Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

Each time there is a flurry of comments about grades on social media, I am compelled to advocate for de-grading and de-testing the classroom. Also, each time I make my case, many people offer lukewarm support wrapped in a great deal of skepticism about those practices in real-world classrooms.

My career as an educator has had two nearly equal spans of about two decades each—first as a high school English teacher in a rural public school, and second as a current professor in a selective university where I teach in the education department but also have two first-year writing seminars each fall.

I both learned and practiced over my first decade of teaching the need to de-grade and de-test my classes, notably to support effective writing instruction. So I must stress here that my endorsing de-grading, or at least delaying grading, is grounded in my work as a teacher in a very traditional high school setting where I still had to issue interim reports and quarterly, mid-term, and final grades.

And my entire career, of course, has been working with students who expect grades, students who are often disoriented by and even disturbed by my atypical approaches to grades and assessment.

Virtually all of us who teach, regardless of level or type of school, will have to issue grades at some point. Even as an avid proponent of no grades and no tests, I must assign course grades, and I must fulfill obligations for assessments, such as midterm and final exams.

In our real-world classrooms, then, I am practicing and calling for delaying grades, while also increasing significantly feedback on authentic assessments that require and allow students to revisit their work as a journey to greater understanding and deeper learning.

And, yes, my practices and arguments are primarily grounded in my commitment to literacy instruction, mostly writing, and my educational philosophy, critical pedagogy, as well as my skepticism about knowledge acquisition (I embrace content as a means, not an ends, of teaching).

While I am no fan of compromise, I do have a deeply pragmatic streak; therefore, I try to be very clear that I am not advocating some idealistic set of practices from a rarified teaching situation that isn’t applicable to other educators.

Here I want to outline what real-world practices I have for many years implemented and currently implement that merge well, I think, with my belief in de-grading and de-testing with entrenched and often non-negotiable expectations of teaching.

Establish minimum requirements of participation and artifact production as mandatory for course/class credit. My syllabus and daily schedules clearly state that students must complete assignments and submit all artifacts both throughout the course/class and then as a final portfolio. Those minimum requirements I establish are non-negotiable and students are not allowed to pick and choose which to fulfill. In other words, I do not average grades and I do record an F for any student who fails to complete and submit all of the minimum requirements. (See minimum requirements detailed in my first-year writing syllabus.)

Delay grading of assignments and eliminate high-stakes of grades and rubrics. Once participation is required (for example, students must draft, submit essays, meet for conferences, and submit rewrites) for course/class credit (a final grade), teachers are given more space to offer feedback without grading—thus delaying a grade until students have had opportunities to take risks while practicing new learning. One example from teaching Advanced Placement Literature helps illustrate how even numerical feedback can work in this context. I shared with students A.P. Literature rubrics for previous test writing prompts, and then I did assign practice essay responses the appropriate 9-point scale grade; however, students knew these were recorded but did not factor into their course grade (other than needing to be completed). The 9-scale number was feedback for their understanding of where their work stood and how we could improve for the actual test in the spring. Overwhelmingly, my students participated fully in the practice sessions (they had an authentic goal of doing well on the A.P. test), and noted that other teachers translating these A.P. scale scores to class grades inhibited their work and attitudes about the assignments. I learned in these classes that my rejecting grades and rubrics could be translated into more authentic uses of grades and rubrics as feedback and tools for learning by simply eliminating the stakes with those grades and rubrics.

Invite students into conversations about grades. The best concession I have made to de-grading my classes is to acknowledge that for students grades are a powerful reality. Now I invite students to initiate conferences with me about their current grade in my classes at any point and as often as they need throughout a course. While I give no grades on assignments, even as they revise, I will discuss with students what grade an assignment would deserve, and why, and what their grade status is in a course at any point along the way. The caveat, always, is that we do this in conversation (not by email or in writing) and that we recognize these estimations could change significantly as the course and their revisions progress.

Negotiate grade scales with required grade submissions in your school. My de-grading and de-testing practices have always been complicated by interim reports, midterm and final exam requirements, final grades, and the expectation that grading policies, scales, and calculations be posted on my syllabi. Most of my strategies in these contexts remain grounded in my minimum requirements approach. For interim reports and midterm grades, I submit only S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) based on each student’s current status in relationship to minimum requirements at that point in the course; S is for students who have fully complied and I is for those missing work. I remind students and others that the I will become an F at the end of the course/class if students fail to fulfill the assignments. Midterm and final exams—both required at my university—have become different types of assessment: group and whole-class discussions, presentations, and portfolio assessment. And instead of posting how I calculate and average grades, and what grade scale I use, I include my minimum requirements statement on my syllabus.

I offer the above as no template or even demand, but one example of how I have tried to blend my educational philosophy with real-world expectations and non-negotiables.

