Grades are feedback, but there are other strategies educators can use to give their students impactful and actionable feedback

4 strategies to make grading tolerable

Grades are feedback, but there are other grading strategies educators can use to give their students impactful and actionable feedback

I’m going to make the same confession to you that I made to my assistant principal a few years ago: I don’t like grading, I’m not good at it, and I’m not interested in getting better at it.

To most teachers, I’d be willing to bet, this is a shocking statement, and certainly not one someone ought to make to an administrator. Nonetheless, I was buried under a mountain of ungraded papers, philosophical uncertainty about the value of grades, and a growing awareness that my students tended to value their grades far more than their learning, so I said it.

Upon making this assertion, my assistant principal smiled, leaned back in her chair, and said, “So what are you going to do about it?”

Related content: 3 ways to ease grading with blended technology

This question, “What are we going to do about grades?” has haunted me for years. Sure, grades are a tool for providing feedback to students and to provide information about students to educational stakeholders. However, I don’t think they are the best tool, or even a remotely good tool.

There’s research that indicates this as well: studies have shown that grades encourage cheating (Anderman et al., 1998), spoil teachers’ relationships with students (Kirschenbaum et al., 1971), spoil students’ relationships with each other (Johnson and Johnson, 1989; Kohn, 1992), encourage laziness (Harter, 1978; Harter and Guzman, 1986; Kage, 1991; Milton et al., 1986), and are not reliable measures of what students know and can do (Kirschenbaum et al., 1971).

That being said, grades don’t seem to be going anywhere these days, so the question remains: what are we going to do about grades? Since my confession to my AP, I’ve arrived at a few answers that, for me and for my students, have helped alleviate some of the negative consequences of grades and have helped me truly assess and teach my students more effectively.

1. Grade less

Before I made any changes to how I graded, I realized I needed to radically reconsider what I graded. Kelly Gallagher’s personal goal for the ratio of pieces students write to pieces he grades is 4:1, so I adopted this goal as well. While I haven’t quite achieved it, I’m inching closer each year.

Over the course of the school year, my students write a variety of pieces: interpretive essays, literary and rhetorical analyses, poetry, and podcast scripts to name a few. I devote most of my instructional time (and grading time) to their argumentative writing. This year, I decided to grade 3 major written pieces: an interpretive essay, a rhetorical analysis, and a literary analysis. For each of those three written pieces, students write three different drafts.

For example, students wrote a literary analysis of Elie Wiesel’s Night, a second literary analysis of a poem of their choosing, and a third literary analysis of Eve Ewing’s book of poetry Electric Arches. Then, each student chose the draft that they thought was the most interesting and revised it in a writer’s workshop. Their final revised draft was the one I graded.

At a recent NCTE Convention, a presenter said, “What you grade is what you value, whether you are conscious of it or not.” I wanted to make sure that I was consciously deciding what was important to me, and when it comes to writing, I value an idea worth writing and reading about, growth between drafts, and the development of an eloquent academic voice. By being highly selective about what I grade, I can do a better job of ensuring that I’m staying true to my values.

2. Focus on feedback

Cutting back on grading didn’t mean I spent any less time with student writing. Rather, it meant that I spent more time with my students and their writing with a different frame of mind. Instead of thinking about their writing in terms of letters and numbers, I spent more time thinking about how to make their writing better. My students’ writing was no longer a product: it was a living organism, growing and changing each day.

People who are fond of grades often say that grades themselves are feedback, and there’s a nugget of truth to that. However, grades are feedback in code, requiring interpretive work on the part of the student. They are a tool teachers have used for a long time, but they are not the most effective tool. They rarely provide the specific, targeted feedback that we know students need to develop. Narrative feedback–feedback that describes the student’s work and highlights strengths as well as opportunities for growth–is far more powerful a tool. Not only does it help students see their work in a new way, narrative feedback also gives students specific steps for improvement. It also reminds students that a piece of writing (until it’s published, and even sometimes after) is never finished. A grade signifies an end, where narrative feedback suggests a new path forward.

