Monday, March 18, 2013

Let's Talk about Grades!

"Most students hate to be graded, most teachers hate to give grades, and everyone hates to talk about grades" (Edward White, "Evaluations: The Enemy of Learning").

Except me!

For the rest of the semester, I resolve myself to tackling issues surrounding grades, particularly on papers.

But I will not focus only on grades. There are many ways students are evaluated, and many ways students respond to these evaluations. What I am interested in and what I plan discuss (in spite of how much we hate talking about it) is particularly those issues that involve student emotional responses to these evaluations.

In other words, I want to talk about what the "grade" does to us.

To begin, I believe it is important to empathize with students as they enter into the world of collegiate writing. Writing, at any level, in any academic form, often provokes what I believe to be a strong sense of vulnerability in students.

This idea of vulnerability stems from Brene Brown's relatively recent success with her presentation which propelled her into the limelight.

Vulnerability, as Brown argues, is not a weakness but an opportunity to learn and cultivate a new skill. However, vulnerability is steeped in fear of judgment or receiving a poor evaluation from our peers, our superiors, and as I argue, the red pen. 

If students are saturated in the feeling of vulnerability as they enter into the language of the university, then they may step too cautiously. They may, as Brown argues, refrain from "entering into the arena" of academic discourse. Vulnerability limits our ability to be creative, to take risks, and to dive into a project with the conviction necessary to achieve the level of work we desire.

To combat this feeling of vulnerability in students, teachers can expose their own vulnerabilities to students. Self exposure in this form can help to alleviate anxieties that cripples students' writing abilities. 

When teachers simply allow students to see their imperfections, it encourages risk taking behaviors in students, dissolves much of the defeatist mentality students have when approaching writing, and allows them to see themselves as humans with the ability to improve. 

If vulnerability is based on the fear of judgment, or in this case grades and evaluations, then how do educators ultimately overcome vulnerability?  Do we eliminate grades altogether as some have argued?

I don't believe so.

I believe, with a little effort and imagination, students can be graded, evaluated, and offered feedback in such a way that encourages students to take risks, to be creative, and allow them to make embarrassing mistakes - as learners often do - without capitalizing on their vulnerability.

I have not developed a system to propose here. When I do, I will sell you my book. I do, however, invite the conversation to begin in the comments section below. Students voices are especially appreciated.

Tell us how you feel about grades!


  1. I genuinely enjoy talking to students about their writing-in-progress and I appreciate opportunities to respond to student writing--asking questions in the margins and making suggestions... But my productivity screeches to a halt when I grade it. So put me down for a copy of that book! Like you, I am very interested in what students have to say about the effects of their instructors' evaluative comments and marks on their productivity and development as writers.

  2. Dr. K
    I wonder if the halt you describe after grading is because the grade ends the conversation. Is it possible that comments can say "Great Talk!" but the grade says, "I give this conversation a B. Let's talk better next time."