Why I've started grading students' essays again

After years of giving students no-grade feedback, Stephen Petty now believes that assessment for learning got it wrong

Why teachers should give students grades for their essays

I am not sure I should admit this, but I have recently joined other dissenters in the profession in breaking one of the main commandments in teaching today: I have been giving out grades when marking students’ work

Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of the prevailing assessment-for-learning culture will know that such an approach flies in the face of received wisdom over marking and feedback. 

AFL giant Dylan Wiliam is not going to be impressed. As he put it: “As soon as students get a grade, the learning stops.” 

For most of this century, I happily bought into that. It made sense. As soon as students see a mark, they ignore accompanying comments and advice. Seemed obvious. Why did I have to wait for the coming of the second Dylan to see the light? 

Grades: am I bothered? 

Looking back, however, I now suspect that my conversion to no-grades marking had precisely the opposite effect, particularly in the case of more marginally motivated students.

While we can safely assume that the most driven students in any group would make the most of whatever system of marking we might offer them, I now think that grade-free marking just made it too easy for large numbers of students to be generally less bothered – less bothered about committing to the task, less bothered about the feedback and less bothered about responding to it. 

And who could blame them? Why worry about putting in your best effort if it never leads to any better or worse result than the time before? And if you know that your effort with a piece of work is minimal, why respond meaningfully to the teacher feedback? 

Caught in such a circle of inconsequence, students seemed to stagnate rather than improve. I may have successfully “taken the ego out of feedback”, but I am not sure there was anything left in its place to sustain those students. 

No-grades assessment

So, this year, I have brought back grades, though they are now much more explicitly related to an accompanying formative and interactive feedback sheet. This clearly shows how their grade is “grown” each time from five common criteria “seeds” – identifying, explaining, applying to context, ongoing evaluation and supported final conclusions. Five ticked boxes show how fully they addressed each of the criteria, on a sliding high-to-low scale. 

Students have print-outs in their books of the kind of sentence-starters and phrases that will help them to address those five criteria. They also keep a written record showing the trends in their “highs” and “lows” from week to week, so that they can easily recall and identify which areas are going well and which areas to address more. 

I have absolutely no doubt that most of my students are, as a result, more motivated now to respond to feedback in subsequent pieces of work, and that this has helped the quality of work and their rate of progress. Formative assessment is about making students think and getting them to “take ownership of their learning”. I have so much more evidence of this happening now. 

Upgrading

The new approach has also led to some unprecedented developments. Several of my most marginal students are now taking up the offer to “get an upgrade” if they redo and resubmit work. This just never happened in the gradeless environment. 

And, if there is the occasional student who I think may respond the wrong way to a low grade, then I discreetly fudge things a little and delay grading it until they have perhaps thought about adding x, y or z. No system works for all, let’s face it. 

Most areas of assessment for learning have undoubtedly inspired and encouraged many great developments in teaching. But is it just possible that the no-grades approach is ill-founded and wrong, at least for a very high proportion of examination students? 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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