Self-Assigned Grades

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.

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14 thoughts on “Self-Assigned Grades

  1. Because I’ll be teaching creative writing next semester, I particularly appreciated reading about your experience in an intro-level CW class. Due to students’ fear of abstraction, of not knowing exactly how work could be picked apart, many (my current students included) fear risk-taking and instead adhere to the standard to which they’ve been taught.

    I admire your teacher’s move to take away the pressure of a grade. I don’t plan to grade my students’ creative work, either, though will be grading based on other factors that will measure effort (e.g., reading responses, in-class workshopping, timeliness of submission). Perhaps I’ll play with self-evaluation as well. 🙂

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  2. You met good professor. I try to give the best feedback and grade when I am teaching assistant. However, students who show a good performance can have complaints. Some students dislike the grading system, which does not give grades by strict rubric. What would you do if you were to receive such complaints?

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    1. This is tough because not every student is going to like a grading system that is not black and white. I would maybe try to highlight the benefits of qualitative feedback and explain their work is less restricted by this structure whereas as a strict rubric is more confining.

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  3. Hi Carlisle,
    Thanks for sharing your story about the creative writing course. I think you had a cool creative writing teacher and I loved hearing how she had you argue for your grade in a persuasive paper. I bet you learned a lot more about writing persuasively about your grade than you would have if you had been your freshman-self writing about any other topic. How do you think you will asses your students in the future? Do you think there are ways you can incorporate lessons learned then and now to create better classroom experiences for your students?

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    1. That is a great question. I imagine I will have to report a grade for the the University, but I don’t want the grade to be the driving force for students. I think qualitative feedback is meaningful and useful and I plan to incorporate this strategy. I want students to feel that if they give put in effort, time, creative thinking, and participate, this work ethic will translate to a good grade. This is dependent on the topic, but I also like the idea of student’s work being neither right or wrong, just different.

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  4. Hi Carlisle,

    Thanks for your post. I really like your story about the creative writing, and I think for this type of course which requires creativity and passion you teacher did a great job. But I can hardly say that this assessment method is suitable for all situations. This is not just for STEM courses, it is also true for some humanities and social science courses. How do you avoid the problem of “free rider”? This problem is more likely to occur in qualitative assessments. And students may experience unfair assessments because they and the teacher’s ideas are bipolar. If there are no objective evaluation standards, how to deal with the uncertainty of subjective assessment?

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  5. It is great they you had the opportunity to learn from such an exceptional teacher. If I don’t have to worry about the grade for a difficult class, the focus is automatically shifted to learning. Though I do have a few questions, what did the teacher do for the writing(s) that she was not satisfied with? Still give them the grade they asked for? Downgraded? If so, by what level? If not, is it fair for their own good?

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  6. Thank you for sharing your writing class experience. What an interesting approach for grading. I find it a good fit for a creative writing class since there is no fixed style in writing. Additionally, such an approach could elevate the pressure from being grade focused and allows a new way of accountability as students defend their work by explaining their own point of view.

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  7. It was good that you felt more motivated and relieved on Self-Assigned Grades approach. I want to ask, the effort to write a paper to get an “A” vs the effort to convince /proof your paper deserved an “A”

    Which one takes more effort?

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  8. I really love how you are able to remember so much about a course that you took 12 years ago! Talk about pedagogy leaving an impact! I think that it is interesting to make the student write a piece about why the deserve a certain grade. I love the reflection aspect of that idea. It makes me wonder how many students started out writing for one grade and then upon introspection changed it to a lower grade. I did this for one assignment a few years ago in grad school but am curious how it works in the undergraduate environment and with the added incentive of it being the final grade. Very cool post!

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  9. I think this is a great idea. Setting up the class evaluation such that students have to argue for their chosen grade effectively in order to receive it also ensures at least some level of understanding about how to be a good writer.

    The concept of evaluating work that is inherently less objective resonates with me as an art student (and instructor). Measuring improvement is certainly one way to go about this, but this gets complicated with students who are already “good” (whatever that means). In art, a common axis to evaluate against is how risky a work is — i.e. is a student actively working to expand his/her/their comfort zone? Or are they playing it safe?

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  10. Thanks for sharing your experience! Wow, I think it is awesome that you have experienced that type of grading scale before (I haven’t at all!). As you described, I can definitely see how lifting the weight of grading made it a lot easier and more comfortable to write freely. But I wonder if there are some classes that this approach wouldn’t work as well for and how we could adapt this type of grading approach that encourages students not to just be working for the A in those types of classes. So for example I am thinking about math classes where there might be more objectively “right” or “wrong” answers but where we still want to encourage students to really work through the problems and be thinking about how they can apply the techniques to their work. I don’t really have an answer, but I love this approach to alleviate that pressure and am really curious about how to adapt the approach to fit other classes better.

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  11. This idea of self assessment is interesting for the fact that it gives students autonomy but it also supplies a sense of trust. With my own students I like to engage with how they view their own work or how they think they should be graded. Sometimes I make my students provide a rubric for themselves in term of their own essays. I think this holds them accountable and lets them to tread in waters they have decided to tread in, in the first place. I think this allows room for growth!

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