Students as Writers and Thinkers: Another Grading Dilemma

A high school ELA teacher who completed the certification program where I teach was telling me recently about one of her students. The student, the teacher explained, had submitted an essay that the student worked diligently on, completing multiple drafts.

The teacher noted that the final essay showed marked improvement in the writing, but grading the essay also posed a dilemma because despite substantive feedback on the content from the teacher, the student simply made very little progress in thinking well about the topic.

person holding ballpoint pen writing on notebook
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Having taught high school ELA and then at the college level for 18 years each, I quipped, “That’s what Bs are for,” adding, “Maybe a B+.”

I wasn’t being as cavalier as it seems because I have navigated this problem hundreds of times since most of my teaching of writing has been situated in the lives of teenagers and young adults. Compounding the concern for brain development—that this age group is still developing the ability to think critically and deeply—is, for me, my own practice of de-grading and de-testing my classes.

In other words, this scenario is one of dozens that highlights why grading is often misleading and almost always harmful to the learning process.

In a reasonable world, this teacher would be allowed simply to express to the student this reality—the writing is exceptional for showing improvement, but the thinking on the topic remains trapped in simplistic and unsupported ways.

And that assessment in the form of expository feedback can be shared in this spirit: This is not a negative criticism of your effort, or your ability, but a fair reflection of your current growth, a snapshot of your journey to writing and thinking more complexly and in more compelling ways.

For teachers of writing, this problem also asks us to face key elements of giving students feedback and grading when required. The challenge revolves around having clear goals for the writing assignment, and then being able to contextualize those goals by student characteristics such as brain development (a really challenging concern).

Here are some of the common issues teachers of writing face when working with teenagers and young adults, problems that occur at the intersection of writing proficiency and thinking well:

  • Students make a large number of extreme claims, rarely offering credible evidence in compelling ways. Yet, the students have a high command of the language and construct effective sentences and paragraphs as well as relatively cohesive essays.
  • Students submit a jumbled draft, seemingly carelessly constructed (surface features, formatting), but includes several strong claims linked to solid evidence. Sentence structure, paragraphing, and essay coherence are spotty at best.
  • Students submit a well structured essay with solid sentence and paragraph formation; surface features are also solid. The essays pose a manageable number of reasonable claims linked to evidence in traditional ways (for example, all claims about a text are connected to quotes from the text); however, that evidence is thin, from sources that are not credible, or doesn’t support the claim (the quote doesn’t support the claim).

Just to name a few common challenges above, but the focus here is that each of these situations is common and made complicated by the need to grade; each is, in fact, not as challenging for offering feedback, especially to support revision.

The evaluation culture of schooling works against both student growth as writers and thinkers, in fact, because summative evaluation de-contextualizes artifacts of learning from the larger realities of human development.

Grades also stunt some of the essential elements of learning, notably that errors are often not to be avoided, but are essential for growth.

For example, many of my students in first-year college writing submit work that is mostly claims, no evidence, or work that is narrowly grounded in the “all evidence is quoting” trap they have mis-learned from writing too much literary analysis in high school (such as in Advanced Placement Literature and Composition).

Less of my instruction is about writing in those cases, although I tend to find that young writers are lazy and careless with word choice, sentence formation, and paragraphing, but more about the substance of their claims and their ability to find, choose, and incorporate effective evidence.

Young people, we must remember, live in experiences outside of schooling where being persistent, loud, or assertive results in simplistic or even false claims being viewed as credible. And young people often have not reached a level of brain development to investigate critically claims and evidence.

To teach writing is inextricable from teaching thinking. Simultaneously, those of us teaching writing can distinguish between something like good writing that can sit next to poor thinking, and flawed writing that includes important aspects of complex thinking.

Much to our chagrin, we almost always have to grade the submitted writing sample—even when we are aware that many of our teenagers and young adults simply will not think complexly for several more years despite our best effort to nudge them along that path.

Ultimately, assigning, responding to, and then assessing/grading student writing requires that we very clearly identify what our goals are for the writing assignment and the students, that we acknowledge the tension between responding to and assessing/grading both the writing and thinking in writing samples, and that we find ways to resolve how assessment/grading inhibits and even deforms those learning goals (such as delaying grades).

As I approach forty years of teaching teenagers and young adults to write and think, I have remained fairly vigilant in my demands for their ability to grow as writers while also becoming more and more patient with the time it takes for them to become the critical thinkers I hope they will be.