping that these meetings will give me a chance to check in with the students in general about how the course is going for them.

However, these meetings can't happen unless I have 12 fully graded lab reports to return!  So I will head back to the kitchen table now. I will be checking back with VIPEr to see if any of you have any tips. How do you approach grading student writing? Do you see improvements over a semester, both in your grading abilities and your students' writing abilities?


Anne, I feel your pain since I teach a writing intesive course called Literature & Seminar. I too struggle with poorly written student work. At the moment, my grading is seminar papers (short summaries of our weekly seminar). This year, I decided to write my own version of a seminar paper and explain how my summary meets the criteria for the assignment. My goal is to get more concise and better written summaries of seminar. I'm not sure that this will work (since I posted my version of a seminar paper today) but I'll keep my fingers crossed!

Anne, I too have experienced this year in, year out. In some sense it's nice to know that even though I work in Asia we encounter very similar problems. Like Barbara, I also teach a course in writing and I'm constantly amazed at how the students seem to struggle with even basic writing skills. I think that it must be partly generational. Certainly when I speak to the students about their learning experience, it's clear that they didn't do as much practice writing as I did when I was at school. In my case I provide the students with a 'perfect' report that I've written on a made up lab. I try to highlight in this report what's important but even then some students still can meet the standard I'd expect of them. 

Anne, thanks for bringing up this important topic. 

A few thoughts:

1) As a fellow lab instructor trying to develop scientific writing in chemistry majors, I have noticed that despite my best efforts to give written (mostly) and oral (occasionally, as time permits) feedback to students, they don't seem to be reading the comments or remembering the points I'm making. Is this also generational to some extent? Perhaps.

2) I've recently tried grading labs using a rubric to increase consistency and speed. If you're interested, I'm happy to share the rubrics I've developed so you can adapt to your lab submission types. I wish I could say that rubric scoring has been a resounding success...but the truth is that, once again, students don't seem to be reading the rubrics before or as they write their lab submissions or when they've received the rubrics categories circled.

3) I've puzzled why lab report grading seem to be the most onerous kind that faculty do (it is for me at least). To counter my lack of understanding, I've tried to develop "dimensions of grading difficulty" to apply to grading tasks. Here's what I have so far:

* length: lab reports do tend to be lengthier than quizzes/exams/homework to grade

* diversity of material to be graded: for a given lab, student might be turning in notebook page entries, calculations, written sections, sometimes spreadsheet/plotting attachments...

* diffusivity of information: it's a constant hunt through the lengthy lab submission for each student for information to be graded since it can be near-impossible to prescribe format for each lab such that the information shows up in the same place for every student

* frequency of grading: one might administer quizzes weekly, exams 3-5 times per semester. Labs tend to be due weekly or every other week.

Anecdotally I've heard that chemistry faculty in my department tend to retire when they reach the point at which they can no longer bring themselves to grade labs!

I'm glad I'm not the only one. For many years, when I have taught our senior inorganic laboratory, I have had students write their lab reports as they would a submission to Inorganic Chemisty. I have them start with some shorter experiments (1 - 2 weeks), and their lab report is just one aspect of the manuscript (Abstract; Experimental; Introduction; Results and Discussion) so they can get more detailed feedback on a particular section. Each of the shorter lab reports has a "Data Sheet" the hand in as well with their experimental data so I can grade the "lab performance" more easily. Then I use two longer exploratory-type projects where they write full reports with all the sections (the first worth about half of the second).

I see much the same behavior as Shirley; I tell them you forgot X in their single-section report; they forget in the first full report and they forget it in the second full report. I've even gone as far as to give them specific Inorg. Chem. articles rather than telling them to go to the journal website to look at example articles, they don't bother. And this is after they've had P-Chem lab, which requires the writing of formal lab reports as well.

One specific one I very often see, is in the experimental, the students will simply copy the lab handout procedure (Dissolve 0.2 mmol of triphenylphosphine in....) rather than give the actual amounts/volumes/times they used in their syntheses, and they often won't even give a yield! Yet, all of that information is in their data sheets. I would be interested in your rubric Shirley if you're willing to share.

I should jump back in here to clarify that my students' writing is not bad!  My reluctance to grade lab reports is not related to them actually being painful to grade. I think Shirley is heading in the right direction with her thoughts about "dimensions of grading difficulty", and using the retirement metric she suggests, I should have retired about three years ago! 

Another batch came in today. We'll see how I do with these. 

We definitely struggle with this at Carleton as well. 

In 2012, I attended an AALAC Workshop on "Integrated Labs in Chemistry".  At Carleton, prior to splitting labs into the traditional Kinetics, Quantum Spectroscopy, Inorganic, and Spectroscopic Characterization of Organic Compounds our labs were integrated and many aspects of that integrated lab program remain imbedded in our program.

One of the most striking things that came from the workshop was that most of us struggle with the assignments and grading that can be overwhelmingly time consuming particularly if we try to leave the assignments opened ended enough to allow for creativity.

Here are some things that we learned from other colleagues and some of the ideas we have adapted for Carleton.  Note that I must say, that we experiment with this as well and have not found a perfect answer but here are a couple of things we have tried.

  1. In a multi week labs some faculty members required students to submit a journal quality figure or table along the way, rather than just one report at the end. 
  2. In one synthetic lab at Carleton students analyze a product by a variety of NMR experiments.  Students are required to submit one figure and two tables that are more or less stand-alone for characterization of the product (this is it for the report).  The spectra are submitted in the supplemental information. 
  3. In another experiment, we have students submit a Chem-draw file of the reaction scheme mid-way as the steps proceeds.  The Chem-draw schemes are graded and returned prior to writing the final report.
  4. Some faculty members had a lab or two where no written report was required but a Power Point Presentation was the final project.  The key to this exercise was limiting the number of slides.  We also tried this at Carleton one year and loved it (we set our limit at 5 slides, other faculty members at some other institutions set their number of slides to 3!!).  It reduces the “tied to the chair” type grading substantially.  The presentations can be in your office or a group meeting style.
  5. Matt Whited whom I team teach with also has started having one report in the early part of the term be a “Experimental Section Only” submission graded separately from a later characterization submission that is not a full report.
  6. Rob Scarrow at Havaford also shared with us that some to his final reports had to be submitted with a template that was a Communication to limit the number of words.  It made students edit and consider what information was truly important to convey.