I have to be honest with you. I dislike grading. The secret is out. It is my least favorite aspect of being an educator. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy giving useful feedback to my students about the work they are doing and how to improve. Rather, I don’t enjoy grading because I’m giving a numerical value to an assignment that is not always easily evaluated with a number. Students’ reaction to the numerical value also discourages me. I’ve noticed that often students associate their intelligence and self-worth to their grade. We have inadvertently trained children to believe that their value is associated with a number and when they grow up they continue to value their worth by another number, their salary. In addition, they begin to believe that they are either born smart or not. So, for me grading can become a loaded task that can bring joy, success, and self-worth to some who do well on an assignment and bring sadness, rejection, and self-loathing to others. These attitudes just suck the life and joy out of teaching and learning.
What makes this worse is that these attitudes from students, teachers, and administrators come from a place of fear. Administrators are fearful that the district, state and national policies and regulations will punish the school with more restriction and government oversight due to poor scores on standardized exams. Teachers are fearful of being punished or losing their job if students don’t perform well. And students are fearful of not passing to the next grade with their friends, disappointing the adults in their lives, and feeling like a failure so early in their young lives. What mindful grading does is retrain everyone to rethink the act of grading and the act of interpreting a grade from a place of fear to a place of support and compassion.
Mindfully creating meaningful assessments
Mindful grading begins before we even pick up the red pen to grade. It starts by teachers carefully evaluating the purpose of the assessment and aligning the assessment to specific goals. I’ve developed creative assessments and envisioned students creating masterpieces to only be disappointed by the quality of students’ work or the lack of specific information and detail I was seeking. I then review the assignment and notice that my expectations were not clearly stated in the direction or rubric. Sometimes it’s the type assessment I used that may not have been appropriate for the skill and/or knowledge I was assessing. As a result, it really wasn’t the students’ fault that they didn’t meet my unstated or unclear expectations. They can’t read my mind. I’ve too often made this mistake. So, now I list the standards and learner objectives of what I want to assess. From there I make sure that every step and/or question of the assessment align to one of the standards and objectives. After creating an assessment I make sure to have time to not only proofread the assessment, but to also reevaluate the assessment by asking myself the following questions:
What’s the purpose of the assessment?
What do I want to evaluate? Does this type of assessment evaluate the skill and/or knowledge I seek assess?
Does each element and/or question of the assessment align with the standards and objectives?
Are the directions and questions in the assessment clear? Will all my students understand the tasks and questions?
I also ask a colleague to review my assessment to make sure that it’s clear and concise and that it supports what I want to evaluate. This can be easily done in a collaborative learning team. By taking these extra steps to ensure the assessment is meeting your expectations it will save you time and a headache in the long run. I know for most of you these tips may seems basic Teaching 101 material you learned prior to teaching, but it’s good to be reminded of what may seem basic knowledge because too often we forget, lack time, or simply overlook some of these steps.
Mindfully evaluating students’ work
After students complete the assessment comes the next hard step, which is evaluating students’ work. It’s important to give yourself the space and time to grade your students’ work, especially if you’re assessing complex problems, writing, and other skills. So, find a quiet space and a chunk of uninterrupted time to devote to grading. This may mean closing the classroom door, turning off your smart devices, and not looking at your email or social media accounts. Remember when you’re grading you are not simply giving a student a number or a letter grade, you are also providing valuable feedback to a student on areas the student has grown and areas s/he needs to continue to develop. Just like you would expect your administrators to give you appropriate and timely feedback about your teacher evaluation, your students deserve the same attention. Here are the steps I take when I’m grading student work:
Find a quiet space and devote a chunk of time to the task
Reread the assessment, rubric, my notes on it, and my intention for giving this assessment to students
Skim through students’ assessments to see common responses, common misconceptions, common errors, etc.
Then I read each student’s assessment and on a post-it note write down feedback as I’m going along. The post-it note is really helpful if you are someone who has a tendency of being a little too critical and it prevents you from permanently writing something on a student’s assessment that you may regret later. The beauty about technology is that you can type the feedback and if you want to change or delete your wording you can easily do that. So, if you do most or all of your grading electronically you can skip writing comments on a post-it note.
