Exams were my biggest concern when I thought about coming to Denmark to teach. I am an “easy’ grader. If I could, I would not give out grades. I would write a personal note to each student about their work over the course of the semester, what they did well and what they need to work on. This is how grading was done in my program during my first year of college. Since then, I have been chained to numbers.
I do not—and I have never—assigned exams. Instead, the students’ work over the course of the semester is scaffolded with assignments building upon each other and leading to a final paper of some kind. When I calculate final grades for students, there is some math involved, but there is also some wiggle room. There are many scaled variations between A and F to reflect an “almost A” or a “barely C.” I can reward ambitious efforts or excellent attendance.
In Denmark, the student’s Exam is the only basis for their grade in the class. And since most of the Exams I have graded are anonymous, I am grading only the words on the paper. This is extra torture. Further, there is a 7-point scale with 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, and -3 being the only grades given. When grading, we talked about a “strong 10” or a “weak 7,” but this is not reflected in the grade. Further, a 12 is more or less an A+ and is not awarded easily.
In my U.S. classes, I want students to succeed and I tell them at the start of each semester that I have designed the class toward success. Much of the students’ grades are based upon attendance and participation assignments and the final is usually not more than half of a student’s grade. Most of my final assignments are 20% of the final grade. When I am grading, I am able to take into account every assignment the student has completed as well as other things I know about the student.
While the day to day teaching has not been that much different in Denmark, the exam process is quite different. I did not have the opportunity to see any of my students’ writing before they submitted their exams and everything I graded was anonymous. Grading at home is a drag; grading in Denmark is beyond stressful.
In the U.S. exams take place, for the most part during the course of the last week of the semester. Grades are usually submitted before Xmas. Then it is done and time to move forward, even if I give too many incompletes.
The Exam system in Denmark is interesting and messy. In Denmark, Exams—the final exams and papers for fall courses—are spread throughout December and January, scheduled independently of when the class may have met during the semester. Some of these exams are oral presentations; some are timed writing. Some are take-home and the time students are given to complete these assignments varies from 24 hours to 3 days to 5 days or more. Most exams have either an internal second grader or an external second grader. The grade on the Exam is the grade for the class.
For my B.A. elective class about Hip Hop America, I assigned a pretty standard paper and was the sole grader. This was a small class and the grading was relatively easy.
For my co-taught M.A. theory and methods course, the students considered three questions for a week and then had 24 hours to write about a question we selected from the three. My colleague and I read about 30 papers (about 15 pages each) and then decided on a grade together. This was also fairly easy and we only argued about a couple of papers that we disagreed on.
For my M.A. elective course about Girls on Fire and YA dystopia, I had an internal grader who read the students’ papers. I did not realize I had an internal grader until the students had already started the exam. This was the toughest set of papers to grade. It was a small class and I came to love each of my students over the course of the semester. I read and graded and re-read and graded the essays three times, each time trying to make myself be more objective. Still, most of my grades were higher than the agreed-upon assigned grades ended up being.
On top of regular exams, I also supervised a B.A. thesis project this fall. This was also a new experience for me though I have supervised many similar kinds of student projects over the years. The most difficult part about this B.A. thesis advising, however, is the dual role that I play—as mentor and supervisor as well as the grader. I work with an outside reader in assessing the student’s thesis; together we assign a grade. So, throughout the semester I have been commenting and encouraging and wanting this student to do the best, but then I have to do my best to evaluate her project objectively. I am still second guessing myself, especially since this was the first thing I graded in Denmark.
This spring I will be a grader and an internal grader. The class I am co-teaching (really two classes in one big experiment) will have a mid-term for each of our classes and the final will have a paper and an oral exam. I am grateful for this experience teaching, working, and grading in a different mode. It is one of the reasons why I applied for a Fulbright, but it is tough. I hate to make decisions, generally, especially when such decisions can impact someone’s life like a grade can.
And, here’s the ultimate contradiction within the Danish educational system. Everything is rather laid back most of the time. Students come to class or they don’t come to class and most classes do not have any kind of participation or attendance requirement. I still don’t know which paper belongs to which student though I have invited all of my students to seek my feedback. The only thing that rescues me from my grading despair is that I get to work with many of the same students in the spring. And even if I don’t know what each individual needs, I have been able to identify what the collective needs. And maybe that is part of the point of this system.