Friday, February 14, 2014

Grading Grading

I have promised (others!) to write this blog for almost a year.

I am not the first person to have these thoughts…but these are my take on them.  I also understand the counterargument.  I do.  Honestly.  I really do.

This is my grade of grading.


Imagine it is the first day of an introductory college course you have to take.  You have to pass AND learn the skills in this class to be successful later.  Your degree and future job depend on it.

For the people reading this blog, imagine this course to be something like taking Chinese. Or Calculus. Or Shakespeare. Or Nuclear Engineering.  Or Physical Education.  Think about your Achilles heel.  That subject your entire life you have been told time and time again, You need improvement on X.

Think about how you feel the first day of this class.  The first reading. The first quiz.  The first paper. The first test (if you stay in the class that long).

And you are scored.

Consistently scored on something new to you.  Hard for you.  Foreign to you.  Something you have a complex about.

And you get classified.

You are a D student.  If you try really hard, maybe you are a C.  You.  As a person.  Become this score. This thing.  This letter.

And that first failing score of the semester sends you down your spiral again.

Why even try?  Why even go?

Welcome to American Education 101: Survival of the Fittest.


Let's take running a mile as a metaphor to explain more fully what I mean:

After lecturing to you about running for a week, I say, "OK…next week is our timed mile." 

You dread timed miles. DREAD THEM.  If you had more time, you would be happy to attempt the mile…but the timing, really makes you anxious.

And I assess you. Not only on completion…but how you look doing it.  How well you ran it.  Were your arms pumping correctly?  Was your cadence right?

You may feel this is unfair.  You may feel like completing the mile is enough.  And why do your arms matter anyway?  You are new to running…and you never even noticed what people do with their arms before…this has to do with your legs, doesn't it?  That's what they told you in high school.

You even put a lot of work over the weekend preparing for this mile….but that wasn't enough time.  You hadn't been running for years…and a couple days of prep just weren't going to cut it.

So, I watch you run this mile…and rate it (with my rubric, hopefully) as a D.  

This is the life of a majority of native and non-native-English-speaking students entering community college English courses.  Most enter not ready to face the rigors of college-level reading and writing assignments, so they are placed in pre-college prep classes.  Statistically, if this happens, they most likely won't get a college degree.  This is not a condemnation of high school.  This is a reflection on a system -- K through university -- that is focusing on the wrong things.

And I'm tired of it.

So, I am doing something about it.


Grading is unfair.  It is.  When you put a score on an introductory student's initial drafts, it often demoralizes him/her…and honestly, it demoralizes me as an instructor.  If they don't do something correctly, they lose points.

Cause and effect.

This often leads to students and instructors looking for formulaic writing approaches: easier to teach, and easier to score.  If you are "good at school," this system is awesome for you.  If you are good at being told not think, this system is awesome for you.

But what about everyone else?

I just don't think grading is the only answer to student improvement.  On the other hand, mentorship and feedback are key!  In fact, it is part of a four-step process to student acquisition of new material that can lead to student autonomy and engagement (informally noticed by me, not deeply researched by me with stats and figures…yet.).

The Learning Process (I didn't invent this idea)

  • Step 1: Notice
  • Step 2: Think 
  • Step 3: Output
  • Step 4: Feedback
In my opinion, students struggle with non-content-based-life-skills such as metacognition, how to read and think critically, self-efficacy, and self-esteem because there is no time for teaching "that stuff" in my classroom.  I need to get through this material.  Students should just know how to do that, anyway.  That isn't my job.  

There is time to perform, though.  

There is time to get things right.  

There is time to reward those students who learn quickly.

There is always time for that. 


Why would a student take a chance -- try something new -- if they are only assessed on knowing, and getting things right.  Only using a scoring-based-instructional-model hinders creativity in my opinion, and a possible outcome may be robotic instruction: 

  • Write a five-paragraph essay
  • Put your thesis here
  • Use this transition word there
  • Every assertion has two supports
Why did writing become an easy-to-assess assembly line…where each essay looks like the last?  Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for formula; I'm not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater…but should formula BE the classroom, and leave room for nothing else?  Do we have so little faith in students and teachers…that the result is creating a line-worker mentality:  Don't think. Regurgitate. Know the rules. Follow the rules. 

Carrot and stick.  Carrot and stick.

That is not my classroom.  I want things to be muddy.  I want there to be mistakes.  I want my students to take chances.  I want them to notice things for themselves.  I want them to experiment.  I want them to be confused at times.

And, most importantly, I don't want to punish them for doing these things.

I want to encourage it.


The past few years, I have experimented with removing POINTS/SCORES from the initial drafts of my pre-college, ESL-student work.  Some students resist at first.  Some never stop.  But why would I assess something, with a score, when the student is new to it?  Sadly, why have they been so programmed to expect it?


