Like most teachers, I would love almost every minute of my job if I didn’t have to grade. You might think I hate grading because it’s time consuming (and it is), or that I hate the responsibility of assigning a rather arbitrary system of letters to people’s works (and that’s true, too), but the real reason I hate grading is that it doesn’t seem to be absorbed. By that I mean, students don’t seem to learn much from grading.

I imagine that part of this problem arises because students don’t really read my comments or try to apply them. I think they see grades and comments as “done deals” that don’t apply to their overall progress as writers. This is certainly frustrating, but I’m not sure it’s the full problem. When I tutor, the students do often show the ability to process the information and apply it to their writing, so it’s not the lack of knowledge of the obscurity of my commentary that seems to be the problem.

Instead, the problem seems to be with the grades themselves. Something about applying a grade to something makes the students see it as “done” and finished. The grade was the goal, and now that the grade has been achieved, the system of learning – at least as it pertains to that writing project – is over. This is why I hate grading – grading seems to be countereffective. It seems to shut down learning rather than encouraging it.

I have tried to not assign grades, but that choice causes the students to operate in a state of near-panic throughout the semester. They have been so thoroughly taught that the grade is what determines their success or failure in the class that they are unable to see feedback – no matter how copious and thoughtful – as a means of evaluation. This seems a sad state of affairs.

I expect public school teachers feel even more strongly about grades since they have the added burden of standardized tests to consider as they teach. What would I do if I not only had to assign grades but also had to teach specifically for a test?

Is there a way we can get past grades? If so, I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ve tried portfolios and written evaluations without grades. I’ve tried giving grades but still allowing students to revise. I’ve tried some graded assignments and some not graded assignments. Nothing seems to work.

I think what we need as an educational system is a complete overhaul, one that looks to the thinking ability of students and considers their ability to learn and make progress. We need a system that looks beyond memorization and standardized tasks/tests to evaluate learning, one that takes into account various learning styles and methods of evaluation. I am heartened to see these ideas coming more into the discussions around teaching, but yet, we’re not nearly far enough along on this path. We need real reformers to help make this change. I’m going to keep trying to be one of them.

What do you think about grades? As a teacher? As a student? What methods of evaluation and encouragements are most effective?

Grade Cartoon