Grading to Communicate: The Research Paper

Well, as predicted, when I handed back final drafts of the research paper, there were some unhappy campers. As I explained in a previous post, students at my school are very focused on grades. There is a feeling of entitlement to A’s and B’s. It is frustrating because my personal philosophy has always run much closer to that of Tony Winger (“Grading to Communicate,” Educational Leadership, November 2005). In practice, however, I have not always been supported (not true of my current position) in using grades to indicate areas of strength and weakness. It makes me queasy to slap good grades on assignments that did not meet criteria, especially when students had rubrics in advance. I think sometimes students have unrealistic notions of their ability, and moving into a higher level class is sometimes a mistake. Sometimes, we need to be in a class at a level designed to meet our needs. Instead, students and parents are so focused on getting into College X that they challenge teachers who grade to communicate. This is very real stumbling block, and it’s one of the reasons teaching the research paper is so difficult for me.

I did have a moment this week that was one of those moments that all teachers really long for. It’s one of those moments when a student says he/she really learned something. And they kind of thank you for it.

A student I had last year told me the other day that he felt as if everything he wrote up until the final draft of his research paper last year was, to use his word, “crap.” He had earned a C on his first draft, and it was a real wake-up call. The impression he left me with was that he has been putting much more effort into his writing since then, and even though it hurt him at the time to earn that grade, he learned from it. In other words, that grade communicated something to him that is much more valuable, I think, that earning a meaningless A or B. He is going to be a better writer for it. And I happen to know he’s doing well in his English class this year.  I think, in his way, he was trying to thank me for helping him see how his writing could improve.

4 thoughts on “Grading to Communicate: The Research Paper”

  1. Oh my. I turned back research paper drafts a few days ago and had some very upset students. Yes, their sense that they are entitled to A's and B's is frustrating. They want A's for Effort, even though they, too, have a rubric. I really, truly hate giving them low grades (I like them too much, plus I feel partly responsible for their failures), but what else can a teacher do when they fall far short of the criteria? Frustrating!

    Glad you had the experience of a student telling you he'd learned something!

  2. Out of respect for his feelings, I won't divulge details, but he was extremely upset when he first received his paper back. I am happy, though, that a year later, he looked back on it as a formative learning experience.

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