Reread your comments on the post-it note to make sure your feedback is fair, clear, and useful to the student. You can tape the post-it or rewrite the comments on the student’s assessment. Again, if you provide feedback electronically you can simply edit or delete your comments.
When I write numerical values I state the score in a positive (e.g., +18, instead of -2).
When I complete grading a class’ assessments I review the feedback my feedback, and note common themes, responses, and misconceptions students had. I then share the common themes with the class. I make sure that I provide feedback to the whole class in a positive and supportive tone.
Finally, if there are individual students who need additional support I am sure to make time to review carefully the assessments with individual students and if appropriate give students an opportunity to revise their work based on the additional support they received from me.
When returning assessments back to the class be sure to do the following:
Prior to returning the assessment to students discuss with the whole class the areas that the class excelled in on the specific assessment and areas that the class needs to continue to work on. You can even ask your students to give you feedback on what they felt comfortable with and what they were confused about. This is a good opportunity for students to self-assess.
When you do return the assessment to students be sure to give time for students to review your feedback in class (more on this step in the next section).
Be sure that you pull individual students or a group of students who didn’t meet your expectations to review the material again and to discuss how to improve for next time.
Mindfully self-assessing and interpreting a grade
It’s important for students to be able to evaluate their own work and be honest with themselves about their strengths and areas of growth. There is no right or wrong way of asking students to self-evaluate, but for some assessments timing and certain forms of self-assessment may be more appropriate than others. Here are some ways to approach student self-evaluation:
If you plan to give students a long-term project you can periodically give them an opportunity to self-assess their progress. Checking in on students for a project that goes on for longer than a couple of days gives you an opportunity to systematically keep track of students’ progress, to provide additional support to students who may need it, and is really helpful in group work to ensure all students are pulling their own weight in the project.
For other assessments, it may be appropriate to ask students to self-assess their work immediately after they complete it.
Students can also evaluate their work after you return their graded assessment. They can evaluate the assessment based on their thoughts and interpretation of your feedback.
Students can evaluate their work right after they turn in their work and re-evaluate their self-assessment after you return the assignment with your feedback and their score.
Here are some questions to ask students as they are evaluating their own work:
What did I learn?
How well did I learn it?
A strategy that really helped me today was...
What did I struggle with? Explain.
How can improve next time?
If I could redo my project I would...
What is my goal for the next lesson/project/quiz/test?
Did I do more or less than what was expected by my teacher?
Am I proud of my work today?
How did I contribute to the group project?
How did my peers each contribute to the group project?
Self-assessment can go beyond traditional assessments. Students can self-evaluate:
their behaviour in class
their understanding of new material after a lesson
how successful they felt at the end of each week and set goals for the next week.
if they remained on task during the lesson
their participation in class discussions
You and your students can be really creative when it comes to self-assessments. Do what works for you and your students. And remember, the self- assessments will shift and change throughout the school year and as students gain more skills, knowledge, and confidence.
Learning doesn’t stop with a letter grade
I believe my role as an educator is to guide students in seeking knowledge, become critical thinkers, and self-advocates. And I know that teaching and learning is a process and that students aren’t always going to understand a new concept or skill the first time they try. So, I like to give students opportunities to practice, to evaluate their work, and give them a chance to improve. As a result, there are times when it may be appropriate to give students a choice to redo or correct their mistakes on an assessment. This teaches students that learning is a process and it takes hard work. Learning is not a one-time deal. If a student doesn’t understand the material the first, second, or even third time it does not mean that child should just give up.
Providing students with timely and helpful feedback on their work gives them an opportunity to self-evaluate their learning and progress. It also gives them an opportunity to learn and correct misconceptions. Mindfully grading and self-evaluation teaches students that learning isn’t always easy, that it takes commitment to themselves, hard work, and sometimes several trials and errors before they reach their goals and expectations. So, let’s all be fearless and recommit to our role as educators, to support and guide students towards their highest potential through meaningful feedback that supports students progress and learning.