Making Your Own Grade: Adventures in Alternative Assessment

In many ways, Professor Elisa New is an old-fashioned grader. On the first day of class, she tells students, “Some have called me a ‘harsh’ grader. Some use the word ‘ridiculous.’ I grade the paper you turn in, not the paper you would have written if you’d had more time.” In her class, B means “good,” and it’s rare that anyone gets above a B+ on the first try. But everyone gets more than one try: Professor New invites her students to rewrite and resubmit their papers as many times as they want, up until a final deadline. The highest grade you earn becomes your official grade for that assignment.

Professor New doesn’t pull any punches in assessing the quality of students’ work: revisions are not graded any more leniently than first tries. But she also empowers students to take control of their grade destiny, giving them the option to put in as much time and effort as it takes to learn to write well, and she offers support every step of the way. Thorough written feedback and lengthy office-hour meetings encourage students to develop their ideas and rework their prose. (Full disclosure: as Professor New’s TF, I have also supported students through the revision process, and witnessed first-hand the amazing growth possible when students have the opportunity to take their writing seriously, and to keep working at a paper until they get it right.)

Professor New has had this policy as long as she has been teaching. “The only way I could have people invested and paying attention to what I said on their papers,” she explains, “and the only way I could help them to be better writers, was if they could try again. I want to give grades according to the actual quality of the paper, not the amount of work done. There are cases where a student cares a lot and is trying really hard, and all I can say is ‘you’ve gotten so much better, but it takes time.’”

Allowing rewrites requires a lot of commitment—Professor New has taught classes as large as 30 students without a teaching assistant—and allowing multiple rewrites is not a policy to adopt on a whim. “You have to care,” Professor New says. “It’s a good policy for someone who finds it really, genuinely rewarding to engage with students’ ideas as they are crystallizing. The reason I can make myself do it is because I feel a genuine intellectual connection with this person, and there’s a real challenge—can I figure out how this person’s mind works?”

The sense of reward goes both ways, Professor New explains. “After I’ve successfully communicated that I am really and truly reading their work,” students rise to the challenge of high standards. “At Harvard many students feel bad about themselves, they feel like they’re not doing good work and it doesn’t matter. When they’ve made a paper better, they know it and feel proud.” On course feedback, “students say things like ‘Love the revision policy, I’ve never had anyone read my writing this closely’; ‘Tough but fair’; ‘Don’t take this class if you don’t want to think seriously about your writing.’” On recent Q evaluations, students proclaim: “Professor New is a firm grader, but the course is definitely worth your time, and I would much rather be challenged, entertained, and educated for a B than patronized, bored, and jaded for an A”; “Take this class! It has so much to offer and it will stay with you for years to come.”

Professor New offers some practical advice for anyone who’s thinking they might like to allow revisions: in any given class, you can expect that about half will take advantage of the opportunity to submit a revision. The later your final deadline, the fewer revisions you’ll see; the end-of-semester crunch is a bad time to rework an old assignment, and students who leave their revisions until the end are likelier to opt out. Read student work carefully and with purpose, but limit yourself to no more than 30 minutes per paper. Over time, you will learn to tell how serious a student is about reworking his or her paper, and can commit your own resources accordingly. The promise of a follow-up conversation also takes some of the burden off your written comments: “I have lower standards for marginalia, because there is that back-and-forth—so if I don’t know how to say something, I can leave the marginal comment unfinished, and the student will come in and talk about it.” Know how many papers you can read before your eyes glaze over—for Professor New, it’s 7. When she has a new batch of papers, she grades 7 every morning, and often grades all weekend, until every student has received thorough, candid feedback, and a grade that comes with the promise they can change it.

This post was written by Odile Harter.

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