Laura Gibbs

Let's Talk about Grading (8): Feedback versus Grades

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Feb 16, 2019

My last blog post was about emphasizing work, not grades:  The WORK, not the Grade. In that post, I tried to show that grades are harmful to student work because the emphasis on grades teaches students to care about their grades instead of caring about their work. You might think that caring about grades means that students will care about their work but, sadly, that is not the case. The endless conversations here at the Community about cheating, about plagiarism, etc. show what happens when students care about their grades but not about their work. It's an inevitable consequence of the emphasis on grading, and our failure to appreciate student work for its own sake, on its own terms.


In this post, I want to write about feedback versus grades. Specifically, I want to write about how feedback is essential to support student learning, and how grades are a very poor form of feedback.


Feedback and Learning


I think we all know on some level that feedback is essential for learning. Grades are not. You will notice the conspicuous absence of grades from this learning process diagram for example:


Unfortunately, though, the emphasis on grades (grades-as-assessment) means we have not as much energy and time to devote to the feedback that will really help students improve and learn (grades are not good feedback; more on that below). One of my main motivations for not giving grades is that I want to spend all my time and energy on giving students good feedback. The feedback I give is very much "feedforward" because it is all about information they can use in the next iteration of their writing. So, let me say something about feedback as feedforward and the revision process in my classes.


Feedforward: Learning as Iteration


The main way I participate in my students' learning is through their semester-long project, which begins in Week 1 of the semester. Every week, they work on their project, and I give them feedback -- detailed feedback -- about their work which feeds into the next week's work. You can see how that works here: Semester-Long Projects: Portfolios and Storybooks.


Here's a quick overview:

Week 1. Browse. Students look at the projects of past students in order to learn what this is all about; you can do the same! Here's that assignment: Storybook Favorites.


Week 2. Brainstorm. Students start brainstorming topics, and write about that in their blogs. I send back comments on every topic they propose with suggestions for future reading and research.


Week 3. Research. Students pick one of those topics and do more in-depth research, coming up with a possible Storybook plan. I provide detailed feedback on those plans,with more suggestions for future reading and research.


Week 4. Choose. At this juncture, students decide if they want to pursue the Storybook option, or do a Portfolio instead (details). Both options are good, and every semester, I get about a 50-50 split in terms of how many students choose each option, which I take as a good sign (if it started to skew strongly one way or the other, I would rethink the overall design). After making their choice, students turn in the next stage of their project: for a Storybook, that is a website plus a more specific plan; for the Portfolio, that is a website which includes the first Portfolio story. You can see all those websites here: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. (And if you're wondering, no, most of my students have never made a website before or had a blog; they are learning all that too, along with the writing: I am so proud of all of them!)


Weeks 5-15: Writing AND Revising. For the rest of the semester, students spend alternating weeks adding stories to the projects and revising. Revising is not a punishment; instead, revising is the fun part: that's the time when students get to experiment and explore new possibilities they had not seen in their stories the first time around. It's all about feed-forward: what are you going to do NEXT? The feedback students get from me and from other students about their projects all feed into next week's work so that, by the end of the semester, everybody ends up with a project they can be proud of.


Grades: Remorse and Regret


Grades, on the other hand, close things off, looking back, and often creating remorse and regret. Especially when we grade with letters, an A grade is the only grade that doesn't cause remorse (or, worse, maybe only an A+ will do). Likewise when we grade with percentages: anything less than 100 means you failed somehow. You made mistakes. You left things out. Somehow or other, you did something wrong. And no matter how well you do next time, the less-than-perfect grade is going to sit there and remind you about what you failed to do last time.


Grades are about what you did, or did not do. What you succeeded, or failed at, last time. They are not about next time, because grades are all about assessing the past, not paving the way to the future. Grades might be a necessary evil when it comes to assessment, but as feedback, they are a disaster. Letters and numbers will never really help students understand what they can do to improve their learning; they need, and deserve, better feedback than a number or a letter.


Grades versus Feedback


So, let's say you do find time to give your students good feedback about their work, along with the grade. Sad to say, because of the emphasis on grades, students might not care about your feedback, much in the same way that they might not care about their own work. Why? Because the grade is the only thing that matters, the only thing of value (see previous post).


There is no technological solution to this problem, even though people keep asking Canvas for that (here, here, here, here, and here and on and on). If students are not reading and/or using the feedback, it's not a technology problem; it's a teaching-and-learning problem. Students need a reason to use the feedback. They need a reason to value the feedback. If the feedback has no use or value to them, of course they are not going to read it. The way to change that is to think about what is useful and valuable to your students... and that might require some fundamental rethinking of how your course is designed, especially if students have learned that grades are the only thing that "really" matter.


There is lots more to say about feedback, but that's a start anyway. I'll be back tomorrow with more. Blogging is all about iteration too. :-)



Cat at computer: Write. Think. Then write some more.