B- Cat

The first week of classes I spend a lot of time setting up the course, my expectations, explanations of how we will be working and why. I used to spend the entire first day doing this, but lately it's been begun to creep into the second day (and occasionally the third). It just takes that long. One exercise I really enjoy is called the "Cat."

It works like this. You ask the class to take out a sheet of scratch paper and draw a cat. That's it. They have 30-45 seconds to complete the task. Afterwards, you ask them to exchange their drawings with someone in the class they have not yet met (this helps get them moving about the room). Then you have them grade each other's cats from A to F. The students laugh, but more than one of them will take the task seriously. They'll stare at the cat, mull it over and then assign a grade.

Now some just award an A without much reflection, but a few will give Bs, Cs or even the occasional D+. What becomes clear is that every grader has used a criteria. Some argue that the instructions asked only for a picture of a cat and that's what the drawer did. Consequently, it's an automatic A. Others value realism or drawing the entire cat instead of just a head. Some tend to reward creativity. The exercise illustrates in a concrete way the inherent subjectivity of evaluation . Students tend to assume that grades are metaphysical realities, so it's not a bad idea to disabuse them of this notion. My grades may differ from Professor X's down the hall, but that's not all that important. What matters is how clearly I state my standards and how consistently I apply them.

Another odd dynamic usually shows up in this exercise. Someone is sure to resent the grade that their cat earned. They'll laugh about it and protest in mock earnestness, but underneath it actually does sting a bit to get a low grade even on something this meaningless. I like to take a moment to talk about this. Ultimately there is an emotional component to being evaluated that professors often underestimate. I've actually seen the cat exercise done with faculty and they really howl if their cat gets a C (even more so than students).

Anyway, after we do this exercise and talk it over, I pass out my rubric for writing assignments, explain my standards as clearly as I can, and then distribute a few writing samples for them to evaluate with the rubric. They grade the assignments individually and then in a small group show others how their grade reflects the rubric. Lastly we compare the group consensus to the actual grades I awarded. The exercise allows us all to get in sync early on, and it saves some "but I didn't realize" grief later on. They get a chance to familiarize themselves with my standards, and we get to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of work other than their own. In most cases I have found that the students are much tougher graders than I am.

Oh, and one tip. Don't draw a cat yourself and let them grade it . They'll become the most exacting little pedants.

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