As I noted in my previous post, grading has become the bane of my existence. At times, it’s bad enough that I worry about becoming an educational statistic—the new teacher who leaves the field within the first five years. Again, as I stated previously, there are many things I love about my job, but if there’s one thing that could push me over the edge, it would be grading.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my approach to grading—specifically, to grading writing assignments. These, I find, take the majority of my time, and the subjective nature of such a task creates undue stress, both on my students and myself. I find that many students are excessively grade-driven (in other words, they’re less concerned with how to become a better writer than with “why they didn’t receive an A”—even though those two things are often one and the same). With that in mind, my goals for any such change were as follows:

  1. The new approach would teach students that good writing is a process—a process of writing, revision, and lastly, engagement (and, quite possibly, criticism) in the “marketplace of ideas.”
  2. The new approach would reduce the stress—if not the workload—associated with grading written work, particularly the trouble of subjectively distinguishing between various letter grades as well as +/- grades.
  3. The new approach would place responsibility for any grade earned squarely on the shoulders of the student, minimizing or eliminating complaints about grades.

In pondering these goals extensively, I’ve come to realize that a “perfect” system probably doesn’t exist. I’m not sure there’s a way to achieve all four of those things, unless, of course, you are Superman. (And if that is the case, please show yourself, because everyone’s waiting for you.) I’m no Superman, but I’ve come up with four different ideas that might potentially solve my own problem, and I apologize if the different scenarios are confusing. I’m not sure which I might end up using, but either way, I probably won’t make a change until next school year in any case.In the meantime, I welcome any comments.

Idea 1
With Idea 1, I would grade essays in the traditional manner, but allow students to revise and re-submit a certain number of essays per grading period.

Pros: Simplicity—easy to explain, easy to follow; Would give students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and might reduce grade complaints; Would spread out the workload for grading of revisions (not all students would revise the same essays)

Cons: Might teach the “process” but students would likely remain focused on the grade, seeing the revision process only as the means to an end—not an end in itself; Would not solve the problem of subjectivity in grading

Idea 2
With Idea 2, I would grade all essays pass/fail, but with a fairly high standard for “pass” (likely in the neighborhood of what would traditionally be a B). Essays earning a “pass” on the first attempt would receive an A. Essays earning a pass on the second attempt receive a B. Essays earning a pass on the third attempt receive a C. Essays not passing after three attempts would receive an F.

Pros: Would certainly teach students that writing is a process and place the responsibility on their shoulders

Cons: Would likely create more work for me as many students would be forced to resubmit essays (as a result, I would likely need to reduce the number of writing assignments per grading period and not offer comments on grammar, etc.)

Idea 3
With Idea 3, I would assign essays a “grade” of check, check-plus, or check-minus. A check-plus would be roughly equivalent to a B (or better), a check would be roughly equivalent to a C, while a check-minus would be a D/F (needs significant improvement/failing). Students would be allowed to revise each essay once. Essays earning a check-plus on the first attempt receive an A, while essays earning a check-plus on the second attempt receive a B.

Pros: Accomplishes the three primary goals by emphasizing the process, placing the responsibility on student shoulders, and eliminating the distinctions between +/- grades

Cons: Still requires a clear delineation between B, C, and F (the third goal is not as thoroughly accomplished); Like the second idea, all the revisions might create a significant increase in grading workload

Idea 4
Inspired by Alfie Kohn’s article “From Degrading to De-Grading,” Idea 4 would eliminate assignment grades entirely. Instead of offering grades, I would provide only comments, but allow students to revise any essay as they see fit. At the end of each grading period, I would conduct individual meetings with students to discuss/decide a course grade based on quality of work.

Pros: Removes most—if not all—stress associated with grading, freeing up my time and energy to focus on constructive feedback; Reduces or eliminates ongoing tension within the teacher-student relationship and makes the grading process more democratic and conversational; Along those lines, would force students to reflect self-critically on their own performance

Cons: Might encounter significant resistance from multiple constituencies (students, parents, colleagues, administrators) because it would be a radical shift for my school culture; Students, in particular, might feel “lost” without the security of steady grade updates and the inability to ask “what is my average?”; Students may abuse the grade determination process to “negotiate” for grades higher than what they deserve