Grading vs. Feedback

Let me be honest:  I hate grading.

Hate hate hate it.

I hate it, but you know what I love to do?  Read my students’ writing.  Talk to them about their reading.  Absorb the creative projects on display after they’ve completed a reading or writing unit.

So, if I love to listen to and read and wonder about their work, why do I hate to grade it?

The idea of reducing a piece of student work to a number, or assigning some arbitrary value to a reading conference, or trying to measure precisely the growth of a writer from one genre to the next is not only intimidating to me…it also seems a little ridiculous.  Unnecessary.  Trivial.  The beauty of a learner’s work is its creation, its completion, its courage.  It’s out there…for me to read, for their peers to see, for their creators to reflect on.

But, too many of my students only know how to think in numeric terms when trying to measure their own achievements.  Few are well-versed in knowing how to feel proud of finishing a tough book, or pleased with the revision of a piece of writing, or excited about the hard work that went into a project.  They don’t know how to authentically self-evaluate, because for years, they have relied too heavily upon someone else’s assessments of their work–mainly their teachers’.  I keep wondering how that’s fair.  I’ve had conversations recently with the lovely Amy about this, and Jackie wrote a great post about this same dilemma last October.

FullSizeRenderLast week, this tweet from the always-wonderful Kelly Gallagher helped to focus my wondering.  His words are not only true of writing, but of all other acts of learning as well.  A grade can’t improve a student’s skills.  Only feedback can do that–authentic, speedy, specific feedback.

So now, thanks to the combination of conversations with fellow teachers, Kelly’s words, and my own wondering, I know what I need to do.  I need to focus more on feedback and less on grading.  I know if I do less of the latter, I’ll free up time to do more of the former.

So, I’m pondering how to shift the balance.  I’d really like to return written drafts with my comments and questions, but no number or letter grade at the top.  I’d really like to have just one reading conferences without hearing the question, “what grade do I have in here?”  I’d really like for students to abandon the habit of looking to me for grades, and instead look within themselves to figure out how they’re doing.

Because I can’t entirely forsake grades altogether (we need to update our gradebook weekly), I’ll move my focus toward improving my feedback instead.  I’ll do this in three important ways:

During reading or writing conferences.  Until now, I’ve tried to stay fairly quiet during conferences in order to let my students do most of the talking.  Most of my talk is in the form of questions.  Now, I’ll shift to giving students more feedback–much more than the one or two statements I try to make at the end of a conference, which usually are to give suggestions about where to go in terms of goals and growth.  I’d like to comment more on my observations of students’ growth, strengths, weaknesses, and skills, so they can learn the language to begin evaluating themselves more effectively.

In writer’s notebooks.  Although I collect notebooks every two weeks, I don’t read everything my students write–I don’t have time, and shouldn’t–they should write much more than I could ever read.  Generally, I thumb through the pages, check that students have given a good faith effort in all of their various sections, and give a completion grade.  Now, I’d like for each student to flag one page in their notebook they’d like me to attend to–maybe a woefully short to-read list, a favorite quickwrite, or a particular reading reflection.  That way, they can decide what’s important to them, and I can give feedback accordingly…just comments and questions, mind you–without the pressure of a grade for reader or writer.

Through monthly “Meta Meetings.”  I’d like to sit down with each student about once a month and just have a whole-person conference…not a reading or writing conference.  Just a little checkup, to see how their brains and hearts are doing.  I adore alliteration, and I want these chats to encourage my students to be metacognitive…so I think I’ll title them Meta Meetings.  I’ll ask students a few questions about their strengths and weaknesses, and try to get to the heart of all the little bits of the language arts they’re curious about…strengthening their similes, or finding a system for keeping track of found vocab words, or writing metaphorical recipes (all questions I’ve had from students at random times).  I also think that during these meetings, I’ll get lots of awesome curricular ideas–what do my students want to learn how to do?  What things are they really wondering about that I might be able to help them discover?

What are your suggestions for improving feedback?  Shifting away from grades?  Providing more authentic evaluation?  Please share in the comments!


