Reflections on a Grading Experiment & Students Respond

This past fall I tried something for the first time. I even wrote about it here. For the first couple of months of the school year, I did not give my students grades on their written work.

Instead I gave them a lot of feedback about their writing, using a variety of methods, mostly involving questions. For the students this was a pretty significant paradigm shift. I explained that it was an experiment. I also explained that for the first two months of the term I would give everyone a “B” for the monthly grade reports, a reporting requirement of the school where I work. It was a a necessary way to game the system a little in order to pull off the experiment and see what it would yield.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, now that the semester was finished and the final grades all in the books, I conducted a survey of the students to get a sense of their reactions.

I asked the students to write their general reactions tot he delayed grading. Additionally, I asked them to consider what they thought worked well and what didn’t in delaying the grades. I also asked them why I did it, in part to see if they remembered my explanation, as well as relating whether they thought delaying the grades actually worked well, based on the reason they mentioned.

It was an imperfect and informal assessment, to be sure. Many might have been even simply trying to give me what they thought I wanted to hear. Yet, the results were kind of surprising.

I had 64 freshmen honors English students first semester. Two of them switched to one of my colleagues classes and I inherited six new students this semester. That meant that 62 student could provide meaningful responses to the survey. Of that total 37 students commented completely positively, that’s a stunning 60%. Only 15 students were definitively negative, about 24% and 10, or 16%, expressed comments that could best be described as mixed.

Nothing prepared me for such a significantly positive reaction. When we discussed their comments in class, prior to my seeing the written responses, the comments were much more mixed if not possibly more negative. Of course only the most steadfast students were inclined to speak publicly. More than anything, however, the depth of thought in the responses, both positive and negative, was even more encouraging.

I must confess that during the first couple of months I was not providing grades there were some occasional complaints, but they were less than I expected. Still, the retrospective comments to the negative are interesting and informative. For example, one student felt that with “a grade right away, we know where to improve quicker.” Another student was similarly frustrated, explaining that giving an estimate wasn’t “fair,” because “some students are better than a ‘B’.” She also suggested starting with a graded assignment as a gauge, which seems like a reasonable request

These two comments are particularly insightful and definitely something I will consider. Despite providing a lot of varied feedback to indicate how well students were doing, offering an early graded assignment as a kind of pre-test, benchmark type of assessment could be useful, especially considering how conditioned students are to grades.

Most of the other negative comments expressed that the lack of grades “caused [them] to slack off a bit” in the early going, since the monthly grade report would show a “B” regardless. Of course that decision was entirely made on their own, but it is a clear window into the mind of many students. The lack of certainty about their overall, cumulative grade made some uncomfortable and caused them to feel as though they did not have sufficient time to recover once I did begin handing back assignments with grades in addition to feedback. Ironically, my class is heavily weighted in favor of later assignments, including a writing portfolio.

On the other side, the students that responded more positively commented about the same uncertainty as a motivator. One student explained, it “made me try harder, because I didn’t want a ‘B.’ I wanted a better grade.” Again, students did receive feedback to guide areas of improvement and were even given opportunities to revise their work and improve.

Other students picked up on the focal shift and potential for different outcomes. One stated, “I knew that as the semester went on, I would improve more, and I didn’t have to worry about being stressed for a good grade in the beginning.” This sentiment about reduced stress was echoed by a number of students. In fact, a number of students responding in the positive mentioned how delaying the grades actually reduced their level of stress.

Another student claimed, the delay “really helped me for when I struggled, it gave me less stress and I was able to focus on fixing my work.” So some of the students did recognize and understand a shift in focus to revision and improvement of their writing. In fact, one student resoundingly stated, “I really liked it, because we were just learning all about new stuff. So we had a chance to improve and get into things.” Perhaps this last student understood my intentions best of all.

Arguably the most fascinating comments came from those with the mixed feelings. All students in this category expressed both positive and negative feelings in their reactions, even drawing clear distinctions between thoughts. However, the nuanced realization that it might have been successful despite their not liking it at all. One student even phrased it as such, “It was a good idea, but I didn’t like it.” Yet another explaining that it was “annoying” but ultimately successful, because “it made me work harder to get [my grade] up, in case it was low,” reflecting some of the more positive sentiments. I was not entirely expecting to see the subtle recognition that while they might not have liked it at all, they thought it was a good idea, in some ways maybe even helpful.

Reading through the student responses helped me clarify some of my thinking about the experience. I am fairly certain that I will repeat it. In the past, I have often balked at the first monthly grade report altogether anyway, because even school administrators have conceded that the first report can be wildly skewed in some cases. Next time, I hope to do some more empirical analysis, using a control group, and monitoring the semester grade totals in hopes of isolating some possible correlations.

I think I will need to be even more deliberate about the kinds of interventions I use for students that are underperforming and headed for greater struggles. I did let individual students know that they were shy of the mark in feedback on assignments, but perhaps I need to take even more pointed measures.

The time frame of the delay, just over two months, is somewhat flexible and has more to do with the number of assignments that are completed than a calendar. It certainly tested their patience, although I think anything this out of the ordinary for students would make them uncomfortable.

Ultimately, the student feedback gives me confidence in continuing to experiment. I had not expected the degree of positive feedback, despite any misgivings the students might have had. It strengthens my resolve to keep tinkering with an approach that favors learning over grading, with an emphasis on revising and improvement.

My observations are that a number of students benefitted. The depth and development of their writing is improving faster than I would normally expect. There are still lots of areas where they continue to struggle and require practice and remediation, but the progress has been on the whole good. Considering that all my students are subject to a common exam that is randomly assessed by one of three different teachers, including me, one of the next steps is to track exam scores to see if they reveal anything. That assessment provides a nice counterpoint for comparison, even if an imperfect one.

What is perhaps most tricky is discerning how much of an impact the delayed grading has versus other changing instructional techniques. It is pretty difficult to isolate these factors into nice discrete causes and effects. Still, the overall tally of grades form this past term seem to have buoyed in comparison to previous ones, which might be reason enough to keep investigating.

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