on grading

We can talk about how grading is a part of teaching. We can talk about survival strategies for getting it done. But at a certain point, I have to wonder—why do we do it to ourselves?

This semester, I tried something new. Labor-based grading. Instead of assessing an essay with a number or percentage for success or failure, I awarded points to students who followed directions. If you turned in every major assignment, and they were up to spec, you were guaranteed at least a B in my class. There’s some research behind it, and it’s tied in with antiracist pedagogy.

Throughout the semester, something else emerged, something that I was aiming for with this experiment: a different relationship with assessment. Instead of focusing on how well students could use standard english, my feedback became focused on how well they accomplished the rhetorical goals of each project. I could send them on “side-quests” to improve their grammar and mechanical skills if necessary, but in my own feedback, I could focus on things like the strength of arguments, how well organized their ideas were, how they flowed or didn’t flow. And that shift in focus created a similar shift in focus for my students, one that, by the end of the semester, resulted in, for the most part, an improvement in their writing.

That’s not to say that the only thing in the class that contributed to this improvement was my assessment philosophy for the class. There were daily writings, diverse readings. All sorts of tricks that I worked into the class to encourage their success. But in shifting their attention away from grades, away from worrying about how well they could adhere to prescriptionist guidelines that they might or might not have encountered before, they were able to focus on the writing. And in reflection after reflection, I see them not wondering why they were graded the way they were, but what choices made their artifacts work overall.

So here I sit at the end of another semester, and I find myself grading another stack of essays. I have always done a kind of capstone project to encompass the lessons I’ve taught over the course of the semester. And, as I commisserate with other teachers over this end of semester push to clear all the piles, I find myself wondering why. Timing is a real issue, of course. If you need a certain amount of writing in a course, then you might just have to assign a kind of final essay.

Evaluation is another good reason. If you’re approaching grading from a traditional standpoint, then that final essay shows to you, the teacher, just how much a student has really improved over the course.

But my focus this semester has been less on students proving to me that they learn something and more about helping them along the way to success. Walking with them as I teach them new skills. So, as I stare at my own stack of essays, I can’t help but wonder if this final paper was, strictly speaking, necessary. Does it serve a purpose or am I just doing it to make my students prove that they learned something to me? Is it student focused, or is it just because I still haven’t completely overcome the notion that the professor is the center of the classroom?

I wish I had an easy answer. But this is one of those questions that I’m going to keep working on, keep struggling with, and ultimately keep addressing and readdressing as long as I’m a teacher.

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