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Grading ≠ Feedback, and Sometimes You Don’t Need to Do Either

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Until we get smarter about grading, feedback, and when to use which, we won’t meaningfully increase the quantity and quality of writing our students are expected to do. Teachers are already stressed, already pressed for time, and if every time they hear “increase writing volume” they see stacks of to-be-graded papers in their minds, then they are not going to be able to sustain writing-oriented efforts.

Here is how I think about these things:

  • Feedback, not grading, is what makes writers better, just like a tennis player improves not because of the score of their last match but by the feedback she received on her last match’s play.
  • Therefore, only assignments in which the goal was improving the quality of writing (not writing quantity) need feedback. (Read “Better and Saner Grading Tip: Start with the End.”)
  • Scoring in a tennis match, of course, can be feedback, and insomuch as it is it will help the player get better. Grades can also be feedback when our students have a strong understanding of what their grade on a particular assignment means. Some of the rubrics I have been required to use in my career have not made a ton of sense to me, so it is doubtful that the scores students received from those rubrics made a ton of sense to them. When required to use a wonky rubric, I recommend either A) quick, satisficed work, or B) studying the thing until it makes enough sense to you to make sense of it to students.
  • At the GPA level, grades are significant; at the individual class level, grades are less so. Grading is something that I satisfice; my goal is to be fair, consistent, dispassionate, and fast when it comes to grading. It's been years since I lost any sleep wondering how my grades compare to teachers down the hall. The Foundations Framework is the focal point of my work; grading is not.
  • If our objective with a writing assignment is to increase the volume of writing that our students do, then we don’t need to give feedback and we often don’t need to give a grade.

To illustrate that last point, consider the daily quickwrite warm-ups that I use: classic examples of provisional writing at the bottom of the Pyramid of Priorities. I can use these warm-ups to activate prior knowledge, review previously learned material, evaluate cause/effect relationships, or whatever else I think will reinforce the knowledge and the skills I want my students to master. I communicate to my students early on that part of us doing hard things this year will be us out-writing the average history student in the USA. When they ask why, I share information like this, and I teach “the tyranny of low expectations.” I walk around the room occasionally during the warm-up time (after I’ve taken attendance) to see what they’re doing, how organized they’re keeping their warm-ups, whether they’re getting bad habits — and then I quickly teach toward what I want to see them do better. This walking around makes it so that I rarely even give a grade for this assignment, which over the course of a semester adds several thousand words to the amount of writing they do in my class.

Several thousand words, little to no grading, because grading is not equal to feedback, and sometimes you don’t need to do either.

Thanks for reading to the end 🙂 My all-day literacy workshop treats writing across the content areas in greater depth, and it includes these concepts. Learn more about that workshop here.

2 Responses to Grading ≠ Feedback, and Sometimes You Don’t Need to Do Either

  1. patrycja May 13, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    As always, thanks for the tips.

    Students face the tyranny of low expectations, and teachers, the tyranny of the marking pile!

    I like your tips very much, and as I plan out my next school year, these are the takeaways I get from your blog:

    – understand the purpose of your assignments– some for feedback (quality), some to increase the volume of writing (quantity- practice makes perfect)
    – require students to write every single day (be it lower pyramid assignments or higher level ones)
    – more papers does not equal more marking
    – the grading aspect of the job is not as important as the feedback aspect (couldn’t agree more)

    My questions:

    – I find myself writing the same feedback on papers over and over. Is there a way to make this more efficient? Perhaps a very detailed rubric that I could highlight?

    – I find myself writing feedback that no one reads. I started to force my students to read my feedback and write back what they learned. This is sometimes effective. However, I am toying with the idea of having students re-write each writing assignment they submit based on my feedback, and make the re-submitted writing assignment worth a grade.

    – Overall, I find students more interested in their grades than their learning. As a result, students often look at the grade on their paper and ignore the feedback. Also, they are not interested in doing formative writing work because it is not worth marks. They always ask to decide if they are going to put effort into an assignment: Is this assignment formative and summative? Dave, I wonder how you deal with this. My guess is that your discussions at the beginning of the year (about the value of writing and character) counteract this attitude in students, and perhaps even stop it.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    • davestuartjr May 17, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

      The grades v. learning problem is one I experience too, Patrycja. I just try to continually point kids away from obsessing over grades and toward a focus on mastery. It’s not a silver bullet but it does help kids to begin to shift their thinking. The goal is to create a critical mass of discussions throughout the year toward creating these new understandings for students.

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