Wednesday, April 20, 2022

I no longer grade my students’ work – and I wish I had stopped sooner

I no longer grade my students’ work – and I wish I had stopped sooner

Evaluating student work and offering feedback doesn’t mean there has to be a grade. PeopleImages/E+ via Getty Images
Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

I’ve been teaching college English for more than 30 years. Four years ago, I stopped putting grades on written work, and it has transformed my teaching and my students’ learning. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

Starting in elementary school, teachers rate student work – sometimes with stars and checkmarks, sometimes with actual grades. Usually by middle school, when most students are about 11, a system of grading is firmly in place. In the U.S., the most common system is an “A” for superior work, through “F” for failure, with “E” almost always skipped.

This system was widely adopted only in the 1940s, and even now, some schools, colleges and universities use other means of assessing students. But the practice of grading, and ranking, students is so widespread as to seem necessary, even though many researchers say it is highly inequitable. For example, students who come into a course with little prior knowledge earn lower grades at the start, which means they get a lower final average, even if they ultimately master the material. Grades have other problems: They are demotivating, they don’t actually measure learning and they increase students’ stress.

During the pandemic, many instructors and even whole institutions offered pass/fail options or mandated pass/fail grading. They did so both to reduce the stress of remote education and because they saw that the emergency, disruptive to everyone, was disproportionately challenging for students of color. Many, however, later resumed grading, not acknowledging the ways that traditional assessments can both perpetuate inequity and impede learning.

I started my journey toward what’s called “ungrading” before the pandemic. In continuing it throughout, I have seen the effects, which are like those observed by other researchers in the field.

A person sits at a desk reviewing papers
A teacher evaluates students’ work. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Three reasons

I stopped putting grades on written work for three related reasons – all of which other professors have also cited as concerns.

First, I wanted my students to focus on the feedback I provided on their writing. I had a sense, since backed up by research, that when I put a grade on a piece of writing, students focused solely on that. Removing the grade forced students to pay attention to my comments.

Second, I was concerned with equity. For almost 10 years I have been studying inclusive pedagogy, which focuses on ensuring that all students have the resources they need to learn. My studies confirmed my sense that sometimes what I was really grading was a student’s background. Students with educational privilege came into my classroom already prepared to write A or B papers, while others often had not had the instruction that would enable them to do so. The 14 weeks they spent in my class could not make up for the years of educational privilege their peers had enjoyed.

Third, and I admit this is selfish: I hate grading. I love teaching, though, and giving students feedback is teaching. I am happy to do it. Freed from the tyranny of determining a grade, I wrote meaningful comments, suggested improvements, asked questions and entered into a dialogue with my students that felt more productive – that felt, in short, more like an extension of the classroom.

It’s called ‘ungrading’

The practice that I adopted is not new, and it’s not my own. It’s called “ungrading,” though that’s not entirely accurate. At the end of the semester, I do have to give students grades, as required by the university.

But I do not grade individual assignments. Instead, I give students extensive feedback and ample opportunity to revise.

At the end of the semester they submit a portfolio of revised work, along with an essay reflecting on and evaluating their learning. Like most people who ungrade, I reserve the right to change the grade that students assign themselves in that evaluation. But I rarely do, and when I do, I raise grades almost as often as I lower them.

The first class I ungraded was incredulous. After I explained the theory and the method, they peppered me with many of the questions that other ungraders have also faced. “If we ask you, will you tell us what grade we have on a paper?” No, I answered, because I really won’t have put a grade on it. “If we decide halfway through the semester that we’re done revising something, will you grade it then?” No again, because I’m grading an entire portfolio, not individual pieces. “Will you tell me where I stand?” My comments on your work, and our conferences, should give you a good sense of how you’re progressing in the class.

As for motivation, I asked them, What do you want to learn? Why are you here? Like most college professors, I teach classes across the curriculum, but I started my ungrading journey in classes that students were taking to fulfill basic graduation requirements. They were stopped short by the question. They wanted a good grade, and fair enough: That is the currency of the institution.

