Grading for Process: What Grading Alternatives Most Emphasize Process?

Grading for Process: What Grading Alternatives Most Emphasize Process?

Before becoming a first-year writing instructor, I worked as a writing consultant in the undergraduate writing center and embedded in writing courses. These experiences prepared me to discuss writing with first-year students and to stand in front of a classroom with confidence. But these experiences—valuable as they were—didn’t prepare me for one major aspect of first-year writing instruction: grading. I had conferenced and discussed writing for hours, but I had never had to assign a number and a letter grade to that piece of writing at the end of the day. As a first-year instructor, I am required to assign grades, and with that has come an unexpected teaching anxiety. Quantifying writing feels impossible to me, and I’ve spent many hours this semester worrying about “ruining” writing and “misgrading” papers.

But I’m not the only one in my classroom with grade anxiety. My students also face the pressure of having their written work translated into a number that then affects their schooling. First-year students are coming (most often) directly from the K–12 school system, and they’re bringing with them that same anxiety about grading. They spent the last four years of their life cultivating a nearly flawless GPA in order to come to university and sit in my classroom, so they’ve developed the habit of focusing on how to get a “good” grade in a course. In addition, their college GPA still affects their academic prospects and potentially their eligibility for scholarships and financial aid. Even the students who genuinely want to leave the class as better writers still talk to me about their writing in terms of what they did “wrong” based on the number of points missing on their score. These stressors and my own create an interesting classroom dynamic when it comes time for assignments to be graded.

With all of this grading stress, I’ve been left wondering: why do we grade at all? What are the purposes of grades—especially in the composition classroom? What are the limitations of our traditional grading system? And, possibly most importantly, how can we as writing instructors grade in a way that emphasizes the importance of process in writing?

These are the questions I’ve explored about grading in an effort to understand how to reduce grading anxiety in the composition classroom. To understand this topic fully, I will first discuss the theory behind grading, especially in writing classes, and how that differs from other forms of evaluation. Then I will investigate the limitations of traditional grading and what alternative methods writing teachers have used.


The Theory of Grades

Grades have been in the education system for a long time. The traditional grading scale came to be in about 1850, and just over fifty years later, scholars began critiquing it. Specifically, “studies as early as 1912 questioned the validity of grading, suggesting that in writing instruction, in particular, grades were far too subjective” (O’Hagan 3–4). So why did they implement grades at all? O’Hagan says that this original grading system was designed to measure what skills a student mastered (3). To advance in school, students need to show mastery of a subject, and grades were an efficient way to communicate mastery to the students, their parents, and their other teachers. All a teacher had to do was add a letter to a class, and that communicated the level a student had mastered the material. Grades were implemented in writing classrooms in the 1800s as well since writing is a skill that many consider can be mastered.

When complaints about grading arose, some writing instructors began using grading contracts in 1921 “to encourage self-directed learning” (Cowan 2). The motivation behind contract grades was then to put more parts of the learning process on the student. These two grade theories were the most prominent until the creation of the portfolio assessment in the 1990s. This portfolio was an attempt to grade more of the process of writing rather than giving a grade for each individual piece of writing (Greenberg 276). The portfolio was very popular until other approaches gained more popularity as other styles of pedagogy (like postprocess) took root.

This brief history of grades then leads us to the theoretical assumptions behind grades. In the 1850s, grades were originally designed to measure student mastery (O’Hagan 3), but “grades are an element of an intra-university economy that determines, among other things, enrollments and the sizes of departments” (Achen and Courant 78). Grades aren’t just for measuring students but for running a university. Departments take these grades into account while evaluating teachers and allotting funding, so grades are also the fuel of a university economy. Famous composition theorist Peter Elbow articulated the idea that grades are now viewed less about mastery of a skill and more about the quality of a student’s performance in a course (“Getting Along” 1). An “A” may no longer mean complete mastery but rather a high quality performance in the course. Because grades can show mastery, determine logistics, and reflect performance, writing instructors often come to the assumption that grades are necessary for a properly-run classroom. But the theory of grade scholarship doesn’t agree with that assumption.

