When Peter Elbow Says It All…

When Peter Elbow says it all, I still find a way to assemble a lengthy and extremely disoriented post. So sorry!

In “The Case Against Grades,” Alfie Kohn clearly takes issue with how academia currently assesses learning: he detests grading. Understandably so. I can totally understand how our grading system is problematic, how it “diminishes” interest, “creates a preference for the easiest possible task,” and “reduces the quality of students’ thinking” (Kohn). Because wasn’t that how I was in high school? I wasn’t really interested in half the stuff I studied. I wanted the easiest homework possible. I memorized to test and forget. As I’ve said before, I didn’t mind school. Heck, I didn’t mind grades. I was a very competitive high schooler, be it in sports or academics. But that is exactly what grades shouldn’t be. Learning isn’t a competition.  Learning is a life-long process of growth that can be done individually or collaboratively. While I understand Kohn’s sentiments on the current state of assessment, I have a difficult time imagining it being any other way. I suppose this is normal because I suspect most of us were raised in this “QWERTY system” of grades (Liu and Nope-Brandon 9). It’s worked this far. Why change it?

Kohn makes a good argument as to why it needs to be changed. But I tended to align more with the argument Peter Elbow made in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking.” I mean really aligned. (If only you could see how much yellow highlighter I used in my Mendeley viewer while reading the article.) Having had a pedagogy class within my major before, I’ve come across Elbow in the past, but this time around it made more sense.  Elbow writes, “It’s obvious, thus, that I am troubled by ranking. But I will resist any temptation to argue that we can get rid of all ranking-or even should. Instead I will try to show how we can have less ranking and more evaluation in its place” (188). What I like is that he wasn’t writing an article on doing away with grading altogether; he was writing an article to advocate for evaluation–a method of assessment that helps the student grow as a writer. Not only does he outline the problem with ranking and even over-evaluating within this article, but he devoted time to the concept of “liking” students writing–this blew my mind because I was thinking just today that I was dreading next weekend when my students’ first papers are coming in for grading and how I wouldn’t see the light of day because of the electronic pile of papers that would be blocking the light from the window. I like teaching my students and working with them on their drafts. I don’t mind commenting on their final papers either. But, honestly, I’m not turning back flips waiting to read them, and ultimately, I’m so confused when it comes to smooshing the comments into a letter grade box. It’s a lot of pressure.

Elbow again seemed to read my mind here: “Writing wasn’t meant to be read in stacks of twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five. And we are handicapped as teachers when students are in our classes against their will” (204).  I mean, mic-drop. No truer words. How do I solve these problems–my stress regarding reading stacks of papers, my stress at the thought of giving my students a letter grade, and my students simply doing things for this letter grade in a class they just want to tick off their list of “Boring Required Classes?” “Aggggggggggggh” in the words of Charlie Brown.

Another thing that I like about Elbow is that he states the problem AND gives some potential solutions to the problem. This seems normal, but have you noticed how rare it is to come across this in academic writing? There is always a problem, but rarely are potential solutions offered. Elbow writes about a concept and potential solution called “Portfolio Grading” (192-193). I first heard about this concept last fall and thought it was a really interesting means of assessment, mostly because I never had any professor use this method of grading before. I’ve also heard it takes a lot of work and planning. I’m not sure if this is true or not. I would suspect so because evaluating (giving detailed comments on every piece of writing) takes a lot of time. While I think I do spend a lot of time commenting on my students homework and papers, I always feel like I should do more. But I have so little time. Because I’m pressed for time, I made a promise to myself that I would use my two years in grad school as a means of getting myself acclimated to teaching freshmen writing courses before I would try something like portfolio grading. But the more I read about it, the more I like it. As far as I know, portfolio grading involves only giving out one grade at the end of the semester. During the semester, students turn in work only to receive comments on their writing. I also believe conferences are a big part of portfolio grading; this practice enables student and teacher to connect and truly work through issues in writing. The portfolio collects the students writing and evaluates it over the course of the semester. How did the student improve? How did he or she take comments into consideration? How did they not? I like it because it evaluates growth over a longer period of time rather than over the course of four weeks. I really do want to try this out someday.

Currently, I’m planning to offer revision this semester as a means of changing up assessment. I will grade my students papers (as I’m required to), but the grade doesn’t have to mean “end of story.”  If the grade is low, revision allows it to be a “teachable moment” or “learning experience.” I would hope that my students read the detailed comments that I give them, come talk to me about it, and then work to take these comments into consideration to revise for a better grade. While this still adheres to the grading system, it doesn’t suggest that a low grade is failure or that failure is permanent. They have the opportunity to grow and learn as a writer.

And ultimately, that is what I think is wrong with our current assessment system. It suggests to students that learning is done quickly and lasts up until the moment after the test is over. You either learned or you didn’t. If you didn’t recall the information, then sorry about it. You failed. I don’t think that encourages learning at all. Because trying and failing and trying and succeeding are life-long processes.


Filed under GEDI F17

4 Responses to When Peter Elbow Says It All…

  1. kgculbertson

    Would you consider ‘grades’ on drafts such as:

    Not Yet – meaning, the student has yet to address the basic expectations of the assignment
    Getting there – student is showing progress toward an educated and well-written piece
    [there may need to be one more here… I just can figure out how to qualify it at the moment]
    Accomplished – students demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the craft / materials read or studied, but requires some editing/revising to rise to the level of Proficient
    Proficient – student has created an original work reflective of the skills and techniques used by professional writers. (Minor revisions required to rise to the level of Experienced)
    Experienced – student clearly has command of the subject matter, the writing process, and techniques necessary to create an original writing that is thought-provoking and responsive to the audience.

    Just wondering, not trying to put you on the spot.

    • Jaclyn Drapeau


      I like this idea a lot because it emphasizes that the student isn’t done learning yet. (Is anyone really ever done learning?) If I were to adopt this, say next semester, in a context where I have to give the student an actual letter grade in the class, would it work in the way you have in mind?

      For example, I’m thinking that in the VT context each of these grade like “Not Yet” or “Experienced” align with a letter grade? Is this completely wrong? Let me know how you conceive of this idea!

      I’m thinking though that these type of grades would work better with a portfolio system of grading because they let students know where they are in the semester without giving a concrete A, B, or C. And the end grade of the portfolio would hopefully show that they have moved up on the scale of knowledge and mastery during the course of the semester. I do want to use portfolio grading one day!

  2. Pingback: Becoming “Real” – K.Culbertson

  3. Amy Hermundstad

    Thank you for your post! I am excited to hear that you are interested in incorporating portfolios into your class in the future. Portfolios seem like a great way for students to combine and reflect on their work from the semester. As I read your post, I began to wonder what the biggest challenge with incorporating portfolios is (I am guessing time is the big factor) and how you might be able to minimize those challenges. Are there other suggestions from the Peter Elbow article that you could start to incorporate? I like your idea of allowing students to submit multiple drafts of their paper. As you do this, how can you encourage students to read your feedback and incorporate that into a revised draft or future papers? Kathryn’s suggestion provides an interesting way to provide feedback on an intermediate draft. If students don’t have that numerical or letter grade, maybe they would be more likely to read the rest of the feedback. I would love to hear your thoughts!

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