As we talked, though, we uncovered other motivations. Some took my children’s literature class because they thought it would be a fun or easy way to fulfill the requirement. They confessed, sometimes reluctantly, to anxieties about reading, about writing. They weren’t confident in their skills, didn’t think they could improve. These were exactly the students I was hoping to reach. Without putting grades on their work, I hoped – like my fellow ungrader Heather Miceli, who teaches general science courses to college students – that these less confident students would see that they could improve, could develop their skills and meet their own goals.

In my more advanced courses, students had an easier time identifying content-related goals, but I have also found surprisingly similar results in their reflections: They, too, want to overcome anxieties about speaking in class, concerns that they aren’t as prepared as their classmates, fears that they can’t keep up.

Young people sit around a table in a classroom
Some students say they want to learn new ways of thinking and working, rather than focusing on grades. Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

How did it go?

That first semester, students participated in class, did the readings and wrote their papers. I read and commented on them, and if they chose to, they revised – as often as they wanted.

At the end of the semester, when they submitted portfolios of revised work, their reflections on the process and assessments of their learning tracked closely with my own. Most recognized their growth, and I concurred. One student, a senior, thanked me for treating them like adults. As for my interest in equity, I found that students who were less well prepared did indeed develop their skills; their growth was substantial, and both they and I recognized it.

[More than 150,000 readers get one of The Conversation’s informative newsletters. Join the list today.]

The system takes time to implement, and I’ve revised it over the years. When I began, I was inexperienced at coaching students to develop their own goals for the course, at helping them to reflect, and at guiding them to think about assessment in terms of their own development rather than following a rubric. And I’ve found that students need time to reflect on their own goals for the class at the outset, at a midpoint, and again at the end of the semester, so they can actually see how they’ve developed. They need encouragement to revise their work as well – my comments help, but so do pointed reminders that the process of learning involves revision, and the course is set up to enable it.

Students in introductory classes require a bit more direction in this work than advanced students, but most eventually take the opportunity to revise and reflect. Now, I see students from all backgrounds recognizing their own growth, whatever their starting point. They benefit from my coaching, but perhaps even more from the freedom to decide for themselves what really matters in their reading and writing. And I benefit too, from the opportunity to help them learn and grow without the tyranny of the grade.The Conversation

Elisabeth Gruner, Professor of English, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Teachers and Restroom Breaks

The above picture gives you an idea for bathroom passes that you can use when your school opens back up. The labels are just slapped on bottles of hand sanitizer. A lot of schools do not have good hot water and soap.

Bathroom breaks. How many teachers fret over students asking and taking bathroom breaks?
Guess's no problem for even an inexperienced teacher if they realize one thing: Restroom breaks are a nonissue.

Too many teachers stress out over small things. Restroom passes are one of those. So, if you are a teacher and wondering how to make restroom breaks go away, here are some tips.

First, you really need to check with the school and district to see what their policy is. They may not even have one and leave it to the logic of the teacher. Logic. That's how to tackle the dreaded restroom break.

If a child is under the age of 7, they should probably be allowed to go whenever they want. Why get some mad parent ranting at you for Johnny or Susie wetting their pants? No reason. Children of that age are no yet out to game the system. They will not just make a game of it. More on that later.

Upper elementary is when restroom breaks become iffy. But again, use some logic. Sure, they are still young enough to have some potty problems. Again, no big deal. This is the age when rules for breaks becomes an issue. And they may try and game the system. Do not make the rules written. Any written rule is probably not enforceable all the time, so why write one? (You should not have written rules anyway, see below.) Let logic take over. If you have never made restroom breaks an issue, or even mentioned it, chances are, your students won't either. But 8 to 12 year olds are now big enough and well potty trained. Stress going to the restroom before school, during recess, and at lunch. They go then, most will never need to go later. Stress this at each break! Also mention that you will not allow anyone to go to the restroom 15 minutes after recess or lunch ends.

Also, you will not allow students to go 10 minutes before the bell rings. So what does that leave? Guess what? About 30 minutes of classroom "potty time." That's not a very big window. And use this trick. When someone asks to go, say you will let them, but in 5 minutes. Chances are, if they really have to go, they will ask in 5 minutes. If not, they will forget about it. Tell them you won't allow a student to go until 5 minutes has passed since last student went. Again, these are unwritten but you have told them over time. Soon they will get the picture. You seem to let students go whenever they want, and, they know to relieve themselves at the breaks. It's now a nonissue.

