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My little experiment, and the remarkable data it produced

I was browsing through my Facebook profile one day and, in my news feed, saw one of my students writing on the “wall” of another student:

“Missed you in Miranda’s class today, we got our screenplays back.”

The other student responded, “What grade did we get?” [It was a group project.]

“We got an A.”


As I read this, I wondered, Did they even bother to read the comments that I wrote on their paper?

* * *

A student who had just returned to school after being out sick approached my desk and said, “Hey Mr. Miranda, I heard you gave back our essays in class yesterday. Do you have mine?”

I found her essay and said, “Yeah, here it is. It was really good, let me go over some of the things I noticed in your writing. . . .”

I started reviewing with her the comments I’d scribbled in the margins, but couldn’t help notice her weight shifting from one foot to the other and her eyes occasionally wandering around the room. I smiled and said, “Are you interested in this, or do you really just want to know what your grade is.”

This is why I love teenagers. She looked up, cringing with mock pain and embarrassment, and admitted, “I just kinda wanted to know my grade.”

* * *

These types of incidents gave me an idea for a little experiment that yielded a remarkable data set.

As an English teacher, I would spend hours each weekend reading student writing and offering meticulous feedback on each paper. I never wanted to be one of those teachers who simply gave out assignments, then wrote “A” on the top of the paper and returned it to students. I felt like students deserved more than that.

So I would log the hours, decline invitations to weekend getaways with friends, and write long notes on the students’ work: messages of encouragement, suggestions for improvement, funny inside jokes so they would know that I cared about them as individuals. And it always pained me when, at the end of each class period, I would find student work littering the classroom floor. I could never tell if they even read my comments, let alone reflected on them and used them to improve their writing skills.

One day I decided to do something different. I read every student’s paper and gave it a grade, but didn’t write a single word on it. I then posted the grades to my online gradebook and sent my students an email: your grades are posted, if anyone is interested in receiving line-by-line feedback on your writing, please let me know.

Of the 93 students in my classes, how many do you think requested feedback?

When I ask teenagers this question, the answers invariably fall within the range of “zero” to “two.” So, I guess I should be proud that four students responded to my offer.

At the time, this was crushing. In retrospect, it’s utterly rational. Why should they care? I chose the assignment, I chose the due date, and all anyone ever talks about in school is, “Keep your grades up!”

Once they learned what their grade was, why would they care to know anything else?

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21 thoughts on “My little experiment, and the remarkable data it produced

  1. What happens if you only give the descriptive feedback and don’t give them the grade? They’d probably complain right?

    What if you said, once I give you your grade it’s fixed and you can’t improve it. However I will give you back descriptive feedback as often as you like if you want to improve your writing, and then you can take that feedback and improve your writing. When you decide you are done, then I’ll give you your grade, but until then you can keep using the descriptive feedback to improve your writing.

    Posted by David | January 30, 2011, 4:26 pm
  2. Russell Stannard said that he gave back his students their work, with his comments, without a grade, and asked his students to read the comments and work out what the grade would be. He was surprised that most of them gave themselves a lower mark, although lots of them were spot on. They had to understand where their teacher was coming from first, though.
    Perhaps you could try something similar

    Posted by sue annan | January 30, 2011, 4:37 pm
  3. Have you thought about rubrics? I recommend reading “Introduction to Rubrics”, by D. Stevens and other: . Perhaps you could create the rubric with them?


    Posted by Louis Castillo | January 30, 2011, 5:23 pm
  4. I’m sorry this has been a crushing experience and I hope your blog post with bring about some constructive contributions.

    How about if students are asked to grade their own work. By this I mean, obviously you read it and mark it but keep the grade to yourself. Ask them to assess themselves. If they were a teacher, what grade would they assign themselves? They have to consider their work critically. Only when they have graded themselves, will your grade be revealed. Discussions can then be on the disparity (if any) between the grades. This way, the students create their own comments.

    Do let us know how you get on.

    Emma (in the UK)

    Posted by Emma Herrod | January 30, 2011, 5:26 pm
  5. My teens (when I taught teens) were exactly like your teens – only interested in the grades.

