What is the point of grading, anyway? Grading has always seemed arbitrary to me. A student gets assigned a letter which is supposed to signify the amount of effort we, as instructors, perceive they put into their work. As an instructor, grading is easily the most stressful of my duties. I enjoy giving comments, and I enjoy reading student work. Grading also serves a gatekeeping function that makes me feel uncomfortable. For example, when I was taking a course last semester, a professor told the class that he refuses to give out A’s, because no work he has ever seen has been deserving of one. Besides the fact that this is a terrible way to start out a semester, it highlights how the professor can use grades to keep students from achieving something—or even feeling positive about his or her work.
In an effort to change the notions surrounding grading as a practice, some instructors have taken different, and I argue, more effective approaches to grading. In a well-known entry on the HASTAC blog, Cathy Davidson explores how we can change the way that we evaluate student work by “crowdsourcing” grading. Her approach is interesting, as she makes grades represent the amount of work students put into her class, not indicative of the quality (a subjective measure) of work they put in. This approach would seem strange to some, but valuing student work in this way not only respects the amount of effort they put into a class, but allows the student to do the work in a way that is his or her own. I could see some dissent regarding students doing the work only for the A, and not paying attention to the quality of work they submit. I think that this viewpoint disrespects our students. When students do not have to worry about grades, they can focus more on what they want to say in their work, and how they want to say it. I know that when I was in undergrad, I was afraid to try new strategies because of grades. A delayed thesis style paper would be great for one class, but be a failure in another. Moreover, how do we expect students to be very invested in their arguments if they have to worry about grades?
Davidson’s post does not only displace the foundation of grading, it also discusses how we can displace the hierarchical nature of our classrooms by crowdsourcing. This is a technique I was already using with students, and one that I have been a part of in some of my courses. In fact, next week, I will be facilitating in my composition theory course’s discussion of disability. Every week of that class, a student or a pair of students facilitates the class’ discussion. This allows us to have a collaborative environment where the professor is not our instructor, but is our equal. Why can’t this sort of environment exist in undergraduate classrooms? I take the approach with my students that I am a learner, too—because I am always learning. Moreover, the crowdsourcing environment allows students to both give and accept constructive criticism—something that I notice many of my students find problematic. When I do peer reviews in my classrooms, I instruct my students to make a “sandwich” with their critiques. I want them to put what could be perceived as a negative statement between two positive statements. I do this in my own annotations of student work. I want them to see that their work does have good aspects, even if it needs improvement.
A new approach to grading also affords opportunities for more creative projects—especially digital and multimodal projects. I have also collaborated with students about what exactly I should be grading in regards to these sorts of projects. It makes my job easier, and allows for the student to focus his or her attention on what he or she finds most important to them in regards to their work. Digital and multimodal projects have always been the hardest for me to grade because they have so many parts, and I have found that they can be the hardest for students to produce. However, students have also said that these projects are the most satisfying. If my students and I can collaborate on grades, digital and multimodal projects not only do they become easier to manage, but the students also have to think rhetorically about their projects and invest more time than usual in making their projects rhetorically and critically engaging.
Grades are not important to me—the progress my students make through the course is. I can foster more progress, more creativity, and more engagement if I use grades to signify the amount of effort my students put in to their work, and that is exactly what I want—progress, creativity, and engagement. How do you approach grading? Do you use a collaborative approach? Let’s share ideas.