Grading and feedback are often conflated. For nearly a decade I used the term “grading” as a synonym for nearly any type of response to writing without so much as flinching, but I know now that they are actually very different and in some ways opposing activities.
Grades are where we rank students by placing them into boxes. At its core, the goal of grades is essentially to divide the “winners” from the “losers.”
Feedback, on the other hand, is the information we give to writers to help them rise to the next level. At its core, the goal of feedback is make everyone a winner.
While grades and feedback are often tied together, a number of studies in recent years have called this classic pairing into question for the following reasons:
- When a grade is present, student attention and mental energy tends to focus on the grade, limiting the attention and energy paid to other feedback present.
- The grade serves as an indicator to many students that an assignment and the associated learning is done.
- When students are ashamed by a low grade, they often avoid the feedback as a defense against further embarrassment.
- When students are surprised by an unexpectedly high grade, they tend to bask in the grade while growing disinterested in further growth because they have already achieved more than they expected.
- A constant stream of either low and high grades can reinforce a fixed mindset in students that they are “good” or “bad” writers. Either one of these can slow writing growth because the “good” writers will often feel they can let their foot off the gas while the “bad” writers often feel that it isn’t even worth the effort.
Add these all together and what you get is a pretty significant problem. As writing teachers we often kill ourselves giving feedback to our 140, 150, or 160 students, and yet when we mix that feedback with grades, our messages get muted, if not lost all together.
So what are we to do? In an ideal world the solution might be to get rid of grades, and indeed there are some very interesting experiments with going gradeless across the country. Unfortunately, my district requires me to put in grades every week, so as it currently stands they are a necessary (or at least required) evil in my classroom.
Instead, I seek to mitigate the damage grades can do to feedback in the following ways:
- I’ve written about this in previous posts, but I pour the majority of my feedback into formative stages. This has been found to nearly double the speed of student writing growth and significantly cut all sorts of achievement gaps that commonly exist in the classroom, in large part because it separates the feedback from the grade.
- I always return previous final drafts on the day that students set goals for their next paper. I’ve found this helps them to see that the feedback on the final draft of one paper can be used as a tool for future improvement.
- I give lots of feedback on what I call targeted writes, which are short, largely ungraded, pieces of writing along the way that aim to improve student understanding of certain concept/s. For example, when I teach argumentative writing, I have them do a short write where I require them to use certain argumentative/rhetorical devices. To get feedback to them quickly, I usually use quick rubrics like the following (which is for that assignment) that are focused on feedback, not a grade.
- I do conferencing and micro-conferencing, neither of which is graded, for each major paper.
- I delay major grades until the later weeks of the 1st and 3rd quarter, as this gives students time to build positive writing identities that are more influenced by feedback than grades.
Writing teachers spend thousands of hours over the years responding to student writing, so it is worth our while to make sure that our students receive those messages. Reflection can help with that and so can keeping our feedback focused, but ultimately nothing might be more important to making sure feedback is heard than simply separating it from grades!
Yours in teaching,
Let me help you!
Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.