    An alternative approach I tried and which worked wonders, was giving them back their papers either annotated with an error correction code or simply colour coded with text highlighters

    In the next lesson, I would hand them a list of my criteria for marking and set them loose on each other’s papers in groups. One group would review and mark the work of another group.

    Then they would have to decide on the grade themselves.

    Then I would announce what grades I had assigned.

    This often resulted in passionate debates the main focus of which was how lenient I was!

    This is one approach which works as long as you are very clear and have a clear and simple description of your grading criteria.

    The other option is, of course, NOT to assign writing as homework but structure writing lessons in a way which would allow drafting, editing, peer-reviewing and polishing up in class.

    Unfortunately, many teachers consider this time wasted in class but the process approach to writing is great, especially when introducing your students to a particular genre.

    Posted by Marisa Constantinides | January 30, 2011, 5:31 pm
  6. This experiment further highlights how the focus on grades or any “scoring” in education systems worldwide damages the learning. Shouldn’t students be motivated to want to improve? Rhetorical, yes, but unfortunately most institutions worldwide follow this grading model. So what do we have to do if we give grades. Well I like Russell Stannard’s research where he gives feedback with Jing, screen recording software, Also, I like the idea of crowdsourcing grading, meaning students give each other grades. Here is the best description of the process in action that I believe works, Also, like the idea of a harvesting gradebook,

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | January 30, 2011, 5:33 pm
  7. I like David’s ideas, too. I hope you extend your “little experiment” and let us know how it went.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | January 30, 2011, 5:38 pm
  8. Sometimes it is heartbreaking when we find out what a student’s real goal is — the grade. As much as we preach about the process as opposed to the product, they truly want the grade. I would love to implement David’s idea and her about the results.

    This was a great field study — thanks for posting and please keep us up to date as it moves forward.


    Posted by Chris Pryor | January 30, 2011, 5:50 pm
  9. I teach college students who are preparing to be teachers. They do not get a grade on anything until the class has ended and I am forced by the University to assign a grade at the end of the course. All students get personal weekly feedback on all blog posts, activities and projects. All must regularly engage in honest self reflection. Some written, some videotaped and all posted on their public blog. Many don’t like the fact that I refuse to give grades, but after 3 years of this the word is out and they come better prepared to not ask for a grade. My hope is that I can get them to not be “graders” when they become teachers. I doubt that I will have much success but I keep hoping. I would add to Chris Pryor’s comment above that I think he is correct, but what is even worse is that my college really just want a degree. Schools have brought this on themselves through burp-back education (fill up the head, burp it back – and nothing is left) and standardized tests. We do not encourage learning. A year ago one of my students put it very bluntly: “Dr. Strange, I just want you to teach me so I don’t have to learn.” And she intends to be a teacher!

    John Strange

    Posted by John Strange | January 30, 2011, 6:51 pm
    • Dr. Strange,

      I just want to take this opportunity to say thank you! You are clearly a tempered radical in your college. Engaging your students in meaningful discussions and activities in the hopes of enlivening them to be more robust teachers. I have particularly enjoyed your students stopping by the Cooperative Catalyst blog to read and comment. They have left me wanting for more interaction as they usually stop by for one (required I assume) comment and then we don’t see them again.


      Posted by Adam Burk | January 30, 2011, 7:57 pm
  10. Students are taught to make good grades so therefore this is all they truly care about at the end of the day. Writing line by line feedback is clearly not so important in the early stages of schooling. I am currently a college student at the University of South Alabama and when it came to my papers however, I had to correct all the problems my teacher had with it and then resubmit it if I wanted a grade. I am really glad that I came across your post because I am currently studying to be a teacher and your “little experiment” is really useful to me.

    Posted by bailey abston | January 30, 2011, 7:42 pm
  11. If all they care about is the grade, give them the grade they’d likely get if they did the work without them having to do the work. See what they say then.

