Report on Grading Differently

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At the beginning of the semester, I wrote about an experiment that I had underway to grade differently. To recap, I told my students that I would only give “straight” letter grades on the essays that they would write in my first-year writing class—no pluses, no minuses. My reasons for taking this approach were, as I explained, to lighten the feelings of conflict that I get when grading essays that fall between the margin of grades. As I wrote then, “My thinking behind this decision is that while it might be hard to know the difference between an 87 and an 88, or sometimes even between the dreaded B+/A- split, I absolutely do know the difference between an A and a B paper. I expect to see a sharp drop in the amount of stress that I feel as I grade the four essays I’m assigning this semester.”

Today I wanted to report back on how this particular experiment has gone with my class. First, however, I should draw attention to the many comments my original post generated. A number of people who weighed in to discuss how they grade differently. Suzanne Waldenberger mentioned how her students earn a C for meeting the course requirements and have to engage in extra work to earn an A or B. User “snidereg” commented on how he or she evaluates work on a sliding numeric scale of 0-4. And user “student teacher” suggested using pluses or minuses to point to “something nascent or tiny that cane pointed to and rewarded” or “show something problematic to the argument or organization of what ‘minus’ that something, would have been a solid letter grade,” respectively. There are many more useful ideas in the comments than just these three, and if you’d like to think about grading differently in the coming term you will find a lot to chew on.

It’s also important to note that I received some pointed criticism for this experiment. User “kosboot” perhaps sums up this sentiment by suggesting that my decision to eliminate pluses and minuses was “selfish and self-centered” and that I should be more concerned with my students and helping them improve than on eliminating my stress that comes from making grading decisions. As I responded at the time, I was aware that my experiment might be more about me than about my students, and soliciting feedback from the fabulous ProfHacker readers helped me gauge my emotions somewhat more objectively.

Looking back on the semester now, I can say that grading in this way absolutely made it easier for me to assign grades to papers. When I only had five grades to choose from, it was almost without exception easy to tell which grade a paper had earned. There were a few times throughout the semester when I really missed the ability to give a plus or a minus. My approach for reconciling this was to give just the letter grade but also to make a note in my grade book spreadsheet about which way I might have pushed the grade. If someone is on the edge when I’m calculating final grades, that will be a portion of what pushes a student in one direction or another. But on the whole, there really weren’t a lot of moments where I found myself wishing that I had extra options for the grades. The result was that I was much happier with my process of grading.

While my students expressed reservation about my not using pluses or minuses, they didn’t raise it as an issue with me during the semester. In fact, I would say that I got less questions about “why” they got a particular grade (wanting to know, for example, the clear difference between a B and a B+) and instead we ended up talking more about how to improve their writing. That could have happened in part because of my efforts to encourage students to use office hours, but I think the clear boundaries of grades helped. It’s certainly possible that since all but one of my students are first years that they were more willing to accept that grading might simply work differently in college.

I made one more effort to grade differently this semester, by anonymizing all of my students’ papers. I had them turn in each paper with their student number rather than their name and I recorded the grades looking only at these numbers. On occasion I found that I suspected who had written a paper based on the work that we had done in office hours; but I also found that I was wrong on some of these occasions. The “reveal” at the end of the grading of who had earned what grade was inevitably a bit of a surprise. While I don’t know if my students thought much about it, grading anonymously helped me feel that I was able to consider each essay as a fresh object rather than being influenced by the name at the top of the page. Blind review, it turns out, can be a pretty powerful thing.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the results of my experiment this semester. And while I can’t say that this approach is totally disinterested, I can also say that I think it provided some real benefits to my approach to teaching. I can’t say that I’ll avoid all pluses and minuses in the future, but I’ll certainly consider it.

Did you experiment with grading in any way this semester? What experiences did you have? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: steep grades – sharp curves / Wolfgang Staudt /

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