Why we stopped grading our students on their writing

In our many years as college writing teachers, we have graded thousands of student essays. This year, motivated by the trauma of students during the pandemic, we have stopped.

Don’t get me wrong: we always carefully read and comment on our students’ work. But we no longer put a letter or number on everything they write. No A and B. No 82 or 94.

Their writing has never been better.

The pedagogical approach we use is called “contract grading”, which is spreading in universities, especially in writing programs like ours at Boston University. Though there is numerous manners for structure this, contractual grading usually involves minimum expectations for students to achieve a final course grade. These expectations are not related to performance: attending classes and participating, meeting due dates, meeting the criteria for each assignment, doing substantive reviews, etc. – the types of “activities and behaviors that will lead to learning”, as composition researcher Peter Elbow Put the. In other words, do the work, earn the mark.

A politically conservative student said she finally felt comfortable writing about her beliefs without getting bitten.

The ranking of contracts is part of the broader “downgrading” movement, the subject of a recent anthology edited by anthropologist Susan D. Blum. The book’s subtitle – “Why student assessment harms learning (and what to do instead)” – sums up the basic premise. Letter notes often act as a motivational tool. But external motivations override internal motivations like curiosity and interest, mindsets that drive real learning. Downgrading inspires – and enables – risk-taking. It encourages students to focus on the process rather than the product, instilling habits of mind that matter beyond the classroom. Of the 100+ instructors in my program, nearly half have employed contract grading in some form this semester.

In the form we use, students who complete the contract get a B+. Those looking for something in the A range – and many do – choose from a menu of additional opportunities that reinforce our course goals, earning bonus points for each: form a semester-long writing group, share a article they read on their own with the class, design and facilitate a peer-to-peer workshop. Such activities encourage collaboration and community building inside and outside the classroom. Student engagement in the course (and each other) has never been more apparent to us. Could it be because they no longer see themselves as competitors for the rare resource of A?

The approach can be used in any classroom. But it makes perfect sense in a writing course, where the assessment is highly unreliable, even by the same reader. Who has never heard a student complain about having failed an assignment because his teacher did not agree with his opinion? Who hasn’t felt different about something we read after a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee? There is no single formula for good writing. Instructors feel it in their bones every time they grade an essay, agonizing over how to whittle competing variables down to a single score. Now, the feedback we leave for students is not written to justify a particular grade. Instead, they capture an actual reader’s response to their writing, and students take a closer look at those comments to gauge their success. One benefit we didn’t expect: A politically conservative student said she finally felt comfortable writing about her beliefs without getting bitten.

[C]Our grades now reflect the work done by students, not the value of their school district’s properties.

There is also a crucial fairness element here. Typically, the students who tend to get the best writing grades are native English speakers with highly educated parents — students who have attended the best high schools, those with smaller class sizes, teachers who have more time to give their opinion and even private lessons. on the side. But as universities diversify their student populations, more and more of our students are coming from underfunded schools. The architect of the type of filing contract that many of us employ, Asao Inoue, argued that all forms of assessment “exist within systems that uphold singular and dominant norms” must be dismantled. We always rate student writing in our reviews. But course grades now reflect the work done by students, not the value of properties in their school district.

We can understand the opponents because we were also skeptical: doesn’t this encourage students to turn in mediocre work? Maybe, but a handful of students have always done it and got away with it. What is striking is what such concern says about us: filing and sorting are embedded in our notions of education. It’s hard to shake, especially for our students, because focusing on the grade is what got them into these classrooms in the first place. We want to give them the opportunity to experience what it’s like to break out of this system and learn for fun – to pursue their curiosity, experiment and fail without hurting their GPA.

Take a student who, near the end of her project, contacted the artist she was writing about to get his thoughts on her criticism of his public installations. She knew that this late-game development could jeopardize the argument she had carefully constructed; who knew what he would say, how his point of view might change his? We’ve seen this time and time again as our students try new approaches with an open mind, letting go of that fear of failing the assignment. And there is also something for us educators: all the practices we use result from collaborations with our colleagues at a time when we had to rethink our pedagogy.

Could there be a better time to institute contract grading in colleges? The current university model is being questioned. Undergraduate students are increasingly skeptical of institutions that burden them with years of debt and fail to deliver on their promises. Facing an uncertain future, student anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing. Now is the time to return to one of life’s most basic joys: learning.

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Scott R. Banks