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17 thoughts on “Grading vs. Feedback

  1. […] but I like the way it’s worked out. While I’ve always longed to do away with grades, I struggled with how to do so within the confines of a system that makes me put grades into a […]


  2. […] with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests.  I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have […]


  3. […] so why would I treat my student writers any differently?  I’ve always struggled with how to grade/evaluate/respond to student writing, but I’m thinking about it in a new way this year.  I just want to have […]


  4. […] For a few days now, I’ve been scoring stacks of essays. (If you teach English, I know you’ve been right here with me. Shana wrote about her disdain for grading and some solutions here.) […]


  5. Sarah M. Zerwin March 15, 2015 at 2:07 pm Reply

    Hi! I saw you present at NCTE and have been reading your blog since. Great to know there are other teachers out there on the same journey as my colleagues and I are. I love reading the stories from your classrooms. Please keep writing! I wanted to respond to this post specifically because I’ve been playing around with being gradeless for over a year now. Ok, not totally gradeless because I still have to feed the beast (data in grade book for wider purposes beyond my class, needing a semester grade, etc.), but I no longer put grades on papers or any other individual assignments. I just make students revise papers until we decide they’ve learned what they can on them. And finally they are really truly revising and focusing on the writing rather than the grade. I’ve blogged about the adventure here: I am becoming more and more convinced that a workshop classroom that does not approach grades in a traditional manner can even more powerfully engage students as readers and writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • shanakarnes March 16, 2015 at 8:29 am Reply

      Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for joining our conversation. I can’t wait to check out your blog…I am feeling the same way about grading. Have to put grades in the book, but maybe effort/revision grades rather than traditional ones?

      Let us know if you’d like to guest post about grading in the secondary workshop…we’d love it!


  6. […] because I want to shift the balance of not just grading from myself to my students, but also some of the teaching, I’ve turned to my own version of […]


  7. Amy March 11, 2015 at 6:36 pm Reply

    You know I am with you on this one! More often than not, I bring a bag of student papers home, and they sit there until I take them right back to school. I’d much rather talk to students during the process, listening and learning from them, than reading their finished pieces after. Mostly because what they think finished means and what I think it means are usually two very different things.

    I love the other comments here, and I appreciate all these reminders. I know that as I talk to my students more they will continue to learn how to be better self-evaluators of their own work. And they will share with me the writing that they value, which should be the point in all this writing anyway.


    • shanakarnes March 11, 2015 at 6:49 pm Reply

      YES–so true, Amy. When is any piece of writing ever really finished?

      Thanks for getting me thinking about this important issue this week! ❤


  8. obblegobble March 11, 2015 at 2:28 pm Reply

    Over 30 years ago I was heading out of the school door when Mike, a guidance counselor, nodded at the stack of papers in my hand and remarked, “You have a lot of papers to grade this weekend.” I shot back, “No, I have a lot of papers to read and respond to.” It’s about the attitude with which we approach the reading, isn’t it? Reading students’ writing in order to grade it is onerous; reading it to see what they’re thinking and to engage them in a conversation about that is stimulating. Thanks for reminding me!


    • shanakarnes March 11, 2015 at 6:48 pm Reply

      Yes! I agree–when I’m reading their work, I am so energized! I love the conversations that come about after writing has been shared. Thanks for sharing!!


  9. rlkurstedt March 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm Reply

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Great to see teachers reflecting on their practice. Here are two suggestions.

    Students can set their own reading and writing goals and track their own progress. Provide students with opportunities to write for authentic purposes.


    • shanakarnes March 11, 2015 at 6:47 pm Reply

      Thanks! I’ll continue to reflect, and keep trying new things. 🙂


  10. Ruth March 11, 2015 at 11:41 am Reply

    I wonder if the “3 stars and a wish” that we practice at The Frost Place and that Amy has explainned in previous entries, might be turned around for use by students. I like the idea of flagging a passage/pagee/entry; however, they would do a bit of self-assessment too. What are 3 things (stars) that are working well in the piece we are discussing and what is 1 wish/problem/difficulty.


    • shanakarnes March 11, 2015 at 6:46 pm Reply

      I love this–super frequent self-assessment! Thanks, Ruth!!


  11. Gary Anderson March 11, 2015 at 9:57 am Reply

    I never talk about grades in conferences with students about writing.

    When I return “final” drafts with extensive written feedback, I need to include a grade, but I make it very small and hard to find, which I hope reminds students that the grade is the least important aspect of what we’re developing. I freely admit that my grades are somewhat subjective, so I’m open to changing them if a student is wildly upset or willing to do more work on the piece.

    I’m also not above using a grade to motivate a student to dig a little deeper. Sometimes that means giving a lower grade than is probably deserved. Sometimes it means giving a student a higher grade than might be objectively justifiable if I think it will make the student say to herself, “I must be a good writer if I got this high grade. I think I’ll take this writing stuff seriously and see what happens.”

    Thank you, Shana, for another important post. I wish every American classroom had a Shana Karnes.


    • shanakarnes March 11, 2015 at 6:45 pm Reply

      I love the idea of making a grade small and hard to find…symbolism in our feedback AND their writing! 🙂 Thanks, as always, for your support, Gary.


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