To return to our metaphor, why would I assess your running of a mile, with a score, if this is your first time running a mile in ten years, or you have been a swimmer for twenty years and are trying to "translate" into running now.  I don't think these are times to assign a score.  These are times for feedback, in words, in support, in conferences, in modeling, in coaching…but not a grade.  No points.

Why are we so quick to judge right away: THIS is a C.

Why is it so hard to remove the label? 


What I have noticed is a different conversation with my students since I have removed these scores on initial drafts.

I am no longer asked why they got a D.  I am no longer confronted with tears.  I no longer feel like I am demoralizing someone new to the field of academic reading and writing in English.

I am asked now, "How do I improve X?"  "How do I explain my ideas better here?"

The conversation has been reframed and:

  • I notice NEW and UNIQUE forms of writing.
  • I notice I don't get the same paper from the same student all semester.
  • I notice my students are writing differently than their classmates.

My process for writing assignments (which I continue to hone/think about/develop every semester), is as follows:

  • I will not assess -- with points or scoring -- the content of written work until the end of the semester.
  • Throughout the process, I provide points for: completion of drafts, submission of drafts on time, submission of self-reflections on progress, and following directions.
  • The students receive extensive written and oral feedback, mentoring, and tutoring on each draft.

Teacher voices:

Voice: Oh no…does that mean everyone can get an A on an assignment? Is this a reflection of their "true ability level?" 

Response: Not everyone gets an A….but I have a lot fewer failing scores; that's for sure.  And what is their true level, I ask?  Do YOU, reader, want to be GRADED on your first mile of the semester?  Would you not prefer to practice for months to get your skills up to speed, as it were, before I assess you with points?  Would you prefer to focus on your score or improving your overall health?  Don't forget, in our PE class, we are also going to be working on swimming a mile and biking for fifty.  Do you want to be failing all of those things along the way, too?  

Voice: I don't have time to give that level of feedback that many times. 

Response: I hear you.  Maybe we should have fewer students.  Maybe we should have fewer classes/instructor.  Maybe not every class should be sixteen weeks (schools vary by district) for every student (maybe some need less time, others more).  If we were concerned about improvement and not about maximizing the bottom line, maybe our entire educational system could be set up differently.

Voice: You are being unrealistic.  Students must be graded.  This is the way we have done it for years.  They are graded in all their courses.  And in life.  At work.  They get financial aid and scholarships and transfer based on grades.  

Response:  I cannot argue that. All I am doing is delaying the grade, not removing it entirely.  Also, I am not in control of all those things you mentioned above.  What I am in control of is creating a learning environment that attempts to accept everyone and not only the ones who would pass regardless of what was in front of them.  

Voice: Easy for you to say.  You are just an English instructor.  You can't do this in a REAL course like math or physics or history or engineering or science or…or…or...

Response:  I have not walked a mile (connection intended) in your shoes, nor you in mine, most likely. I'm not saying every situation is the same…just like not every writing assignment is the same.  Again, I didn't say we should remove ALL grades and ALL formula.  I'm saying this is what I did.  For me. In my class.


Assessment, with points, is one of the worst parts of being an instructor (IMO).  Especially in introductory courses, I don't see the utility in penalizing students for growing and thinking and trying along the way.

As of today, right now, this is my attempt at fostering life-long learning. 

Grade me.  Disagree with me.  Give me feedback.  Try it yourself.  

Whatever you do:

  • Notice
  • Think 
  • Output
  • Feedback
I just did that here.  And now, it's your turn.


Shasta said...

Wow, lots to think about here. I often feel discouraged when I grade my students' papers but I never thought about it this way. Considering teaching is my second job and I have 80 students, I don't know if I can give the same level of feedback, but it's worth thinking about how I grade. Thanks!

Kim said...

Hi Mark,

So glad that you finally got this out in the world! I can see that you have considered all the arguments against your practice...but I can think of so many reasons that this is a good idea! And since you've taken a year to get this out there, I'm assuming that you are still seeing positive results and still considering it a practice worth continuing! Now to spread the word!



Abby Robles said...

Thank you for FINALLY sharing your thoughts. I give you an A. (Too soon?) But really, I think your opinion on grading is exactly what students at any age need when they learn. It's a thoughtful and nurturing approach that can only inspire students to continue improving.

Janet said...

Thank you Mark for sharing so eloquently what many teachers feel, that grades are not what our classes should be about, but instead the process and feedback necessary to be a successful writer, student, chemist, whatever the task. I am interested in how you set up the semester. I too teach EL learners, and I don't grade well at all. I am interested in hearing more about your rubrics and your process. Thanks for sharing.