Seeking Student Success: Why Do You Grade Assignments?

Why do you grade? Really…at base, why? Is it because it’s part of your contract, because students expect to know how they did, you want students to know how they did, etc.? Why? There are likely multiple reasons you grade, but I want to focus on a too-often overlooked reason.

Inspired by recent foolishness in congressional confirmation hearings regarding education, I thought it timely to bring overall education goals to the fore. Al Franken apparently doesn’t grasp the connection of, and necessity for, both proficiency and growth. Favoring growth alone allows for “success” to be achieved though acceptable or necessary aptitude is lacking. An example would be a steady growth of reading comprehension only to graduate with a proficiency typical of third grade. On the other hand, aiming at only proficiency may deny any success in progress, discourage slower-moving students, and leave the “top” students unchallenged and with no path to achieve their greatest proficiency. All should not get a trophy for growth alone –despite this seemingly being the case in professional politics where “progress” is so often touted regardless of genuine results or proficiency. So, what does all this have to do with grading?

I would offer that our top priority for grading is to foster both growth and proficiency in our students. Grading is not merely about assessing where work is on the scale and determining an accurate, representative grade for the task. In fact, I would offer that doing so is of little benefit to student growth and proficiency. Our goal as teachers is to help students become the best they can during the time we have with them. Grading is a big part of that. Grading should be about helping students, not merely evaluating their work. As we grade, don’t we want students to improve next time around? How are they going to know what to change or continue doing if we don’t give proper feedback? If you wanted to improve at a task, what would be more helpful for you, a score or feedback regarding your task? Of course, feedback helps more. So, with the grade, give good feedback. Good feedback is specific, measurable so student know if they did it or not, balanced with what was done well and done poorly, sensitive so they know you are for them, constructive so they know what was missing, and TIMELY.

A Couple of Scenarios:

Imagine getting all grading completed within a week of the due date. That’s great. But, if students have a task to work out during the next week while they are awaiting grades and feedback, they will submit it with no input (even though the previous similar task was graded Saturday or Sunday –within a week from the due date). That’s 2 out of 5 weeks in an AGS course with no feedback to help them improve.

On the other hand, what if we don’t get EVERYTHING graded within a week, but we get graded what students need for their next similar task within a few days of students submitting it (or at least a couple days following the due date)? Does that not help students more? I am not saying grade everything within the first few days, just what will help them in the next similar assignments. Further, does having a week or three lag in grading for tasks that will not be repeated hinder their growth? No. So, for example, if every discussion is not graded every week, will that hinder them? It won’t if you have already graded some earlier in the course. Again, the shift is from getting grades in, to helping students improve.

So, in seeking student success, I offer that we focus more on quick feedback for repeating tasks in time to help them grow and improve proficiency on the next one. I offer that we worry less about getting EVERYTHING graded in a week’s time and focus more on getting graded what needs to be graded now as quickly as possible. Knowing that if you have already given feedback regarding a certain task, the pressure to give more of the same feedback that week is not so critical. As such, more effort can be placed in good feedback of the items that do need addressed now. Growth and proficiency are both important, and good feedback is a critical key. Let’s focus our time and energy where students need it instead of focusing on just getting all the gradebook blanks filled in.

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