My students receive feedback in a variety of ways throughout the writing process. Some of the feedback happens in a whole class setting, when I notice a consistent opportunity for growth across most or all students. Some of it happens individually in comments on a Google doc. Some of it comes from other students. While I am not the sole source of feedback for my students, focusing on feedback has helped my students become better writers more quickly, and it’s helped me to get to know them, see their strengths and name them, and have a much more comprehensive view of their capacity as a writer.

3. Outsource your grading

It’s also important to remember that grades and feedback don’t always have to come from a teacher. Writers don’t write just for their editors who know their work, their voice, and their subject. In the same way, students need opportunities to write for people who don’t know all of the contextual information a teacher knows and who will interact meaningfully with their work. One method of making this happen is to work with third-party graders.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity this school year to pilot a collaboration with The Graide Network, an organization that employs and teaches graduate and undergraduate students in education to provide feedback to students about their writing and to grade their writing using a rubric. Each assignment I’ve submitted to The Graide Network has returned with a mountain of feedback: I receive high-level feedback about trends across all of the students, and each student receives an individualized report with roughly half a page of typed notes about their strengths and opportunities for growth as well as scores from a rubric. They also can leave inline notes if the work is submitted via Google Docs.

The feedback my students receive is always highly actionable, and they are quick to implement it in their writing. Students will regularly refer to their Graiders by name in class when we discuss the changes they made in their writing. The feedback also helps them select from the pieces of writing to which they’d like to devote the most time revising. I can use the high-level feedback to develop mini-lessons that target some of the opportunities for growth specific to each class. I also have the pleasure of skimming through the feedback my students receive to plan conferences with specific students.

4. Teach your students to grade themselves

If I have done a good job providing students with accurate reflections of their own writing, providing feedback and (occasionally) grades with transparency, and opportunities to reflect and set some goals, I know that I can trust my students to grade themselves. This is a great way to have some really open and authentic conversations about what a student’s writing demonstrates about their level of skill.

I begin this process by having students select the piece of writing that best reflects their development as a writer. I provide them with a rubric and a graphic organizer ahead of time where they can do some structured reflection and self-assess based on the rubric. Then, I plan about a week’s worth of mostly independent work for my classes. This can take the form of stations, a performance task, or some other project they can complete largely without my help. During that week, I meet with each student for roughly five minutes. To prepare for these conferences, I create a Google Form to collect data, and I read the student’s piece and make some general notes ahead of time. I like for students to lead these conferences by explaining why they chose their piece, what the strengths of the piece are, and what they still need to work on. Then we talk grades. The student will take me through each row of the rubric, explaining why they think their work best fits with that row. I would say 98 percent of the time, I agree with the student, and 1.5 percent of the time, I think they’ve been too critical. We discuss the grades they chose, and ultimately, that discussion sorts out most areas of confusion for both of us. I record the grades along with any additional notes in a Google Form that I share with students.

Students who can articulate what they’ve learned, why they’re learning it, and how they know they’ve learned it are far more likely to succeed than students who can’t. When learning happens in a vacuum and grading seems arbitrary, students don’t know what to aim for. They lose motivation, and their growth as writers suffers. By teaching students to grade themselves and discussing those grades in a conference, I help ensure that students understand the what, why, and how of their learning.

These four practices have helped me and my students in a few ways: first, I rarely need to have a conversation with a student or their parent or guardian about why they’ve received a particular grade. Because students know and can articulate this, they are able to have that conversation themselves.

Second, I can devote most of my energy and time to what truly matters–teaching. I don’t have to spend my prep periods trudging through student essays with rubrics in hand, inputting myriad grades into the gradebook, and keeping rosters full of data points. Now I spend my preps enjoying my students’ writing, hearing their voice, paying attention to their strengths, and making notes about their areas of weakness. I get to craft engaging lessons that help students make meaningful progress as writers, and they are motivated to learn because they understand why they are learning what they are learning.

Third, and most importantly, my students get to experience the joy of writing without feeling any apprehension about what grade they will earn. They get to write about things that matter in genres that real people currently read and publish. They get to have an editor who will read their work and provide feedback five days a week for the whole year. By making the changes I’ve made to grading writing, my students have become real writers in the real world.

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