I can remember my first day of creative writing as a freshman at Clemson University. For such an entry-level class, I felt so anxious. I should have been worried about the chemistry or biology class, but no I was worried about writing. It felt so much more abstract, and then on top of that my work was going to be picked apart and graded.
To my surprise, the professor said she would not be giving any grades on any of our writing. I was floored. How can this be? At that moment, I could feel some weight lifted and the anxiety ease. All of a sudden the pressure to write for a grade was gone. There was a caveat though; she still had to submit a grade to the University at the end of the semester. So she told us all we would assign a grade to ourselves. We had to argue for our grade in the form of a persuasive paper based on how well we improved throughout the semester. As long as we provided a legitimate argument with supporting information, we would get the grade we proposed. What a cool way to approach grading. By removing the pressure of grading, the professor gave us the freedom to explore writing with a focus on improvement. I’ll admit, I was pretty grade focused. I knew I wanted to argue for an A, which I did, and the professor accepted my argument. While I still had the thought of grades in my head, I was not as motivated or concerned about it. I could write more freely. I can honestly say I have never encountered another class like this in terms of grading structure.
As I read “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn, I kept coming back to my experience as a freshman in creative writing. He says, “What matters is whether a given practice is in the best interest of the student”. At least for me, changing the typical practice of grading allowed me to write without additional pressure. I would still receive feedback from the professor, but a value was not assigned. This qualitative assessment described by Kohn offers an alternative to numerical grades. Embracing a more democratic classroom as Kohn describes can be done. I experienced it first hand and 12 years later still remember the positive impact it had on me.