While Peter Elbow acknowledges that grades supposedly represent the quality of a performance, he also explains that we shouldn’t operate under the assumption that grades are actually necessary for a writing class. Elbow asserts, “It’s important to realize that grading is not built into the universe; it’s not like gravity-—not ‘natural’ or inevitable” (“Getting Along” 1). Elbow isn’t the only composition instructor pushing back against hundreds of years of grades in classrooms. Theorists Veit and Wagner also agree that grades are both unnecessary for learning and to the writing classroom (432). Specifically, Wagner asks, “But what is so sacred about the grade anyway? Students, teachers, parents and the computer seem locked into what research has demonstrated to be an outmoded system. Why is it necessary to affix a ‘grade’ to every thing a student produces?” (77). Wagner raises a valid point: is a grade sacred? Do we need to be locked into a system from the 1850s designed purely to measure skill mastery? In that same vein, Paul Thomas goes so far to say that “if you are grading, you may not be teaching.” Can grading genuinely get in the way of teaching?

Guskey (and Frisbie and Waltman whom he discusses) also agrees that grading isn’t required: “Grading and reporting aren’t essential to instruction. Teachers don’t need grades or reporting forms to teach well. Further, students don’t need them to learn.” Guskey hedges this thought slightly by saying, “Grades have some value as rewards, but no value as punishments.” But many of our students don’t view grades as anything but rewards and punishments. I have had quite a few students in my office hours asking what they did “wrong” because my grade on their paper was somehow a punishment for falling short of perfection. So while it’s a nice theory that grades have no value as punishments, it gets tricky in practice to remove the student assumption of grades as punishment. They have twelve years of grading assumptions ingrained in them. These aren’t the only struggles with the traditional grading system in a composition classroom.


Limitations of Traditional Grades

The traditional grading system has limitations, and scholars, teachers, students, and administrators all have concerns about it. One limitation that’s particularly prominent in the writing classroom is that traditional grades aren’t able to be completely fair. I’ve heard these kinds of complaints from students already in my limited teaching experience. The word my students have used to describe grading is “subjective.” Scholars also use this word as well, so it’s generally accepted that grading writing is subjective. The scholar Guskey explains it this way: “Regardless of the method used, grading and reporting remain inherently subjective.” Rubrics, point systems, and other ways to grade all eventually lead to the same result: subjective grading. Instructors are usually aware of that. Peter Elbow adds, “We know that these decisions are not trustworthy, no matter how hard we agonize” (“Grading” 127). Instructors can try night and day, but whatever the grade is, it is still technically subjective. Achen and Courant point out that traditional grading for writing provides “students with more opportunities to argue about putative fairness of grades, thereby imposing costs on the instructor” (87). Writing teachers have to field students who are upset about grades, and unlike a math teacher, they can’t point out the “right” answer and send the student on their way. Instead, they have to justify the grade or concede some points.

Since the goal of a writing course is to produce better writers, it seems counterproductive to spend time justifying a grade when the grade itself won’t improve writing. And justifying a grade doesn’t seem like the right kind of feedback for helping a writer improve. Even if we are able to justify a grade well, “what does such thoroughly justified grading do for the student? Very little. Any grade short of an ‘A’ tends to reinforce the student’s ‘I’m not okay’ attitude toward composition” (Wagner 77). Instead, it’s spending time on points, which does put a cost on the instructor and also on the student. All of that justification goes nowhere when the grade is beneath an A, and instead, the student then focuses on what they’re doing “wrong” in composition rather than becoming a truly better writer. The subjectiveness of grading writing puts a limitation on what the teachers and students are able to spend their time on and “tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning” (Elbow “Grading” 127).

Another common concern is the arbitrary levels between grades. Elbow points out that teachers struggle with “trying to figure out the grades. For each essay in the stack, we have to decide between A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, and so forth” and “we are still having to make fine evaluative discriminations among eight levels” (“Grading” 127). In another article, Elbow adds, “Regular A through F grades consist of nothing but a vertical stack of levels, with each one defined in no other way than ‘better than the one below, worse than the one above’” (“Getting Along” 7). All we know about an A is that it ranks higher than a B, which Elbow argues is meaningless. And it’s true that when we see a “B” grade, all we really know about what that means is that it’s higher than a C and lower than an A. In my own experience as a student, when I receive an A, I know I performed better than students who received B’s, but I still don’t know anything about what that “A” means besides that. When we go back to the original goal of grading—to show what a student mastered—these letter grades aren’t translating that. Instead, it’s mostly arbitrary. Then there’s the challenge that “a single grade hardly sums up the complicated mixture of strengths and weaknesses present in students’ work” (Cowan 1). Writing involves so many pieces all working together: content, style, structure, voice, diction, etc. Assigning one letter to all of that creates its own type of arbitrariness. All together, the arbitrariness of both the letters themselves and the application to a student’s work highlight the limitations of the grading system.

