Instead, I hear a chorus of questions: “What’s my mark?” “How come there’s no grade here.” “What did I get?”
“I don’t give grades for writing,” I say.
When asked why, I give the real reason: I value my time and effort.
“I watch what happens when I give back marks,” I say. “Most students take a quick look and throw the paper in the back of their book, or straight into the garbage. They spend about 10 seconds looking at the grade. If they don’t like the grade, they don’t look at the comments, either.
“I make the comments to help you get better at writing. It takes me a few minutes to make the comments–five or six minutes for a one-page piece of writing, more for longer pieces.
“After that, it takes me more time and effort to put a grade on a paper. I have to think about the writing you’ve done earlier in the term. I have to think about what the goals for this class are, and how close you are to reaching those goals. I have to think about how well other students did on this same assignment.
“All that takes me a few more minutes. I’m not willing to spend ten minutes on something that you will spend a few seconds on. And a few minutes on each of you adds up to a couple of hours of useless work for me.”
They grumble at me: “Teachers are supposed to give us marks.” “How can we know how we did, if you don’t give marks?” “This is not the way school is supposed to go.”
My response is always the same, and genuine. “I’ll make a deal with you. If you are willing to spend the same amount of time as I do, I’ll give you a grade. I’ll give you any kind of mark you like–a percentage, a mark out of 10, or a letter grade. All you have to do is bring me your paper and sit down with me while I figure out what grade to give you. If you’re willing to spend the time, I’m happy to do it.”
Once or twice a term, someone comes and asks me for a grade on a paper, and we sit down together to discuss how this piece compares to their previous work, and we look at the goals for the class, and see how far the student has to go to get there; and I give my judgement about how the work compares to other students’ work on that assignment. Then I give the grade.
Students know the difference between good work and something they’ve thrown together. They always bring their best work when they ask for a grade, and it’s always a pleasure to sit down with them to mark the paper.
I have more fruitful ways to improve student writing than grading papers, and I hate to waste my time on useless work, and on agonizing over whether someone deserves a half point more than someone else. (More to come on teaching writing. More to come on marking.)