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Against the Grade

The backstory: Me and my grading

I gave a presentation last month for the Summer Writing Institute of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire, which is always a great joy — I was a participant and a fellow at the first two NWP-NH Summer Institutes years ago, early in my teaching career, and they made a tremendous difference in my approach to teaching. Returning as I have for the last three years as a guest author is an extraordinary honor.

Since people return to the Summer Institutes, I always try to change my presentation a bit, and also to use it as an opportunity to try out whatever ideas I happen to be playing with at the time. Last year, for instance, I was thinking a lot about how imagination is key to building a world that is less cruel and more humane, so I talked a lot (perhaps too much!) about the importance of seeing imagination as central to our work not just as writers, but as teachers. This year, I continued some of those ideas, and added to them the concept of writing “the other way” and writing “on the other side” (as in, on the other side of a piece of paper, but also as in “writing on the side of the other”). I’ll have more to say about that later as I begin to polish my ideas into an essay, but for now what I want to do is give a better answer to a question one of the participants asked during the Q&A.

It’s easy for me to get up there and talk about activating the imagination, encouraging students to write against whatever forms we give them, celebrating their creativity, encouraging their willingness to experiment, etc. etc. It’s easy for me to say, “We celebrate experimental writers and then encourage students not to be experimental writers. What’s up with that?” It’s easy for me to be a champion of the strange, the unexpected, the wackadoodle, the unique. Easy because I’m just a guy up there yammering on about writing and teaching. But as everyone who’s ever been in charge of a classroom or employed by an institution knows: There are practicalities.

And so during the Q&A someone asked a useful, practical question: “If you encourage your students to break all the rules, write against the grain, all that jazz — that’s exciting, that’s great, but … how do you grade it?”

It’s one of the most important questions in teaching, and one that has hindered my teaching for years, because I can, yes, come up with all sorts of ideas about new and exciting activities, and I can, yes, encourage my students to write outside every box and tell them to color outside every line and try to nudge them beyond whatever limits they put on their imaginations — but everywhere I’ve been employed, I’ve also needed to turn in grades. And when I was teaching high school, I needed to turn in grades roughly every two weeks, and there were a lot of guidelines I had to follow in grading. So yes. The practicalities. How do you grade it?

In the moment of the Q&A, I answered honestly, but not helpfully. How do I grade such writing? “I don’t,” I said. This is somewhat true, but needs explanation.

For many years, I did grade it. I came up with some of the most baroque, Rube Goldberg grading machines imaginable. Massive flowcharts and rubrics and checklists and 5,000-word bundles of guidelines and — and then one of my supervisors said, “Matt? I’ve got an advanced degree in science and I can’t make heads or tails of your grading system. How do you expect a student to understand this? Can you understand this?” (No, I really couldn’t.) I’d ached for my grading to be “objective”, and yet the scientist was telling me I was going in the wrong direction. I began to wonder if there might be a way I could put into practice the ideas of various education researchers who advocated against exactly the sort of intensive, complicated grading I was doing. I’d known about their ideas for a long time, but didn’t think they were practical for my own institution. But now I began to wonder.

I knew I desperately needed to simplify, but I couldn’t imagine how to do it. I went back to my old standby, the work of Peter Elbow, specifically the section on grading, evaluation, and feedback in Everyone Can Write. I began to think I might be able to let go of some things, and as I started to let go, I found that I was communicating better with my students and my students had fewer and fewer confusions about where their grades came from.

Once I started teaching college, I let go of even more. Now, nobody was looking over my shoulder constantly, parents weren’t helicoptering around my every move, nobody was checking the averages of my grades each term as they had been before (for a while at one school where I worked, any teacher whose grades were not close to a bell curve got a talking to), nobody except the students cared whatsoever about what grades I gave them. But the students cared a lot. And who could blame them? Not I. For many of them, money was on the line: scholarships, fellowships, grants, parental approval. For some, my class might be the difference between their being able to stay in school and not. I started doing more self-evaluations, and usually I’d give them whatever grade they said they deserved, because usually their proposed grades were a bit lower than what I was thinking of for them myself. The more I did this, the more I felt inclined to give students control over what grade they received. I could always veto the student who did nothing and claimed to deserve an A for existing. (No matter how anti-grade I am, that still offends me.) But those students were extremely rare — I can think of 2 in the last 10 years, during which time I’ve taught about 600-700 students. Again and again, most students proposed a grade for themselves that was at least within the same letter grade as I considered accurate.

