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To grade or not to grade:
a writing teacher examines the options
May 3, 1999

Though the grading system may seem as fixed as the stars in their orbits to students, there are those in the teaching profession who are looking for new and better ways of evaluating student work. One of those, Peter Elbow, director of the writing program at the University of Massachusetts, was the featured speaker at the annual Celebration of Teaching, sponsored by the Aetna Foundation and the Department of English April 22.

Elbow has written extensively about evaluating (a word he prefers to "grading" or "judging") student writing. Lynn Bloom, professor of English and Aetna Chair of Writing, cited his books, Writing Without Teachers, Writing With Power and Reflections on Academic Discourse, the last of which "I use in every course I teach."

What's wrong with the present system? "It seems to me that grades aren't trustworthy," Elbow said. "They don't have a clear meaning; they don't give students feedback on what they did well or badly; they lead to an adversarial and competitive atmosphere." As for the professors doing the grading, "it's the most intellectually dull thing we do," he said. He added that some schools such as Hampshire College, an elite private institution, and The Evergreen State College, a part of the state system in Washington, have chosen to eliminate grades altogether and opt for narrative evaluations.

He has experimented with different methods of evaluating in his own classes. One of his favorites is the use of a contract between student and teacher in which the conditions are spelled out for a course grade of B: don't miss more than one week's worth of classes; don't have more than one late major assignment; demonstrate a solid level of effort and involvement; the writing must be driven by a genuine question and thinking through of that question; willingness to do significant revising and copy editing. The contract also defines the conditions for an A or A/B and what will lead to a grade lower than a B.

Elbow also urged "stepping outside grading" occasionally, as he and others do in what he calls "free-writing." "Many teachers use whole assignments that are required, but ungraded. Others of us sometimes start off a course with two or three weeks of assignments that are required but ungraded ... Portfolios, too, can be a way to refrain from putting grades on individual papers - for awhile we can just write comments and students can revise," he said.

Elbow said he rejects the notion that these alternatives are "soft, fuzzy, non-intellectual." He questioned the dependence on conventional grades, which he described as "vertical, narrow, simply numbers on a scale." Written critiques are the broader, horizontal element that is missing from a true accounting of a student's accomplishment. Elbow also said he believes students are capable of setting their own criteria for achievement, by listing what they hope to accomplish at the beginning of the course, then reviewing it at mid-semester and deciding at the end whether their goals have been met.

Elbow's thoughts on the teaching of writing were complemented by those of the three students who are the 1999 winners of the Aetna Teaching Awards. Nancy Knowles, first-place winner, and Kim Freeman and Valerie Smith, second place, spoke of their experiences in teaching writing and some of the methods they are experimenting with - audio-taped critiques and collaborative projects, among others - to help students improve their writing skills.

Diane Cox