The next time you’re sitting with a stack of papers, I want you to imagine that I knock on the door, walk in, and sit down next to you (awkwardly). I put my hand on the stack of things that you’re grading, and I say, “Hey there, colleague. Question: Why are you grading that?”
If we don't want our lives to be ruled by an ever-looming paper stack, then we need to get used to asking ourselves this question. There's no other way to manage our time well.
(A brief digression: To be clear, I’m not anti-grades. My classes use a traditional grading system and so does my school. While I’m sure there are merits to the standards-based and grade-free systems promulgated on the web, I’ve not been sold enough to find experimenting with these things worth the limited time I have. It’s my opinion that every system has its merits and flaws, and every system will still require teachers to focus their efforts on the work that matters the most. So, why invest limited energy and time on a grading system when I can invest in mastering those things that matter most instead?)
So picture an assignment you've graded recently, and answer the question: “Why are you grading that?” Below, I share some common answers and my responses to each.
It’s my job.
If you’re a teacher, that’s not true.
Your primary job responsibility is to promote the long-term flourishing of young people, and you do this by teaching them to master the course material you’ve been assigned. That's the core of teaching. Grades are an offshoot of an offshoot of this core responsibility.
This means that if you are ever grading something simply because it’s your job, you might save some quick time by not grading that thing at all. Instead, look through a random sample of the assignment, find 1-3 common areas of weakness, and tomorrow hand the assignment back and teach students how to remedy those 1-3 things. When you do this, you’re giving fast feedback to students (they want that, it aids in mastery, and it makes you more credible), and you’re spending a fraction of the time you would have been had you assigned a grade to each piece of student work.
It's a department-mandated assignment.
Now, if this is a situation where your department has an agreement that X assignment must be graded using Y rubric, then yes, I would say that’s part of your job. Not the core part, but a part. You want to be a team player. This isn't The You Show, it's The Long-Term Flourishing Show.
But just because you should do the grading doesn't mean you do it with maximum quality and effort. Now you have to run the grading task through the filter of your primary job responsibility: the promotion of long-term flourishing via student mastery of course material.
If the department’s rubric is unintelligible (many rubrics made by committee are), then you ought to complete the grading task as quickly and effortlessly as possible, trading quality for speed. This might seem terrible, but think of it this way: the rubric is overly complicated, so it's unlikely to serve as useful feedback for students or for you. Until the rubric gets simplified, the grading task is not powerfully linked to the long-term flourishing of kids. So do it, but do it at the lowest acceptable level of quality. This is called satisficing, and there’s no way to stay sane without this skill. Satisficing is to the teacher what light sabers are to the Jedi.
Now notice: satisficing does lead to the occasional mistake. When you find one of these, smile and apologize. Own the mistake and move on. But as long as you're taking saved energy from a satisficeable task and putting it into a super important one, you'll gain expertise faster than most and you and your students and your school will come out better in the end.
One more thing on the hopelessly complex departmental rubric: an obvious long-term goal in situations like this is to improve the thing — namely, by hacking down its complexity until all stakeholders (students and teachers) can use it. I write a bit about simple rubrics, and share other, better, saner grading practices in the writing chapter of These 6 Things.
I told the students I would.
Then yes, you should grade it — for the sake of both your integrity and your credibility. But next time, think hard about telling the students whether or not you will grade something.
“But Dave,” you might say, “they always ask me if it’s going to be graded. And if it’s not, then they won’t do it!”
Two things here:
1) You’ve got a five key beliefs problem here, and teachers around the world experience the same thing. The condition isn't terminal or fixed. Learn the beliefs and apprentice yourself to the experts who study them to help fix this.
2) You tell them, “I may grade it, I may not. All you need to worry about is working toward mastery of today’s material. That’s my focus, too — guiding you toward mastery.”
Let’s look more at that second one.
The students are obsessed with grades
If you teach in a grade-obsessed culture, start obsessively saying things like, “The goal in this class is mastery of material — not grades,” and, “If you master the material, the grades will follow.”
And when I say obsessively, I mean it. Sometimes teachers will say this kind of thing once or twice or a dozen times, and then when they find that it doesn’t magically change the culture of their classes, they throw up their hands like, “Ugh, nothing works!”
But that’s not what obsessive means. You need to convince yourself at the soul level that your course is truly about mastery of the material, and then you need to orient all your efforts toward that end. And you need to burn with the knowledge of the truth that it is mastery that yields the best long-term flourishing outcomes for students — not grades!
When these things become obsessively true to you, you’ll say them 1,000 times over the course of a semester, and you’ll start to plan your lessons as if mastery is the goal, and you’ll start to approach grading as if mastery is the goal, too.
And when it still doesn’t magically work the 1,000th time you say it, you’ll just say it again. Because you're obsessed with the core task of your job.
The students’ parents and guardians expect grades
Yes, and some people expect that when they write me an email they’ll get a response within an hour. It would be interesting if we could possibly live up to the expectations of the hundreds and thousands of people who have a say in our work as educators. But we can't. So don't try.
We can’t make professional decisions based on the expectations of others. This is why it is so critical for us to be clear on our Everests. When we aim all our work at the long-term flourishing of young people, then we’re aligned with the deepest desires that our students’ parents and guardians have for their kids.
What I’ve found with parents is that as I strive for excellence in teaching — part of which is clearly and respectfully and lovingly communicating with them, because yes, they are a part of the work — then they tend to give me a break. Also, even though I lose zero sleep over perfecting my grading system (I couldn't even tell you offhand what the percentage weighting of the different categories in my grade book is — it's a departmental decision and I'm happy to leave it that way), I do try to make the system as intelligible as possible for parents and students, and I do speak to my at-risk students about the importance of attending to their grades.
Grading is a weak form of feedback in all cases except the ones where students clearly understand where the grade is coming from. If the kind of grading you’re doing isn’t feedback, then it should always be satisficed or skipped. In general, the fewer the grades you put in, the fewer people will expect. I aim for 1-2 per week.
Satisficing is the most underrated tool for grading situations. I devote an entire lesson to satisficing in the Time Management Course — you should come check it out. I am blissfully happy being only adequate at low-impact grading tasks because these kinds of grading tasks are so minimally associated with the long-term flourishing of young people.
I'd love to hear your take on these things or your specific scenario that you're still wondering about after reading this post. Share in the comments.