More Than Just a Grade

Using Conferencing to Build Writers

When I decided to stop grading, I wanted students to focus on what they learned instead of the grade they received. For me, the shift was freeing — no longer did the rubric dictate my thoughts on student writing, but rather now the writing itself dictated that. Yet the shift was not as swift for my students. Ingrained in their mind was the idea that their worth — especially in terms of writing skills — was tied to grades.

Even in today’s class, I saw this reliance on grades. As part of my writing assessment, students must demonstrate growth on each assignment until essay (and teacher) expectations are met; then, the student earns the full points for the assignment. Hunter and I were sitting down to discuss her essay — her fifth draft of her Reflective essay — and I told her she had finally earned full credit.

She responded, “ Well, what did I get?”

I explained that she had earned full points.

She just shook her head and said, “Ok, but if you were to put a grade on it, what would I get?”

I reminded her that the better question was rather: “What did you learn?”

Together we looked at her first drafts and examined the merits of all of her improvements and she agreed that her learning was vast: she improved her purpose, structure, details, and word choice. But she still asked one last time for a score, a request I did not grant.

I left this exchange thinking. Hunter acknowledged all that she learned. She worked hard on all five drafts and showed pride in her final draft. Why couldn’t she forget about the letter grade? I needed to remember, perhaps acknowledge, that the lack of grade perhaps indicated a lack of validation for her.

So I consider now how I can help students understand that the learning is the main purpose of the essay, not the letter grade. Two blog posts ago I discussed wanting to improve ways in which I foster student reflection, and I wonder if reflection is the answer to this conundrum. I already have students reflect on areas of pride, concern, purpose, and skills when they turn in their final draft, but that is a closed, self-guided reflection. I would love to see more of an open reflection to facilitate student awareness of growth. Sometimes I see their learning when they only see the assignment completed.

What I am considering involves the final conference I have with students when they earn their final points on their essay. I am considering preparing students before the conference by having them answer the following questions:

  • Looking at all of your drafts, what is your biggest improvement?
  • What skills do you know now that you didn’t know at the start of this process?
  • Did your purpose change as your essay evolved?

Perhaps allowing students the opportunity to reflect on their learning will allow them to focus on growth instead of numbers? Perhaps empowering them by guiding their epiphany will create a more authentic understanding of what they have truly learned? Perhaps listening to their thoughts will continue to foster their sense of voice as writers? I am hoping that Hunter builds her confidence in her writing skills and understands that the learning is the real reward, not the grade. For ultimately, they are all so much more than just a grade.