December 16, 2022
Last year in an advanced English class, a student came to office hours in deep angst. If she were a whistling kettle, she would have been emitting a loud shrill sound. The student was upset about her grade on the first essay assignment of the semester. I calmly asked her if she read the comments. She hadn’t. She’d only looked at the grade in the online grade book, which translates the point value into a percentage. I asked her to sit and read the comments. In my department, we use a universal grading rubric, and at that time it had seven elements. After she read the comments, I asked her: What do you think? She replied that she understood why the essay wasn’t successful. I followed up: What are you going to do now? She responded that she was going to revise the essay. The kettle was no longer on the burner. This class approaches writing as a process and includes revision, so the student knew beforehand that she would be required to do at least one revision. Sometimes, students complete two or three revisions. Ultimately, she revised her essay twice and earned an A for this essay and an A- for the semester. While my student was happy about the grade, she was happier about the improvements in her writing.
For educators, regardless of discipline, it is common to have similar conversations with students who are overwhelmed with anxiety over their grades. These conversations can sometimes be accompanied by emails from parents, particularly when students are juniors and seniors, given the zero-sum game of elite college admissions in independent high schools.
But let me cut to the chase: These conversations are boring! They are boring because they always begin the same way and students, teachers, and parents are always positioned in the same roles with the same lines. It’s like a play in which all the characters are archetypes or the teacher is a chess master playing against a novice and knows how these series of moves are going to end up. No surprises here!
Beyond being boring and more important, grades have nothing to do with learning; instead, according to Alfie Kohn, they reduce student interest in the learning itself. Kohn further explains that grades also tend to dissuade students from taking on challenging tasks and reduce the quality of students’ thinking. Rather, as everyone knows, grades are an efficient way to sort, rank, and compare students. Because students and parents understand the true intent of grades, they want the best grades possible in all classes but especially in those classes that everyone knows are ‘rigorous,’ like fill-in-the-blank upper-level STEM electives or sequences that will allow one to take the upper-level STEM elective, so students can get into the best colleges possible. While it is true that there is authentic interest in these electives, so much of the energy around and in these classes is driven by high college ambitions that these higher ed aspirations tend to dwarf the desire for learning. The irony is that students want those classes and As in those classes but don’t truly want the challenge if it involves failure—especially a failure that can impact the GPA. At face value, it looks as if students are interested in learning; but in practice, the importance of learning for students is more complex. Grades and the pursuit of As tend to over-reward the neurotypical children lucky enough as fetuses to have the foresight to choose parents with enough disposable income to support and help their children’s ability to accumulate As through tutors, enrichment activities, and private lessons.
As an educator, ideally, I want to reject this economy. However, practically, I work to pivot students and parents back to the actual point of the class: obtaining proficiency or even mastery in learning the content and skills. When they ask about grades, I respond about learning, as I did with the student in the opening anecdote.
For instance, a few weeks ago, a parent shared their concerns about their child’s grade in one of my electives. Their child was earning a C-, and the parent was worried that the grade could drop as the semester drew to a close. At that time, students were working on the final essay. From a parent’s perspective, this is a perfectly legitimate consideration given the current incentives in education. But for a teacher like me, this disquiet misses the point. The student was struggling to get started with writing the essay. They stumbled through two outlines before creating a third one that ultimately allowed them to craft an essay that suffered from structural issues and revealed this student’s challenges with navigating long-form analytical writing. As the educator here, the interesting conversation for me raised questions like: Where is the student in learning the types of skills and content one does in an English high school class at this level? What strategies does the student need going forward? What strengths did the student demonstrate? What connections can the student make to other classes and disciplines: what transfers more easily and doesn’t? What can the student articulate about their understanding of their learning? When I spoke to the parent and the student, I centered the discussion on the student’s learning because it is the only approach that can actually offer actionable feedback.