When I started my Ph.D. at UNH, I returned to more traditional grading. I was at a new institution, eyes were on me, and I was just a grad student now. But I kept inching more and more toward self-evaluations and contracts, my preferred methods of grading. Finally, in my last year of teaching during my Ph.D., with a Graduate Student Teaching Award under my belt and nobody inclined to keep an eye on me anymore, I went in a direction I thought was best supported by research and my own experience: a simple contract, a portfolio at the end of the term, and as little grading as possible during the term. It worked well. Not perfectly, but certainly no worse than any other method of grading I’ve used over the years, and better than most. Importantly, I spent less time fretting about which exact numbers or letters to assign to the students and more time communicating with them about their ideas, their writing, and their learning.

Never again do I want to dread looking at student work because of all the time and effort it will require of me to grade it. There were nights when I would look at a stack of papers and sink into utter depression. It took me too long to realize that this was a blatant sign that I was doing something wrong. I was the one giving these assignments, and I was the one who ended up being grateful to the students who didn’t turn them in! This is backwards!

The year when I used minimal grading and assigned portfolios was the happiest and least anxious of any of my years of teaching. While friends and colleagues reached the end of the term complaining about the burden of grading, I talked with great enthusiasm about all the interesting things my students were writing. I enjoyed spending time reading my students’ writing. I had fun with their portfolios. Again and again, I saw my students pushing themselves in ways they never would have if they had been more worried about their grades, more concerned with “What do I need to do to pass?” than “What do I need to do to write better?”

Now, I have just taken a job that is nearly my grading ideal: All of the courses I’m teaching this year are Pass/No Pass grades. We use a “greenlight” system where the students can revise their work until it reaches an acceptable level (gets a green highlight on our course spreadsheet), and they pass the course if all of their assignments are greenlit. I’m looking forward to seeing how this changes my interactions with students and my design of assignments. It’s taken me twenty years, but I’m finally working at a job where the learning matters more than the grades.

The practicalities

“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”

—Henry David Thoreau

letter to Harrison Blake, 27 March 1848

What I’ve learned over the years about grading, usually by getting everything wrong before ever getting anything right, can be summed up in two pieces of advice:

  1. Simplify! And keep simplifying!
  2. Build as big a firewall as possible between feedback and grading.

If you can’t get rid of grading altogether, then always remember that it is a form of communication, one that is absurdly reductive. Because grades are radically simple — often, a single letter or number — we need to make sure our grading systems are simple, or else we’re going to try to squeeze too much information into a container that can’t possibly hold it. It’s easy for grades to fail to communicate, or to communicate something very different to each person who sees them. Thoreau was right: Simplify, simplify, simplify!

The second point is at least as important, and it’s one I made last year along with some other important points that I won’t rehash here. Decades of research show incontrovertibly that if you put a grade on a piece of writing, you wipe out whatever other feedback you give. If you just spent half an hour covering a student’s paper with edits and advice, you have wasted your time if you then put any sort of a grade on it (even just a check mark).

Create opportunities for revision, give feedback, and then once there’s no more opportunity for revision, grade the final product quickly. By that point, you and the student ought to understand what you both value, and neither of you need to waste lots of time on the final assessment.

What about smaller assignments? That’s where grading contracts come in. For work that can be assessed as either done or not done, make it part of a contract. (See my comments on the “B Contract” and the link to my syllabus at the Mumpsimus post from last year. See also Danielewicz & Elbow, “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching” and the separate appendix.)

Addendum 8/5/18: Shortly after publishing this piece, I read this wonderfully practical post on going gradeless in a high school classroom. (I wish I’d been able to read this 15-20 years ago!) It’s heartening to see so much creative, student-centered thinking about pedagogy and practices happening at all levels of schooling.

Or stop grading altogether

I aspire to move toward Jesse Stommel’s position of ungrading. See his posts “Why I Don’t Grade” and “How to Ungrade” for details. When I first read them, I found them liberating, and I continue to return to them for inspiration.

I’ve almost made it to Stommel’s level of not grading, and at this point the stumbling blocks are mostly psychological. After all, I’m the guy who knew all the research and who personally hated grading and who yet nonetheless kept coming up with ridiculously complicated grading systems. I am my own worst enemy. Slowly, though, I’m getting better.

And looking back, I’ve done a lot of the important work for a long time, even if I sometimes let my fears obscure it. I’ve long used self-evaluations, I’ve tended to prioritize qualitative feedback, I’ve had students share and discuss their work with each other for my entire career. It’s just that more often than not, I also let grades get in the way. I regret a lot of lost time. I regret even more a lot of lost opportunities for learning.

The work of teaching shouldn’t be reduced to the mechanical act of grading or marking. Our talk of grading shouldn’t be reduced to our complaining about the continuing necessity of it.

If you’re a teacher and you hate grading, stop doing it.

—Jesse Stommel, “How to Ungrade”

If you stop grading, or even just grade less often and more simply, you will almost certainly become a better teacher.

image by Jesse Stommel
Top image: “Grading” by ninniane via Flickr

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