Making grades work for you

As my good buddy Lord Tennyson (almost) wrote, in spring a young writing teacher’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of grading. Or something like that. With the end of the semester approaching, papers piling up, students turning pale/red/purple/mahogany when you return graded essays, frantic emails from some said students about grades, and reminders from the university about when/how grades are to be submitted, it’s difficult not to have grading on the mind.

The pleasure most writing teachers feel while grading essays probably stands in inverse proportion to the large amount of time we spend engaged in it. Personally, while dealing with them is hardly one of my favorite parts of the job, I do think that grades can be a quite useful tool for the classroom, not only in the area of assessment but also to the end of motivating students. To enhance that effect, I believe that it is also possible to minimize one of the elements of grading that many instructors hate—student complaints about them. While my students would certainly vouch for the fact that I am not an easy grader, I rarely get a genuine complaint, which makes it much easier to use grading as I want. Here is a fairly random listing of approaches and tactics I use to such ends.

Objectivity: Grades are always, in my opinion, at least somewhat arbitrary, since our decisions about what components matter and how much are partly subjective. Unsurprisingly, students are often doubly unsure about such elements, causing the connection between their work and their grades to be somewhat opaque to many. I try to compensate for these issues by being as clear as I can to my students about exactly what is being graded and why. Not only does that make grading easier for me, since I have a very clear set of parameters for myself, but it makes explicating student grades and encouraging revision much easier.

 Responsibility: I invariably tell students early in the semester that I don’t grade on a curve; that earning an A in my class takes a lot of effort, but I will give them every opportunity to do so and be there whenever they need help to that end; and that if they each earn an A at the end of the semester I will happily hand out 20 As (and 20 Fs if they deserve it), even if I have to arm-wrestle the chair to persuade her that the grade distribution is acceptable. All of these are true, but, more importantly, they emphasize—as I spell out to my students—that grades in the class are not simply being handed out by me, but are something that they are individually earning. The responsibility is on my students, with my role being to facilitate and provide opportunities, which it is up to them to use. Whether they actually take up that responsibility or not, it makes them view grades in a manner that I much prefer, and also lays the groundwork for other elements I emphasize (e.g. see Revision below).

 Multiple components/options: I like to have varied components that make up the overall grade, especially ones that vary strongly in content and emphasis. While papers and portfolios always make up the bulk of the grade, participation (for example) always counts for about 20% of it. Such an approach means that students who are particularly weak in one area always have others to fall back on. Similarly, it lets me use the differing weightage and expectations to motivate student activity. I always tell students, early in the semester, that getting an A in participation is much easier and takes less time than in a paper, since all they have to do is raise a hand and join in the conversation or other classroom activities. This awareness, bolstered by regular gradebook updates on Blackboard, causes more students to participate in class, especially since some begin to do so due to the grades but will then become comfortable with it and continue. Similarly, I like to have some options for students to control the assignment of grades, such as by letting them choose to put some essays in the portfolio and not others. I point out that this gives them a chance to accentuate the positive in their work, which I find usually leads to greater student investment and effort in the process, as well as lowering the chances of complaints about grades.

Revision: Emphasizing revision can have a very positive effect on student grades (and attitudes to them). I provide unlimited rewrite options in my classes, with no averaging of grades. A student who rewrites a D paper into an A gets an A. Students are allowed (and encouraged) to rewrite papers as many times as they need to. Papers, of course, get voluminous feedback aimed at revision, with (for example) a 1500+ word paper getting approximately 500+ words of commentary. This approach not only dramatically increases the willingness of students to rewrite papers and take revision seriously, but makes them far less likely to complain about grades. Virtually every time I have asked students for feedback about my grading, I am told that I’m a tough grader and they would have complained about the grades if not for the rewrite option and the volume of feedback, which reassures them that they aren’t stuck with a poor grade, have every opportunity to improve the grades, and only have themselves to blame for whatever they end up with. Similarly, every semester I have a few students who, instead of complaining about poor grades, will actually apologize to me for not doing enough with the rewrite option to improve them.

 Transparency: The combination of elements that make up their grade tends to be quite arcane to many students, so I emphasize transparency in the classroom. I spend time on and break down the components of the grade early in the semester, and whenever we encounter a new element, I explain its role, weightage and relevance (I often explain why I grade that element too). Similarly, from the time I return the first paper, I set up the gradebook on Blackboard and regularly upgrade it, sending out an email whenever I do. I encourage students to ask me if they have any questions or concerns about their grades and am happy to provide any information or explanation that they need. For example, a student who asks about participation will probably get a response that includes information about absences, how many days they didn’t say a word in the classroom, its mathematical influence on their overall grade, chances for improving it by the end of the semester, etc. Hence, even if they don’t necessarily agree with my components, weightage or actual grades, students feel as if they are well-informed about exactly why they are getting the grades that they are receiving and what they can do about it. Hence, they are far less likely to complain about the grades and, in some cases, to work harder in the areas where they are being regularly reminded that they are falling short.

The not-so-secret secret: At the end of the day, while I would like my students to do well in my class and elsewhere, I’m not that concerned about the grades they get. I want them to walk out of my class as better writers, more critical thinkers and, hopefully, better future citizens. If good grades come along with that, that’s a bonus, not a primary aim. So I tell students that. And I also point out something that, I think, most instructors do not—that, in the greater scheme of things, their grades probably don’t matter. For the majority of my students, once they graduate with a degree, their GPA and, certainly, their freshman comp grades will be utterly irrelevant to their chances of getting a job, their future career, and the rest of their life. So I mention that. Perhaps surprisingly, while this little revelation may cause a few students to put in less work, I often find that the awareness of it simply causes most of them to worry less about the grade and focus more on other, more important, elements of the class.

As noted above, I use these approaches because they work well for me, allowing grades to function as I want them to—as motivation, as markers of good work, as something that students should strive for, without complaints if they fail to do so. I’m curious to hear what other instructors do to achieve such ends, if any of these approaches work for you too, if you have any completely different approaches to share, and, of course, any questions about the above.

Your turn…


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