The more I teach, the more I dislike grading because grades are not the appropriate kind of feedback for learning—they aren’t actionable. In “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently),” Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner explain that there are generally two types of feedback: evaluative and descriptive. “Evaluative feedback, such as a letter grade or written praise or criticism, judges student work (extrinsic), while descriptive feedback (intrinsic) provides information about how a student can become more competent” (Schinske and Tanner). They explain: studies reveal that students “receiving descriptive feedback (but not grades) on an initial assignment performed significantly better on follow-up quantitative tasks and problem-solving tasks than did students receiving grades or students receiving no feedback. Students receiving grades performed better on follow-up quantitative tasks than students receiving no feedback but did not outperform those students on problem-solving assignments. In other words, providing evaluative feedback (in this case, grades) after a task does not appear to enhance students’ future performance in problem-solving” (Schinske and Tanner). While descriptive feedback, they continue, can improve student performance, students need to read, understand, and use that feedback. The other hurdle is that descriptive feedback needs to be written in a way that students find actionable.
We’ve come across this problem in my department: How to evaluate work so that students actually read, understand, and use the feedback not only within the class but also in future classes (This type of feedback is directive–applying feedback to a future learning scenario). As a result, we, English teachers, have been collaborating on how to offer descriptive and directive feedback to privilege learning even under the umbrella of a grade economy. Our approach encompasses the following mainstays: Our writing model is process driven. We don’t average across revisions because where the student ends the semester is the evidence of learning and not where the student began. Class time is for working on the essay, other assignments, collaboration, and workshops, which also allows us to meet with students individually. We accept late work and don’t reduce points because this isn’t about learning but an executive skill. Typically, students who struggle with submitting work on time already suffer from fewer opportunities to get feedback and revise. Penalizing their work for lateness seems unnecessarily punitive. We created and are currently revising a universal grading rubric that is comment driven—descriptive. We assign metacognitions for students to reflect on their learning after completing a draft of a major assignment. They answer questions, such as: What were they successful in? What still needs work and why? On which parts would you like specific feedback? And we have recently added another metacognition upon return of the assignment. We ask students: How does teacher feedback compare to your self-assessment? This pivot has reduced the level of anxiety in English classes and also positions students to read, understand, and use our descriptive feedback. And if they don’t understand the feedback, we can discuss it with them when we meet individually. We have shifted students to feel that their full complexity can be acknowledged and their starting place of learning in English classes can’t punish them. They realize that we, their English teachers, care about their learning and want them to succeed.
This success also relies on the transparency of the grading rubric we developed years ago to decrease discrepancy and increase consistency in assignments, expectations, and grading across English classes, especially in sections of required classes. We call it the Infinity Grading Rubric and use it in all major assignments. Originally, it had seven elements. This year, we have combined elements, so there are now five, and defined them more clearly using Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity as a guide, which we read as a department. This means that our grading rubrics are easier for students to read, understand, and use, and therefore help to focus them on what matters in the assignment. We realized that these changes were necessary given what we wanted for our students as learners and as supporters of our students’ learning. Ever since implementing the grading rubric, students are less likely to challenge the grade of an assignment even when they express disappointment in the grade they earned. For students, it has been transformative in making transparent the components of a complex assignment.
We’ve also started making the connections more explicit between the learning goals of the assignment and the learning goals of the course. In all classes, we include the learning objectives on the digital bulletin board in our LMS. On the first day of class, students have to engage with this information. Essentially, all we are doing is making transparent and connecting the dots of student learning in English. We’ve also started asking students to reflect on what they learned about themselves as learners at the end of the semester that they will not only take into the next semester but is also useful for themselves as learners in general.
Since we operate in a grading economy that can sometimes feel both overwhelming and boring for us as individual teachers and departments to resist, reshape, and even reject, we must use what we know from the science of learning to shift our grading practices as much as possible, so that students focus on what matters and what matters is what is ultimately rewarded. So yes, grading is a tedious extrinsic motivator. But if we care about student learning, we need to figure out how to keep on redirecting students to the learning and the intrinsic.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jeannette Lee-Parikh for Intrepid Ed News.