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Learning at its Best

Students or writers?

It occurred to me last night that I conducted a grading experiment of sorts last year without intending to do so. I had two sections of senior English students. With one group, I gave them traditional assignments with traditional due dates and graded them using a traditional rubric. I also gave them the opportunity to revise any of their assignments to get a better grade.

With the other group, I asked them to complete a total of five assignments (essay, short story, etc.) on any subject they wanted, at any time throughout the year, so long as they were done the week before classes were finished. I didn’t grade them, but instead allowed them to write for each other and simply gave them formative feedback for each of their pieces. At the end of the semester, they gathered up their assignments and I sat down with them to negotiate a final grade – marks hadn’t come into the picture up to this point. There was no rubric, and they could revise their work throughout the entire semester up until the very last day with no penalty.

In the first group, one student revised one assignment for a better mark.

In the second group, about 95% of the class made revisions to assignments, with the average student in this group turning in three revised copies (including their final copy) per assignment. The quality of work in this second group is also much, much higher than the first group, and this second group took far more risks in their writing (both style and content) than the first group. Some of these pieces were actually enjoyable to read, whereas the work from the first group was largely “student work”.

I know it’s probably redundant to say this here on the Coop, but here goes anyway: grading is absolutely antithetical to the process of learning. When you hand back an essay to a student with both feedback and a mark attached to it, the mark registers first, the feedback last (if at all). To the human mind, a mark on an assignment means that the assignment is over, and no more improvement to the original work is necessary. Moreover, I don’t know very many people that go back to a marked essay when they’re writing a new one in order to improve their writing. When most authors sign a publishing deal for their book, they don’t go back and continue to improve it – they call it done. The same goes for our students.

Grading robs students of the chance to become writers. What would you rather have in your classroom: students or writers?

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


14 thoughts on “Students or writers?

  1. My wake-up call in this came from my first year I had kids blog. I was a second-year teacher and I had, what I thought were great writing prompts. A kid pulled me aside and said, “these are journals, not blogs. With blogging, you get to choose your topics and you write when you want.”

    So, I let it go. I still keep a bunch of writing prompts (students help develop these) for ideas. We still have certain days when I ask students to answer a particular question on their blogs (philosophical friday, for example), but they always have the option of posting those to our shared class blog instead.

    When students began to take ownership of their voice, their blogs, their writing and their sense of style, they began to revise naturally. It’s not like pulling teeth. The feedback is formative. The “summative” feedback is a portfolio with self-reflection. I de-emphasized “working hard” and they work hard. I de-emphasized assessment and they assess things constantly.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 18, 2011, 4:02 pm
    • What a great story, John. It’s so important that we listen to our students. Too often we underestimate them and their own understanding of teaching and learning. Thanks so much, Alan, for sharing this story. How did you end up assigning grades to the group that didn’t have grades during the course?

      Posted by marybethhertz | September 18, 2011, 8:55 pm
      • I assigned grades to the first group using the traditional rubric and averaged their assignments across the semester — everything we know we shouldn’t be doing when it comes to grading. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

        Posted by alanthefriesen | September 19, 2011, 10:20 am
  2. These are both great stories and I have one, too–except I think it’s the opposite.

    Last year, my fourth graders were incredibly prolific and creative and thought-provoking and collaborative (both in school and with their blogging buddies in Colorado) on their blogs and the teachers (and I) wanted that writing to count for their Daily Five requirements. When we told the kids that wikis and blogs counted for D5, most of them quit writing on both. And, despite the fact most of them had “finished” pieces in their classrooms and they were asked to put them on their wikis or blogs, most didn’t.

    It puzzled me then and continues to do so…but maybe this blog explains part of it. Perhaps they felt we took their ownership away by making it part of the school tasks. What do you think?

    Posted by Paula White | September 18, 2011, 10:30 pm
    • Why do they hate the Daily Five so much? That’s what I wonder, anyway. What about the D5 translates to “stop writing?”


      Posted by Nance Confer | September 19, 2011, 8:43 am
    • Paula,

      I, too like these stories, and appreciate your experience.

      Perhaps your students did percieve that wikis and blogs, being part of what they must “produce” for you, engaged in a silent revolution after realizing they really had no desire to turn their hearts and souls over to you (or other teachers, the school, etc.)

      Posted by Brent Snavely | September 20, 2011, 8:00 am
    • Paula, Also, don’t you teach “talented and gifted” kids who are highly, highly attentive to meeting attainment markers?

      Great question. Carol Dweck has a lot to say about this.


      Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 9:34 am
  3. Alan, Awesome. Learning happens IN RELATION to each other, and a sense of excellence and improvement is socially constructed and driven by meaningful responses from colleagues, not by hitting the marks of an externalized authority.

    To Monika’s moniker, what if school were like real life? (Although life sometimes is a lot like school…)


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 9:37 am
  4. I enjoyed reading about your fascinating experiment, Alan, and the conversation here at the Coop that followed. I’ve also been giving the title of your post a lot of thought – I found the dichotomy provocative. You were clearly able to help one group of students transcend that “or” to become, more fluidly, “students as writers,” and even “writers as students.”


    Posted by Paul Oh | September 22, 2011, 1:43 pm
  5. Thank you for sharing your experience. I teach 7th grade writing and would love to use this framework. But how? I need to give report card grades.

    Posted by Kristine | September 25, 2011, 7:19 pm
    • Just give them at the end of the term… with student input. One of my teachers in high school would have us write a self assessment essay, and we choice a grade… then we would decide together based on his assessment and our own… it was not perfect, but way better than many current practices.

      Posted by dloitz | September 25, 2011, 8:19 pm
    • Kristine, I decided a long time ago that I was going to be a teacher, not a statistician. I was sitting in one of my B.Ed. classes on averages, means, and methods of calculating grades when I realised that this isn’t what I signed up for. Grades absolutely, positively do not matter when it comes to helping a child learn how to become a better writer. In fact, I’d argue that grades are counter-productive.

      But you need percentages, just like I do. One way to do it is to ask students what grade they want on their report card, then ask them to revise assignments until they meet that goal — “mastery-level” reporting. Another way is to do as I did: obfuscate the whole concept of grading until report card time, then sit down with each student and negotiate a percentage mark for the entirety of their work up until that point.

      Posted by alanthefriesen | September 25, 2011, 8:23 pm

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