Is a Flower Worth More than a Frog?

Via this week’s NCTE Inbox, I read an article about an experiment in assessment that English teacher John O’Connor tried.

After spending 15 hours carefully crafting comments on a class set of papers, there’s nothing more depressing than to see those papers parachute, unread,  into the recycling bin at the end of class.

This past school year, I swore, would be different: I would give no grades.  I figured this would force students to read, absorb, and appreciate all the attention I had given their work, rather than just rely on a grade at the end of the paper.

O’Connor left cute stamps instead of grades on student work.  Of course, they still tried to see what the value of each stamp was — “Is a flower worth more than a frog?”  Parents worried.  “[T]his was cute and all, but try explaining to a college that her son has a ‘raccoon’ in senior English.”  Indeed.

Ultimately, such a system is very hard, if not impossible to defend, particularly in a school that does assign grades to students. I cannot imagine how an administrator could back up a teacher who tried such a system and then (as is likely) was challenged by a parent or student.

I wish there was a way we could eliminate grades as a means of communicating progress and rely instead on narrative and comments, but grades are very entrenched in our schools, and O’Connor’s system would only work if the entire school was behind the idea of eliminating grades.  Many schools who use other means of assessment exist, and colleges do indeed accept these students.

Like O’Connor, I wish students would read the comments.  I am frustrated when I spend a long time with a student’s work, giving what I feel is copious feedback, only to have the student turn to the grade and ask “Why’d I get a B?”  At least students understand letter grades, and even if, as O’Connor insists, he and the student generally knew what the student’s letter grade was, I can’t imagine how I’d address the question “Why’d I get a frog?  What is a frog, anyway?”

7 thoughts on “Is a Flower Worth More than a Frog?”

  1. My college profs provided only extensive comments on papers, no grades, although we did get grades on our transcripts. This tactic was unique to the English Department, and while I found it stressful as a student, it certainly pushed me to work harder and harder because I never quite knew how well I was doing. Now that I'm an English teacher myself, I see the value in this method, particularly because even my strongest writers can make improvements in their writing but they tend to coast when they discover they're earning As. Nevertheless, I agree that it would be challenging to implement in our schools. Parents, even more than students, are obsessed with grades.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking work you do on this blog! I'm an avid reader.

  2. Interesting, but I think with the rose/frog paradigm, you get yourself into a merely semantic squabble. Let's say one goes the route of assigning frogs and roses and bunnies instead of A's and C' and F's. Eventually students will come to see a rose as something-of-an-A, a bunny as something-of-a-C, and a frog as something-of-an-F. So you'll end up simply with students ignoring your comments and rushing to see if they got a rose, rather than rushing to see if they got an A.

    Have you ever tried something where you told the students that they could bump their grade up slightly if they wrote you a brief response to all of your comments? So, if they handed back in within, say, a week, a valid, comprehensible response to all of your comments on their paper, you would possibly bump them from B- to B, or A- to A, etc.?

  3. Maybe students shouldn't get the instant gratification of a grade on the day papers are returned. If all they got for 24 hours were comments, and had to estimate their own grade based on the comments before seeing the grade in class the next day, perhaps the grade they received would make more sense. I'm still playing with ideas of grading and such before I start teaching, but the thought that students just throw away papers after they get their grade stresses me out a little.

  4. Bronx 2020, just to be clear — I didn't use this system. This system was used by John O'Connor. You're right that students will just then try to figure out if a flower=A or a frog=B.

    I do something similar to what you suggest. I have asked my older students to apply the grammar and writing conventions they've learned so I can focus on their ideas. I take a certain number of points off for certain errors, but students can earn them back if 1) they revise, 2) they write an explanation of each error: why it's wrong, what they should have done, and 3) they hand all this in by the due date. Otherwise the other grade stands.

    Cassie, your idea is a pretty good one. In conjunction with Bronx 2020's comment response, it would be worth a try, I should think.

  5. This is all wonderfully — forgive me — academic for me at this point (hopefully, I'll be teaching as of next fall). But I wonder how these sorts of schemes play out in execution.

  6. You are right — I have a hard time believing that in execution this would really work. I've been at this for 10 years now, and I've tried lots of things.

  7. Yeah. I'm trying to do as much research on teaching as I can before I start teaching, but perhaps — in execution — it's all variations on the same themes…

    What's in a grade? That which we call an A

    By any other name would smell as sweet.


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