Blog throwdown! “Grading” and other offensive words. Bonus tuba solo.

Okay Z, it’s on!

The post I was referring to, The Evolution of Grading, was, in fact, mostly about responding to student work. Readers who click the link will find that you have edited the language in the first line. That and the title say it all! Hah!

But seriously, it illuminates something that’s been bugging me for a while. We need to get very clear about the terms we use, because what exactly we are doing gets awfully muddy sometimes. “Grading” is a process whereby a student’s performance level in a task is converted into a reference symbol that allows for easy comparison, either to an outside standard or to other similar pieces of work.

“Assesement” is any process whereby we are trying to figure out how adept students are either with a body of information or with a certain skill set. There are many forms of assessment, of which grading may be one. Grading can be a highly efficient means of assessment, but it is the least rich in terms of what it tells you about a particular student.

“Responding to student work,” or “feedback” is information returned to the student, usually based on a piece or body of work, which is designed (or at least intended) to assist them in improving.

We often use the terms interchangeably, but they are not interchangeable. When we are ‘grading’ we often claim that we are engaging in ‘feedback,’ but that is only true if we offer information beyond the conversion of the work into an efficient symbol. Letters or numbers might be helpful in defining a piece of work as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘passing’ in relation to a standard or other pieces of similar work, but they do not tell students why, or what to do to improve.

‘Feedback’ might be really helpful in telling a student how to improve, but it will not, in and of itself, give them a relative sense of their performance with respect to others or a standard.

Further, there is a complicated interaction between these three ideas. Assessment is something teachers do all the time. It might be in a formal mode, or not. We are always gathering information on how the students are doing, what are they struggling with, what have they mastered. We can assess without grades. Grades are often the result of assessments at a particular point in time, which a their best give us a more general reference of student progress against standards or each other. Students do not need to know their grades to improve, and here lies the rub.

As soon as we turn the learning experience into a distilled symbol, we pull students away from learning. The symbol has power, and in the context of actual student lives, the symbol may, and often does, have more power than learning.  Ranking, high stakes, competitiveness, most of these things have very little to do with learning. Yet they are powerful.  When those symbols are offered as tools for reward or punishment we really pull students away from learning. When we give ‘grades’ in lieu of ‘feedback’ we pull students away from learning. When we make assessment into anything other than a tool for informing instruction, we pull students away from learning. Even when we give a grade and feedback at the same time, research shows that the impact of the feedback is severely lessened because of the presence of the grade.

So back to you and your post But I Am Grading, Doc Z.  You said you were ‘grading’ because,

I had to have some kind of “objective” metric for this, something that might suggest that a student is either doing really well and should have the option to work independently following instructions on my website for a given day or that a student maybe needs a bit more support and needs to be there every day.

There are two things going on there. One is the system’s love of ‘data’ or things that look like data, and the other is the very practical problem that, on the whole, the public isn’t really a fan of trusting our professional judgement in any meaningful way. I bet you have no trouble whatsoever making a call about who needs to be in class or not on your system without anything that looks like a number or a letter. However, knowing that neither the system, parents nor students will trust your judgement alone, even if you articulate it effectively (which you absolutely could if necessary- you are the most articulate person I know in describing student learning), you come up with a number (or letter) to support your decision. Your own distrust of the metric as any meaningful indicator is embedded in the phrase “might suggest.” You know it can’t tell you anything you don’t already know in a non-numerical way.

Next you show that the use of this ‘data’ is effective leverage in producing increased performance.

For example, I’ve found that they will decide to rewrite papers more often than they did in the past to bring up a paper grade to bring up their overall grade to maintain the option to choose on those optional days. I honestly don’t care what inspires my students to choose to rewrite–I’m thrilled that this particular grade leverage is getting more of them to rewrite than ever before.

Which I have no doubt it is. They’ve been offered a reward in return for performance, which can be pretty effective for short term mechanical tasks. But you aren’t asking them to do short term mechanical things. You are asking them to really think and engage the writing process, which I know ’cause we talk about it ALL THE TIME. The problem is that offering mechanical rewards for performance increase in complex cognitive tasks actually decreases performance. See this post for the speed version, for the long version read Daniel Pink’s Drive and the associated research. Further, as CWP (Colorado Writing Project) people, we spend a lot of time talking about teaching students that writing is a life activity that has inherent reward and meaning, not hoop jumping process that is undertaken for an external reward. So actually motivation does matter.


And as long as I have way too many students and not enough time in my day to manage all the aspects of my job without staying up until after midnight on a school night, responding to student work without affixing grades feels arduous so it deserves the term “grading.”

And there, as I said earlier, is the rub (wait, I think someone else said that!) So really the problem is more systemic than anything else. Given the context we work in, it is really tough not to go for the efficient, but much less rich, mode of ‘grading,’ especially when we will be forced to defend complex technical judgements in public against the assaults  of non-experts. Numbers look authoritative. Also, embedded (and unexamined) in our working lives, are all kinds of expectations that have absolutely nothing to do with student learning and lots to do with serving other interests. Ranking and sorting students serves little to no educational purpose at all, yet it is built into a tremendous amount of what we are asked to do.

And grades are efficient, and when you have 30-35 students per section in a writing intensive course that meets four to five times per week, and five sections per semester, efficiency becomes essential to survival. It runs counter to actual education, of course, but we are just human after all. We have to survive to teach another day.

So once again, what we should be doing, developmentally, pedagogically, morally, is pitted against a system that is simply not built to do what we say we want it to do. Your students may need some form of compliance system to get them moving at all (not all of them I know, but the ones you worry about). The side effect is not good, but I get how useful it might seem (I am not free of compliance structures myself). My students have so bought into the meaningless rewards of grade symbols and the way they are used as currency that they pursue the grades with a complete disregard for learning (again, not ALL of them, but enough that it is a serious concern).

So you are grading Z, and I am trying desperately not to. And either way we get hosed by the system. And in the midst of all that we still do meaningful assessment, ask them to engage in some pretty cool work, which they often do willingly, and some pretty great learning does occur. But wouldn’t it be great if we had a system that really served these kids. Really, wouldn’t that be great? Then we could all hold hands and sing kumbaya right?! No?

Kumbaya in a tuba solo. A perfect end to this post. Happy Friday.

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One Response to Blog throwdown! “Grading” and other offensive words. Bonus tuba solo.

  1. Pingback: Ways to keep your students working without points (#StopGrading) | The Paper Graders

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