Tilting against Grades

I feel as if I am tilting against windmills. It’s a little late in life to be attacking these sort of things, but I can’t stop. I didn’t mean to get into a WPA-list conversation about grades again, but when a friend told me about Quinnipiac’s first-year writing policy of no-grade/final portfolio, I wondered how many other schools had managed to reimagine education.

Here are the colleges that have responded to my question of whether they have a no-grade/pass-fail/final portfolio option: University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Kingsborough CC, CUNY; New College of Florida; Evergreen College; University of Maine. 

The general response that I get when I suggest going to non-graded writing instruction is 1. we can’t do it because the students are so grade conscious; 2. we are in an institution governed by grades; 3. students will slack off if we don’t motivate them by grades.

I am not convinced by the argument that because everyone else is doing it, that’s what we have to do. For academics who prioritize critical thinking, I should think that argument would fall flat on its face. 

I think many teachers know: teachers like to respond to student writing if they are seriously responding, talking back to the students. This is writing as communication. But they do not like/even hate grading. That’s why teachers procrastinate with that stack of papers.

Teachers know (and research is clear about this): students look at the grade. If it’s an A, they’ll read the comments; otherwise, they either ignore the comments or read them in order to fight back. These are not productive learning discussions.

Teachers complain about students who come to them and ask, but what can I do to get an A–the what-do-you-want syndrome. Like who’s at fault here?
And finally, we have the argument about motivation–that if we don’t motivate them by grades (presumably with high standards, leading to raising-the-bar rhetoric), they won’t work on their writing. 
Left out of the grade-motivation argument is how are we teaching writing? Let me assume (and my experience and research confirms this) that most students really like to write–and they want to improve their writing. But some of the ways in which we try to teach writing (the we-know-what’s-good-for-you-strategy); well, if I were a student in a pass/fail course, I would also try to skate as close to the nether edge as I could (a response to Ed’s and Val’s post). Some of the stuff we try to teach students is pure junk and they know it.
Our research at Drexel is very clear: half of the students enter our first-year classes disliking, sometimes hating writing. Nearly all of them began pre-school and kindergarten enjoying scribbling/writing. As teachers, we have killed that pleasure in writing–the early death usually beginning around 5th grade often in the form of the five-paragraph essay. Our challenge is to bring back their early pleasure in writing. If you’re not doing that, what are you doing? 
Anyone interested in this conversation should consider Tagg’s (the learning paradigm) distinction between surface and deep learning, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation or perhaps view Ken Robinson’s TED talk on creativity. Also Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds—which might explain our profession’s inability to unhook itself from grades, even though some teachers know the pleasure of responding to student writing without reducing their responses to a GRADE.

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