Question of the day – Student discouragement due to grades

Here’s a new question (thanks to Mike Laser), about an issue that many of us have faced:
How do you keep students from getting discouraged and resentful when their essay grades are lower than they hoped for? A few of my students seemed much less happy by the end of the semester than they were at the beginning, because they’d worked hard but still hadn’t earned A’s. I want them to feel encouraged, not discouraged – but many of them seemed disappointed, upset, and even fatalistic by the time they saw their second and third essay grades.
How do all of you handle this?

12 thoughts on “Question of the day – Student discouragement due to grades

  1. I have no answer but want to also add that I’ve actually had students stop coming to class after a low first essay grade (one stopped coming to class so far this semester). I had two stop last semester. This despite their first essay grade being almost negligible in terms of the overall higher course grade they can still earn! I tell them this, that the first essay grade is really just a warm-up, practice, and that it’s a chance to use specific strategies in a low-risk way. I’m interested in what others might advise.

  2. I tell them that writing is hard and takes practice and that if they’re unhappy with their grades, they need to do three things: (1) come see me so we can discuss ways to improves, (2) go to the Writing Lab/use the online writing tutor service, and (3) follow directions. I also try to encourage them to see how much better they’re doing compared to the beginning of the semester.

    I might suggest the teacher use a reflection exercise so students can talk about ways they’ve improved since the beginning.

  3. Yes, I’m constantly trying to provide incentives for the hard work of writing — without feeding the students better grades simply for “effort.” I’m with you!

    This semester I’m trying (though adapting) Shil’s policy of “unlimited rewrites.” (He’s given a detailed and thoughtful explanation of the policy on this blog.) From the time my students receive their grade, they have a week to rewrite their essay, and the grade on the rewrite, if higher, completely replaces the original grade. (I’ve given them extensive feedback on draft 3 to guide their efforts, and am using class workshops/peer review/individual conferences to help them shape drafts 1 and 2 instead of written feedback from me.) I’m hoping this will eliminate the “fatalism” you describe. After all, the opportunity is now theirs to boost that grade!

    It does seem like a lot of kids have coasted by with bad writing and gotten A’s and B’s, so they’re shocked by a true rendering of their skills. To cushion the blow, I give them advance warning of the department’s high standards — that the average final grade across the course is generally C+, and that A’s are really rare. If they get a B, that’s a relatively very good grade! (The top grade on their first essay this semester — before rewrites — was B.)

    Another thought is offering a post-mortem: invite students to confer with you, one-on-one, on their graded essays. Those who are truly working hard will take you up on the offer and be more likely to listen to your specific suggestions, and then put them to use on the next assignment.

    I, too, look forward to other thoughts….

    • As Joanmarie Kalter mentioned, I use my nutty unlimited rewrite policy (I put the link at the end of this post, in case anyone’s interested), which completely removes this issue for me. I’m a tough grader and my students tend to have the same sort of initial grades as she mentioned, but the fact that they get another shot at it and aren’t stuck with the grade seems to completely change the dynamic of their responses. Even the ones who don’t do rewrites respond differently just because the option is always there, treating their grades much more as something that is theirs to deal with and change if they are willing to, than something that I control and am handing to them.

      Of course, as I always say, going this route is madness (but I see some people are embracing it!), so there’s that.

      • Joanmarie and Shil –
        I have done the unlimited rewrites thingie (technical term!) but I found that students took several approaches to it: 1) hastily “rewrote” essays near the end of the term to try and raise flagging grades, resulting in a flood of last minute papers, 2) their rewrites were not rewrites, and it became an issue of them trying to argue that they “worked so hard on it,” without really understanding what rewrites were, 3) some plagiarized their rewrites, which I believe is because they didn’t know what else to write in order to get a better grade, 4) they would sometimes use it as an excuse or crutch to not put full effort into the drafts and final submissions.
        Mediating these issues as well as the extra grading time was exhausting. I didn’t believe, for me, that it helped them progress as intended. I’m also flirting with the philosophy that, even though writing is an ongoing process and I give them plenty of time to complete assignments in and out of class, having strict deadlines better prepares them for writing and work they will do in other classes and professionally. I’ve found conferencing to be a much better way to help them with feelings of discouragement, IF I can get them to meet with me. I require it, but for some, they seem to give up before I get a chance to talk to them individually about their writing (I don’t believe this is just an issue of discouragement with their writing, I think for many students, the stress of all their other responsibilities overwhelms them). I’ve also built in other ways that they can get the credit they need – extra credit assignments, engaging in public debates, etc. and those seem to help as well. Like Akilah above, I also heavily promote the CWE.
        Not saying unlimited rewrites doesn’t work – clearly it does for some- but for me it didn’t.

      • Unlimited rewrites wouldn’t work for me either. I teach five writing classes, so it’s completely unfeasible, especially since I feel like I spend all time grading anyway. I really try to focus on writing as process, and I also make sure no one paper is the be-all end-all of their grade. I also make the papers worth more as we go along to reinforce the idea that they should be getting better as we go.

