Thursday, December 20, 2007

Grading Woes

I'm frustrated with grading.

I'm exhausted by the process of tallying points and calculating percentages. It pains me every time I must write a letter grade at the top of a student's paper. Because regardless of how well they did, my students use grades to punish themselves for what they did not learn, or worse, they use grades to punish each other. I spend hours each night adding up mistakes, circling errors. It is a disheartening task - for both me and my students. And even though I deliberate over the comments and questions I will write on each student's essay, I know that most students will only quickly glance at the grade and stuff the offending paper into the black hole that is their backpack. I find it a futile exercise. Has a student ever learned anything from a grade? No. Students don't walk out of the classroom at the end of the day and declare, "Well, I think I internalized about 86% of that lesson" or "I think I'll retain 76% of that lecture for later use in life."

Students want to learn.

Grading kills learning.

The grading process is a form of punishment. Author Alfie Kohn has written a great deal about this. At its least harmful, the assigning of letters, points, and percentages is the carrot we use to bribe our students into performing. Students learn that they must look for the reward. We train them out of being self-motivated learners by placing that constant carrot in front of them. We reward those who learn to jump through our hoops. We punish students who seek to learn outside our perimeters. Students are not encouraged to learn for the sake of learning. Learning becomes something we undertake only when extrinsically motivated. At its worse, the letter grade looms like a machete, hacking down a student's potential, opportunities, and self-confidence. Bad marks typically do not act to motivate a student. Instead, low marks reinforce a student's sense of shame, worthlessness, and hopelessness.

In talking with a colleague today, I declared that I would be a much better teacher if I didn't have to grade everything. He agreed and shared his guilt over the growing stack of papers piling in his apartment. I nodded. I, too, have a growing stack of essays and poems at home to grade over the break. But my original comment wasn’t really about the amount of work. I enjoy reading my students' essays. I learn a great deal about how they think, how they make connections, and about who they are as individuals. I enjoy giving students feedback, talking with them about their writing process. However, it is the act of assigning a number value that I am frustrated with. It is so formal, so final. The letter grade marks an end to a particular lesson or unit where I do not think an end point always belongs.

I think this is why I have been so interested in incorporating more formative assessment techniques into my teaching. I find it incredibly valuable to think about assessment not as mere data collection but rather as a tool for learning. For that reason, I've stopped grading every draft, and instead have switched some of my assignments over to comment-only grading. No letters. No numbers. Just comments. Assessment should be for learning, not simply of learning. Students don’t stop learning how to craft their writing once they’ve received a letter grade on a particular essay. Writing, like learning, is a process. Is it fair to assign grades in the middle of the process?

Some students learn this process faster than others. Where one student might struggle with understanding organizational structures for expository writing, another might learn quickly. So does the 100% we give the fast learner on that particular essay mean that she has mastered the writing process? Of course not. So what does the percentage measure? Do we grade students on how quickly they are able to pick up a skill? I don’t think most educators want to think about learning as a race.

I did not enter teaching to grade students on how fast they can perform. Learning should be about helping all students practice and improve on their skills. Some will be able to master a skill quickly and move on. Others will need quite a bit of time and practice. It just seems to me that numbers and letter grades set artificial deadlines for learning.

But, what are the alternatives?
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