In the End, It’s All Ungraded

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When I was in my second fiction writing class in college, after presenting my stories to the workshop, hearing my colleagues’ feedback and receiving the marked-up copy from my professor, I would correct (some/most of) the typos and grammatical errors, print off a fresh copy, and mail it to The New Yorker.

At the time, I was under the impression that this is what writers did—write stories and then send them off until someone said they wanted to publish them. While I knew that I was not quite in the league of Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates or Bobbie Ann Mason, internally, it felt like we were at least in the same game, so what was the harm of taking my shot at the big leagues?

This memory came back to me while reading Robert Talbert’s incisive reflections on his experiences ungrading his Modern Algebra class, published here at Inside Higher Ed. Talbert lays out the rationale and approach he takes to ungrading and then unpacks both the benefits and challenges of such an approach.

As Talbert says, “ungrading is a tool,” and the way to use this tool effectively is to make sure, it is employed in the service of student learning. The objection many of us have to so-called traditional grading systems is that they are quite obviously ill-suited to helping students learn, so alternative frameworks are necessary.

As an experienced practitioner of alternative grading strategies (including specifications grading), Talbert’s reflections on how different frameworks result in different outcomes and different challenges illustrate a fundamental truth about any evaluation scheme: the framework is merely the start of the journey, not the destination itself.

One of the issues that Talbert identifies with his efforts at ungrading is that “ungrading seems to work only as well as students’ abilities to self-evaluate.”

Indeed. Removing the traditional grading standard of an instructor-generated mark can leave students unmoored, wondering what they’re aiming for, whom they’re trying to please. When it comes to writing, my experience is that students have been so conditioned to defer to the instructor that they have lost any sense of a piece of writing having a rhetorical purpose beyond receiving an approving grade.

This is bad. It’s bad if the goal of a writing class is helping students learn to write better, because ultimately students are going to be untethered from an instructor and be required to work autonomously. In fact, one of the chief complaints I hear from those who supervise others who produce writing for them is that their subordinates have a hard time working independently.

At its core, like Talbert’s Modern Algebra class, writing is problem solving, a problem defined by the specific rhetorical situation at hand. In my years of teaching first-year writing, I often had students who had never written anything in a school context that required grappling with a genuine rhetorical situation, and it showed in their struggles at solving these writing problems.

In this context, removing the instructor-determined grade was a necessary step to get students focused on the relevant aspects of the writing problem. I wanted them thinking about their audience, not their teacher…

My fiction writing courses in college way back when were effectively ungraded. Our professors would not put a letter on the stories we submitted for class discussion, and semester grades seemed to be a function primarily of effort, rather than the strict quality of our creative writing.

When it came to my own work in my college creative writing courses, I like to think that I was not so much delusional as to the quality of my work as I was enthusiastic about writing fiction in general. Feedback from my peers and instructors was generally positive. I had at least something on the ball, so why not shoot my shot at the most prestigious magazine in the country?

I cringe when I think about 20-year-old me, but I also admire that spirit and often wish I could recapture some of that enthusiasm. I sometimes talk myself out of taking those swings now that I’m better acquainted with the odds.

By the time I was applying to graduate school after working for a couple of years postcollege, I had a much better handle on the quality of my own work and spent weeks revising my writing sample. Without specifically trying, I had started to learn the difference between “good enough,” the threshold I’d been working under in college, and “can’t be better,” what I’d have to achieve if I was ever going to publish my writing.

Identifying that distinction is a chief point of focus in my ungraded writing courses and again is something students are largely unfamiliar with from previous experience, having learned to defer all judgment to the instructor.

What’s even more interesting for students is when they realize that they’ve reached a level where “good enough” is indeed “good enough” and meets all the requirements of a solution to a particular writing problem.

(These blog posts are the veritable definition of “good enough.” I want them to be thoughtful and interesting to my audience, but I also do not have the time to polish these pieces to “can’t be better.” I draft many posts that I never publish because they don’t reach that good-enough threshold.)

The ultimate goal is for students to recognize that “can’t be better” is actually a moving bar, that their capacity for improvement, self-directed and self-evaluated, is without boundary.

This kind of growth is unlikely to happen in a semester, which is only another reason why grades can be so unsatisfactory and ultimately stunting of student growth.

Graduate school for me was almost entirely ungraded, as we were expected to be self-motivated. Why else would be there? Some handled it better than others, but at that level, finding out you were not ultimately interested in putting in that kind of effort was an important lesson in and of itself. I took to it gratefully, including slacking off (relatively speaking) in classes (like bibliography) that seemed tangential to my goals while dedicating hours and hours to writing and reading fiction.

I was given the freedom to forge the path that made sense for me, to pick up new things, some of which I kept, others of which I discarded. I was allowed to learn.

The sooner we can put students on the path to this kind of self-discovery, the better.

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