  4. I just dealt with this today. A student emailed me to let me know he “wasn’t questioning my grade,” but really, that’s just what he was doing. I found myself getting defensive and had to reign it in. (I mean, I spent a long time on that essay! How DARE he??) Instead, I calmed down and addressed each and every one of his concerns, including the main concern that he had never gotten a C+ in his entire life and it was “unacceptable” to him.

    What I tried to explain to this student was that a C+, no matter what he learned in high school, is not a “bad” grade at all. In fact, it’s above average and what it does that is great is leaves much room for revision and improvement as the class moves forward. I tried to make him see that, although it wasn’t what he was expecting, there were some areas where he could improve that would help him to achieve higher grades on future essays.

    I have found that being honest really helps here. He needed to know where he could improve and that those improvements would be necessary for success moving forward. In the end (and I could have just been lucky that he was so open to my comments), he was grateful for the direction and said he felt better about his grade.

    I know all students are not this grateful and many can be downright confrontational. I’ve had students say outright that I’m wrong, or that they didn’t “deserve” the grade I gave them. It’s hard because I know deep down they are just hurting from what is much lower than they expected. I think the best way to deal with it is honesty and making yourself available to talk to or email with them. Communication really does make all the difference. That’s my two cents.

    All of that said, I bumped into Emily Hoeflinger in the hallway today and we have a short talk about this and she said something that really stuck with me: “The problem is, most students won’t email you, and then they are just discouraged and give up in the class.” Ah yes. Therein lies the rub. What do you do with this?

    • Oh I’ve had that exact conversation more times than I care to remember, Sarah! I have several things I do now to try and preempt it, with varying degrees of success. Before they even write their first essay, I prep them by discussing all the ways college writing is different from high school writing, and by telling them that their writing is being held to a new a higher standard than ever before so it’s natural that they wouldn’t do as “well” as they’ve done in the past. We also talk a bit about grade inflation, and the strict grading standards FYW at MSU holds itself to. I also flat out tell them that students are often surprised at the grade on their first essay–that it’s often lower they are expecting it to be.
      However, I also stress that if they’re willing to put in the time and work, they will improve. I tell them that I don’t care where they start as a writer, I care where they end up at the end of the semester. I changed my grading breakdown this semester to better reflect this too. I’m counting their final portfolio as 60% of their total grade for the course because I want them to care less about their individual essay grades and more about the writing/revising process. I did have a few students still come to me frustrated about their first essay grade; however, once I showed them how the math would work out, they perked up a bit.

  5. So I’m not sure how much this will help those dealing with discouraged students in the present moment; however, I do think it adds to the discussion on how we as writing teachers can change our curricula to prevent this inevitability.

    I taught as a graduate student for Binghamton University’s Writing Initiative. They had a pretty radical system for their equivalent course of ENWR105. Students wrote 3 essays throughout the semester. Final drafts were due at certain points, but no grades were given. The final drafts would just receive comments and a special ABCD rubric filled in. At the very end of the semester the students had to turn in all three essays as a portfolio. This was given a grade as a whole (no individual grades for the essays). If a student hadn’t turned in a final draft during the semester, the portfolio wouldn’t be accepted and was given an F.

    Naturally, I think students found this frustrating. I would get a lot of “well, what would my grade be” comments. But I do think it really helped prevent or at least mitigated that first bad grade feeling, especially compared to other courses I have taught. They could see my comments, and they could see on the rubric the areas where they struggled or did well. And because there was no actual grade attached, they were (1) forced to actually read the comments and not just concentrate on the grade and (2) knew that they had the rest of the semester to get the essays to that coveted A they wanted.

    • I really like the approach that Erika describes above, and wish we could do something similar here! In our first unit of the semester, which focused on education, several of my classes engaged in a rather heated debate about whether or not grades themselves are useful, so it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot. Many of my students have expressed opinions along the lines of “This class would be so much less stressful if it were just pass or fail!”

      However, since our current requirements for first-year writing specify a certain number of essays and a certain percentage of the final grade that must be based on those essays, for the moment, I’m still grading essays. Like Joanmarie and Sarah, I give my students a talk about the strict level of grading that we try to maintain, and about grade inflation, before they turn in the first essay.

      Something new I’m trying as well this semester is a “revision plan” homework assignment that students do after getting back a graded essay. The idea is to try to get them to look beyond the grade (and their disappointment or satisfaction with it) and to quickly move on to thinking about the next step: how they can make this essay better. I’m happy to say that so far, I think this approach is helping. Maybe it doesn’t completely erase any discouragement a student may feel over that first C, but it’s an immediate reminder that the student gets another shot at that essay when it comes to the portfolio, and it pushes them to consider the comments rather than just the grade, since they have to be specific about what parts of the essay they plan to focus on when they revise.

  6. I’m late to the party on this, but I just wanted to endorse the heavily weighted portfolio approach. My essays during the course of the semester are 10 – 15%. This low-risk grading mitigates some of the discouragement students feel, keeps them open to feedback and (dare-I-say?!) engaging with the process of writing—trying new things. My final portfolio is at least 40% and students choose which two essays they would like to revise which gives them the opportunity to apply all that they’ve learned and ultimately benefits their end grade. If nothing, they understand that.

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