    Posted by Deven Black @devenkblack | January 30, 2011, 8:11 pm
  12. I love your experiment- very thought provoking. It perfectly illustrates Alfie Kohn’s work in “Punished by Rewards”….this is what we have created- a very young child will work for hours for the satisfaction of the work alone and somehow we teach them that the measurement is all that matters.

    I would like to know how accurate your students would at predicting their own grades before any comments were made. Some Teenagers tend to take ANY comment as critisism.

    Posted by Jane Hake | January 30, 2011, 8:29 pm
  13. I was upset to read this article. As an undergraduate myself, I want to reassure any educators who read this comment that I honestly care a great deal about my teachers’ comments, especially if I feel a personal connection with the teacher and the material. Not only do I use their comments to improve my work, but I feel appreciated and more confident when I know what I’m doing well and what I can improve upon. Comments that clearly have had much thought put into them make me feel so much more proud and appreciated than a simple, empty letter. I hope the few students who do care about the feedback of teachers can help to make up for the students who simply want a high letter-grade.

    Posted by Nicole Brugel | January 31, 2011, 2:51 am
  14. I try to make my classes places where “things work differently.” I make it clear, from the beginning of the class, that assignments during the semester aren’t being used to tally a final grade but are steps toward a final understanding. What’s important to me, what’s being assessed, is some sort of learning and growth from point A (beginning of the semester) to point Z (the final). My job during the semester is to do whatever I can to help the students get to that point. The extent to which they demonstrate understanding of the material, as outlined in the very clear course objectives drafted by the college, determines their grade. The grade, therefore, is not “more important” or “less important” than the student’s understanding; it is based on and reflects their understanding. It’s the best idea I’ve come up with so far.

    Posted by Max Shenk | January 31, 2011, 10:50 am
  15. Hi! Great experiment and great article!

    I think the main problem is that of consequence : it may be interesting or edifying for some to read the comments, the students are really busy (track, homework, college applications, fantasy novels, significant others, reality TV) and there is no immediate benefit to reading the comments and there *is* an immediate benefit to working on one of the not-yet-due projects that they are falling behind on- it’s the same reason many students won’t do significant extra credit work, even if it would be really interesting. The exception will be students who have the “personality” of wanting to understand what people think of them, which matches up with those who asked for your responses.

    I think, if you believe the comments are important (or, rather, the reflection on the comments) making it the requirement of class following every project would be necessary. Perhaps a choice of a few different options – I do always like a nice 4-bullet list of options aimed to appeal to NF, SF, ST, NT personality types. They could write a reflective one-pager on the commented faults, interconnecting them and comparing them to their own perceived faults of the paper. They could take someone else’s paper, read the paper and comments, interview them about the issues you raised and they determined themselves, and write a critique…. They could have a mock interview in front of class on the same basis.

    While the idea of them guessing their own grade will get them to read you comments, it won’t necessarily get them to reflect on them in order to think about how they could have done a better job or written a better paper – and I think that’s what you’re really trying to get at, isn’t it?

    Posted by Kevin | January 31, 2011, 10:52 am
  16. This is why I’m into writing as design and figuring out how to accommodate programming in the writers workshop right now: if you can get kids writing pieces meant to have obvious, valuable effect, assessment is easy and feedback is more compelling to the kid than a grade. A programmer coding a project he or she loves won’t want to stop until the code produces the right output. A kid teaching others to something he or she is passionate about – like pottery – won’t stop until his or her audience learns what’s being taught.

    If we can get kids planning their doing and making in writing, then the quality of the doing and making will give us and them immediate, actionable feedback that is motivational to the iterative work of any kind of design.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 31, 2011, 9:51 pm
  17. I have taught in 3 different schools at the elementary level, two of them independent schools that did not have traditional grades. I find that conferencing with students on writing helps because they want to improve, and they want to get a finished product they can be proud of when they read it to the class or have it displayed as a public piece. However, I find that they often do not pay attention to the basic skills when there is no number attached. This includes grammar, many math skills, spelling, and a host of other basic skills. Alas, I have not found a way to connect the basic skills to the big picture.

    Posted by Alison Levie | February 5, 2011, 12:34 pm


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