Making the Grade

Making the Grade

I saw a tweet sometime last year that suggested if one found grading an onerous task, the solution was to design assignments that were fun to grade.*

I admit to thinking the idea was preposterous.  Grading, for all twenty-two years of my teaching life, had been an uphill battle against the forces of procrastination, resentment, and frustration.  This had nothing to do with the quality of the work that my students produced – their papers were regularly fantastic.  But I anticipated sitting down with a stack of work to grade with a consistent sense of dread.  It was all so time-consuming and unpleasant.

And then at this summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute, Chris Friend asked those of us in the Intro track why we thought instructors should be the arbiter of grades.

On the surface, the question seemed silly – surely we had the training and expertise to measure how well a student was doing in our courses?  And it wasn’t as if we could do away with grades – all of our institutions required that we turn those in.  But of course it wasn’t a silly question, it was merely an unexpected one.  There was no reason, Chris suggested, why we had to impose grades in a one-way process.  Why not allow students to participate in grading? Why not make it a collaboration instead of an exercise in authority?

Huh, I remember thinking.  Good question.

I sat that day, and the days afterwards, and crafted a syllabus that took up the best suggestions from our group about grading, outlining a collaborative process between my students and myself.  Instead of giving my students a grading rubric as something already established, I would give it to them as a suggestion, and we’d talk in class about whether anything needed adding, or seemed unfair.  On the day that papers were due, I’d hand out a self-evaluation to each student, with questions based on the grading guidelines.  That, along with the paper itself, would become the basis for us to have a conversation, one-on-one, about what their grade should be.

This past two weeks I put all of that into practice.

My students were almost uniformly floored by having the opportunity to shape the grading standards for the class.  “This is weird!” said more than one person, so we talked about why it was weird, and why I was trying this approach, and whether they saw it as meaningful.  We made changes to the grading standards, shifting a couple of things around, tweaking wording.  And we took a vote on whether everyone agreed it was fair.  (There were no nay votes.  If there had been, we would have kept working until everyone felt comfortable.)



On the day papers were turned in, everyone filled out a self-evaluation, either online or on paper, depending on their preference.  (I left the room while they worked.) This was the part of the process that was revelatory for me (and maybe for my students).  Everyone was deeply honest, admitting when they hadn’t made the paper a priority, or had rushed a section, struggled with a concept, or forgotten to proof read.  Better yet, they were really good at identifying what they’d done well – writing two drafts; working hard to connect disparate ideas; closely rereading sources; paying attention to their organization.  Overall, they were harder on themselves than I would have been myself.



And then we met, one-on-one, for fifteen minutes at a time.  I asked everyone what grade they thought they should get, and every single person underestimated their grade.  I asked them why they thought as they did, and that was the beginning of tremendously productive conversations about their strengths as writers and historians, as well as the places they could improve.  I didn’t feel bound to line edit their papers, which is an overwhelming temptation for me when I have a physical copy in my hands.  Instead, I could step back and say – there are a couple of big-picture things you could do here that would have a big impact; organization, thesis construction, use of quotes, a better choice of sources, for example.  Then I’d suggest a grade and ask if they were comfortable with it, and when we had agreed I’d record it right in front of them.

It was fun.

I valued so deeply getting to sit down with every student in my class and have this conversation.  I learned so much about them, laughed with them, listened when they shared worries and significant life issues that had impacted their ability to write.  I was able to emphasize to each of them that they already had strengths, and do so much more effectively than if I’d tried to do it in writing. (I checked in with my students in class today, too, and they agreed – they believed me when I told them face-to-face what they were good at, whereas when they got written comments, it was the negative that stuck with them.)

Grading shifted from being a chore to being an actual delight.  It wasn’t about words on a page, but about meeting someone in their humanity and sharing my own.

There are lots of reasons this approach might not work for everyone.  The bigger your class, the harder such an approach is to take, I know – I teach a maximum of twenty-five students at a time, unless I’ve agreed to some over-enrollment.  But fifteen minutes is, for me, less time that it would have taken me to write on a paper, so it was actually a more efficient use of my time to meet one-on-one than to grade in my usual fashion.  There’s also the question of what to do with a student who has little respect for you – I’m thinking here of my years as a young, female graduate instructor, and the couple of male students who tried to intimidate me with their physical presence. (That said, I remember them because they came to complain about grades, so writing on their papers didn’t save me from that particular confrontation.)  Still, there are real questions of comfort, trust, and implied authority that shape anyone’s ability to do as I did.

But in sum: I discovered it is not preposterous to suggest that grading can be fun.  Dear twitter user whom I doubted a year ago – forgive my presumption.  You had it right, and I had it wrong.


* If this was you, please let me know so that I can give you proper credit!




5 thoughts on “Making the Grade

  1. I love this idea! Like you, I love talking to my students but I hate and dread marking their assignment. I am going to think about how to adapt your suggestions here…

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your work and thoughts about ungrading. I’m a prof. in the Honors College at Northern Kentucky University and I began ungrading this past school year after conversations with our dean. (Jim Buss actually tagged me in a FB post sharing your interview on Connections with Evan Dawson and I’ve been meaning to touch base ever since).

    I’d love to chat sometime, if you’re so inclined. In the meantime, I wanted to say thanks for your work… and Onward!

    All the best,
    Rachel Zlatkin

  3. I am about to embark on my first “ungrading” first year composition course at a STEM focused undergraduate institution in Indiana. And I am going to print out this quote from your blog as my north star for the term: “Grading shifted from being a chore to being an actual delight. It wasn’t about words on a page, but about meeting someone in their humanity and sharing my own.” Thank you for sharing your insights with me. And are you continuing to implement ungrading in your teaching?

    1. Hello, Julia! I am, yes. How much ungrading I do depends on the course type. In my upper-level seminars it’s all ungraded; in my 100-level courses it’s much more structured. So glad you enjoyed this post, thank you!

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