Each time I assign an essay in my rhetoric course, I meet with students one-on-one to go over their rough drafts. I love those 20-minute conferences. At their best, they work far better than written comments in a draft’s margins at helping students improve their writing. They’re also revealing. I’ll read a draft aloud, explaining that we notice things in our writing when we hear it that we would miss if we only read silently. Then I turn to the student and ask: "What did you think? How does it sound?"
More often than not, students look at me like I’ve got two heads. The question has never occurred to them. What do they think? They want to know what I think.
Here’s what I think: Students are behaving rationally when they are surprised to be asked for their opinions about their own writing. Part of that is relational, institutional, hierarchical. They wrote the draft because I, their instructor, assigned it, and because I, their instructor, will assess them for it with a grade that will, in part, determine whether they pass the course and get college credit. Likewise, they attended our one-on-one conference because I invited them with the express purpose of giving them my presumably expert feedback. I am the expert; they are the novice. I have all the authority — within the institution and the discipline — and they have none. So I realize that my questions are not as harmless as they seem, and it’s no surprise that students don’t have ready answers.
I’m going to keep asking nonetheless.
In 1982, the writing scholar Donald M. Murray published an article called "Teaching the Other Self: The Writer’s First Reader." I only came across it recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about the value of my not-so-innocuous questions. Murray maintains that the best writers write for themselves first. They have an "other self" — an internal reader who monitors, assesses, criticizes, praises, and generally judges the writing as it is created. This other self is necessary for effective writing, because it generates the standards by which the writer determines whether the work is any good or not.
As teachers of writing, Murray argued, drawing out and nurturing a student’s "other self" is paramount to our task: We must "recruit the other self to assist in the teaching of writing. The teacher brings the other self into existence, and then works with that other self so that, after the student has graduated, the other self can take over the function of teacher." In that way, we can provide students with the capacity to tackle a variety of challenges that arise long after they leave our classrooms.
The concept is useful for other disciplines as well. It’s essentially a way to conceive of metacognition, the long-praised capacity to think about one’s thinking. Students with well-developed metacognitive skills generally learn better and are better able to transfer that learning to other contexts. My rough-draft conferences sometimes reveal one of the barriers to students developing metacognitive skills. It has happened many times: I’ll suggest ways that a student can revise her draft to make it more effective or more interesting. That student will then complain if the grade on her final paper is lower than she’d hoped for. After all, she "fixed" everything I told her to fix.
What’s apparent in such moments is the tension between my dual roles as coach (someone who works with students to help them learn and do their best work) and assessor (the person who determines their grades). We operate within a system that encourages students to see grades as ultra-important, which gets in the way of my efforts to help students develop metacognitive skills. As long as they measure their progress by my standard, it is very difficult to get students to develop their own.
Recently, I’ve read a lot of excellent writing on the grading dilemma that offers a solution. It can be summarized as: Why grade at all?
- In a 2014 journal article, Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner provided a detailed breakdown of the many failures of grading documented in educational research. Their deadpan conclusion understated their findings: "A review of the history and research on grading practices may appear to present a bleak outlook on the process of grading and its impacts on learning."
- Laura Gibbs, an instructor at the University of Oklahoma, has written convincingly of the success she’s had letting students grade their own work. "Because I put myself outside of the grading loop," she wrote in a 2016 blog post, "I can focus all my efforts on feedback and encouragement."
- And just last October, a blog post called "Why I Don’t Grade" was retweeted onto my Twitter timeline maybe 25 times. Written by Jesse Stommel, executive director of teaching and learning technology at the University of Mary Washington, it breaks down the many reasons why he doesn’t grade his students’ individual assignments. Grades, he writes, "are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education" — failing as incentive, as feedback, as sign of learning, or as assurance of fairness.
In short, could we help our students learn more effectively if we stopped grading?
Some people will inevitably read arguments like those and ask, "What about all those students who will give themselves an A without deserving it?" To those skeptics, I would ask, "What about all those students who aren’t learning in our classes now?" Why are we far more bothered by the first question than the second? We are so concerned that students will dishonestly assess their own work that we hold tight to the authority of deciding who will pass and who won’t. Yet on the question of who learns and who doesn’t, we shrug our shoulders and mouth homilies about students needing to be responsible for themselves.
Despite the fact that there are many other effective ways to offer feedback to students, I’m not ready to completely give up on grading. In part, that’s because when I was a student, I appreciated being graded — at least some of the time. I liked the fact that there was a something-like-objective measure for how well I did on a test or an assignment. So I recognize that some students actually like a graded system of evaluation. In addition, I recognize that many faculty members don’t have a choice here: Some departments — like mine — require a certain grading system for major assignments. We can’t just drop it.
I am more and more convinced, however, that I should be looking for ways for students to do more self-assessment of their work, and that their assessments should count as much as mine does.
What I’m thinking of is a version of Jody Shipka’s "Statement of Goals and Choices" — a self-report that students would draft and turn in alongside every assignment, detailing how and why they chose to complete the assignment in the way that they did. This document could also include an evaluative section, in which they assess the extent to which they fulfilled the assignment’s goals. Students also could give themselves a grade, which I would then average with my own assessment.
That sort of document — built into every assignment — would encourage students to pay closer attention to what they’re doing, to think about what they want to get out of the work, and to look more closely at their own strengths and weaknesses. I don’t see a downside. Even students, who might resist the idea of added work, would welcome the opportunity to influence their own grades.
As Donna LeCourt wrote back in 1998: The goal of training our students to be their own best critics "is to make the invisible visible so that it can be acted on differently." Students can’t improve their writing and work practices if they’re unaware of them. And they won’t gain that awareness unless they take those practices to be their own, learning for their own reasons and not just ours. Every one of our students has an other self. It’s up to us to teach their other self to speak, and to teach the students to listen