I live under no delusion I can transform our formal education system into my ideal where we have no grades and no tests. But I do practice what I believe are more effective versions on these norms by delaying grades and lowering the stakes when students receive both rich and even numerical/grade feedback on assignments while they are exploring new or complex learning.

In short, this is my argument against those who brush away my de-grading and de-testing arguments as not realistic; they are.

But I also must push against those who believe my practices somehow encourage students not to be engaged in their assignments. I have witnessed for almost four decades now that the opposite is, in fact, true.

One reason I began this journey to minimum requirements instead of grading is that I watched students routinely take zeros (not do assignments at all) and still receive course credit. They were playing and manipulating the grade/averaging game of school.

Easily over my career, most of my students have participated fully and punctually with my assignments; overwhelmingly, they have shared that they feel more relaxed and engaged with their assignments without the immediate threat of grades.

While the novelty of my teaching and assessment practices cause some distress for students, traditional grades and the finality of summative assessments are far more harmful to student engagement and learning.

There is no perfect world—neither the world of traditional grading nor the ideal world without grades and tests.

But we can create a better world for our students, one in which they produce work and learn in a supportive environment where our primary role is mentoring through feedback instead of being the dreaded agent of evaluation.

My argument, then, is not for perfect or ideal, but better, better for our teaching, better for our students’ learning.

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If You Are Grading, You May Not Be Teaching

Throughout my career of about two decades as a high school English teacher and then approaching another two decades in higher education (as a teacher educator and first-year/upper-level writing professor), I have avoided and delayed grading as well as eliminated testing from my classes.

My experiences with first-year and upper-level writing instruction have further confirmed that if you are grading, you may not be teaching.

Specifically, teaching citation and scholarly writing has revealed a problem that directly exposes why grading often works against our instructional goals.

First, let me stress again that the essential problems with grading include how traditional practices (such as assigning grades that are averaged for quarter and/or semester grades that are then averaged for course grades) tend to blur the distinction between summative and formative grades, inhibiting often the important role of feedback and student revision of assignments.

The blurring of formative and summative grades that occurs in averaging, as I have confronted often, deforms teaching and learning because students are being held accountable during the learning process (and thus discouraged from taking risks).

To briefly review the problems with grades and averaging, let me offer again what my major professor argued: Doctors do not take a patient’s temperature readings over a four-day stay in the hospital in order to average them, but does consider the trajectory of those readings, drawing a final diagnosis on the last reading (or readings). Thus, averaging is a statistical move that distorts student growth, deforms the value of reaching a state of greater understanding.

As I have detailed before, consider a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment could be 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

But another problem with grades and averaging that speaks to this post is something my students taught me when they complained about their math classes. Several students informed me that they had never passed a single math test, but had passed math courses.

The trick? Students earned bonus points for homework, etc., that were added to each test, on which students never reached a passing score.

This process means that cumulatively students never acquired so-called basic or essential math skills, but passed the courses, resulting in course credit that grossly misrepresented student learning.

Therefore, returning to my claim that grading may not be teaching, when we subtract for so-called errors to assign grades, we are allowing students to move through the learning process without actually learning the element being graded. In most cases, I believe, that strategy is teaching students that the element really doesn’t matter.

This dynamic is particularly corrosive when teaching scholarly writing and citation. Citation is one area of writing that doesn’t have degrees; you either cite fully or you don’t.

Many students, similar to the math students noted above, have never reached any level of proficiency with citing because they have mostly had points deducted for improper citation and then gone on their merry way, never having learned to cite fully.

If citation is essential, to grade and never require mastery of citation have two very negative consequences: (1) students do not attain an essential skill (and may exit formal education without the skill), and (2) students fail to understand the importance of drafting, receiving feedback, and revising.

Academic writing is challenging for developing young writers since it demands complex technical demands (such as citation and document formatting) and high expectations for content and style. Students need years and dozen of experiences reading and writing academic writing across multiple disciplines and varying conventional expectations.

But we cannot expect students to acquire the nuances of citation if we simply grade and never allow or expect them to cite fully and properly as an essential aspect of an academic writing experience.

As I make this case, I want to stress that as writing teachers we are trying to balance expectations for students and provide them low-stakes opportunities to draft with little or no consequences.

Students should have both writing assignments that demand minimum proficiency with key skills such as citation and writing contexts that foster and allow taking risks and working outside conventions.

Grading, I witness daily, inhibits both of those in ways that suggest the non-graded writing class is the best opportunity for students to learn in holistic and authentic ways that reveal themselves in student writing samples.

Because of their experiences being graded, I struggle to help students see that citation, grammar, mechanics, style, and content all work in unison either to support or erode their authority as writers and scholars.

I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessary areas to learn, grow, and excel.

As I end my thirty-fourth year teaching, I cannot stress hard enough that if you are grading, you may not be teaching, and your students likely are not learning the very things you value enough to assess.