Here's more teacher logic. Before school recess, lunch, and maybe 2 more recesses or PE during the day. That's almost 5 times a day for a child to use the restroom. Why should they even need to when in class?

Upper grades, like middle and high school, same technique. Most middle schoolers and high schoolers are not in class more than 45-55 minutes. Same rules as above.

If you do not allow students to EVER use the restroom, they will think it's unfair and game the system. You can even have a timer for time to be gone. Maybe even allow each student one(1) restroom break each month.

Sure, emergencies happen. Any teacher should be able to tell when a student has a real emergency. I hate to admit it, but maybe girls get more of a break.

If you don't make restroom breaks an issue, the students won't either.

Need Help Paying for College?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Top things teachers should never do.

Remember, teaching is a profession. You are a professional. Many times, we tend to forget that. Here are some some of the worse things teachers can do.

Scream and yell. If you want to look bad in front of your students and staff, then you will raise your voice. Sure way to shorten your teaching career. This is related to losing your temper in class. Don't do it. No matter what, keep your emotions under control. You are the teacher, boss, and leader. You can get respect without yelling.

Also on this note, classroom teachers should not single out a student and belittle them. This includes chewing them out for doing something, or not doing something. You will never brow beat a student into behaving or learning. You will only look like a foolish teacher. And quite an ineffective one at that.

This includes getting upset for every little thing. Little things happen in class. They do not all require punishment, referrals, calls to the principal, etc. Let it go. Acknowledge it, then move on. Most things you encounter in class will be very minor. Discipline is also logical. Don't make mountains out of mole hills.

Remember that you are the teacher. If you let your students control you and the class, you have lost. You will be a very ineffective teacher. You make the rules and you must stick with them.

Don't be unfair. Your tests, quizzes, and assignments should be such that the average student can get a passing grade. Grade consistently. If you grade hard, then soft, then hard, your students will play you like a fiddle.

Do not treat some students differently. They should all get the same treatment. You cannot be nice to one student, then have different rules for another.

Last but not least, do not talk about the school and staff in demeaning ways. Don't agree with students that another teacher is lousy. Don't complain about the school to your students. Don't gossip.

You must be a fair teacher, in complete control, and act in a professional manner. It's sounds simple, and it is. But teachers are human and can fall into certain modes without thinking. So be diligent!

>>Dealing with confrontational students.

>>Create Free math worksheets.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Late Homework Policies

If a teacher is going to assign homework, sooner or later a student is going to turn it in late. Or not at all and ask for an extension. What is your late work policy? Do you make it up on the fly? Many teachers do, but this is not being fair to all students. Every teacher should have a stated, clear policy when it comes to turning in late assignments.

First, check to see if your school or district has a policy about late assignments. Many do. Your homework policy cannot go against this.

Here are some more tips for teachers and collecting homework.

Collect it immediately when students enter class, or shortly thereafter. Do not collect it whenever the student wants to turn it in.

Give some credit for incomplete work. You will save a lot of trouble if you do this.

You need clear options for grading late work. Have a set policy. What penalty will it cost the student to turn in late work?

How about students who are absent? Your district and school probably have clear policies as to when a student is able to turn in work assigned or collected while they were on an excused absence.

How long will you accept late work? One day? Two days? These are important details to have down.

A good way to cut down on daily collecting of homework is to give long-term assignments. But even these must have due dates.

The mistake many teachers make is not having a set policy for late work. This will only cause problems, and student will push the limit if they know you are not firm.

It is worth repeating that your policy must be aligned with school-wide rules.

Here is a general guide.

For absent students, work should be due after the same number if days the student was absent. Most students are absent one or two days. If they were absent on Tuesday, back on Wednesday, the work would be due on Thursday. For longer absences, it is a good idea to send work home, actually. A parent or guardian can pick it up at the office.

For late homework, you need a cut off date and penalty. One day late, 10% less, two days late, 20% less, 3 days late, no credit.

The best tip as that you assign homework in such a way as to avoid a lot of students turning it in late. You could assign homework during the week, but have a due date of Friday.

Click here for more information and tips on assigning homework.

>>Create free math worksheets.

>>Handling confrontational students.