In addition to subjectivity and arbitrariness, the grading system has a limitation in that it potentially undermines the purposes of teaching. Cowan states, “If an instructor’s goal is to teach invention, feedback, revision, and other process-oriented skills, grading one final product misses the point entirely” (1). She believes that grades undermine the goals of a writing course. Instructors should instead be focused on teaching the writing process, and assigning a letter to a process doesn’t align with the goals of the classroom. Elbow agrees with this idea when he points out, “Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning” (“Grading” 127). While it’s harder to only study for a grade in a writing class, students can get fixated on doing only what it takes to get an A. Grading can also “blur the distinction between summative and formative grades, inhibiting often the important role of feedback and student revision of assignments” (Thomas). Grading does blend together with feedback often since so much of the feedback goes to justifying a grade. The goal should instead be to provide feedback oriented toward growth, rather than focusing on how to get a higher grade.

One final limitation of the traditional grading system is that it fails to put proper emphasis on teaching process in the writing classroom. Process pedagogy expert Donald Murray writes, “Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness” (4). He argues that by teaching process and the glory of unfinished writing, teachers are better able to help students learn to write. Lad Tobin also discusses the importance of teaching process. He argues that an emphasis on process (and postprocess) provides students with greater opportunities to learn and to create improved writing (5). As writing instructors, we want to achieve this goal of having students learn to write and learn how to create more engaging pieces, and emphasizing process in the classroom is one important way to do that. Murray does begin to address the idea of how grading in a process classroom works when he writes, “A grade finishes a paper, the way publication usually does” (6). But his implication here raises concerns when actually put into practice. While it’s a nice thought that students will understand process when they’re not graded on drafts, the final product is still given a grade, and that grade, as a result, puts more weight onto that singular aspect of the process. Traditional grading also fails to reflect process adequately because students are so worried about and caught up with their final papers because those are worth the most points. If final papers receive more grading weight than steps in the process, how can we blame students for viewing the final graded paper as the most important part of the course? If we, as FYW instructors, really want our students to reap the benefits of learning the writing process, we are only hindered by using the traditional grading system as it stands. The grade on a final product can work to undermine a course designed to emphasize process.

With traditional grades limited in helping with learning, process, and clarity, it only makes sense that teachers have created alternatives—alternatives that do more to reflect the importance of process and to help students better learn the writing process in our classes.


Alternatives to Traditional Grading

I’m going to outline four alternatives to traditional grading that have been implemented in writing classrooms in an effort to put more emphasis on the writing process and help students focus on improving at writing. There are more alternatives teachers have tried, but these seem to be the most popular and effective approaches to changing the traditional grading system. I’ll also discuss what each of these four alternatives do well and what the limitations of each one are.


The Portfolio Assessment

The first alternative is the popular 1990s solution: the portfolio assessment. Kathleen Jones defines the writing portfolio as, “a collection of completed writing assignments” (Tchudi 255). In addition to the completed papers, the student also includes peer feedback, drafts, teacher responses, and self-assessment to the portfolio to create a more complete picture of the writing process for that student that semester. In her portfolio assignment description, Jones puts this: “Individual writing assignments will not receive a grade. . . The portfolio will be evaluated as a whole each reporting term in a conference between the student and teacher and according to the criteria provided. A grade will be assigned at that time” (Tchudi 257). So instead of grading each paper, Jones instead compiles all the student writing and evidence of the writing process, meets with the student, and finally assigns a grade alongside the student on the entire portfolio.

This portfolio has many advantages. The first advantage is that it really emphasizes process over individual products. I discussed earlier that assigning a grade to the final product gives that more weight than navigating through the writing process. The portfolio helps mitigate that pitfall of a traditional process-oriented classroom. With this alternative, no individual writing assignment receives a letter grade. There can be no additional emphasis or weight given to the final product because the whole process of writing that piece is graded together. All of a sudden, students need to focus more on thoroughly working through the writing process. And the student doesn’t receive a good grade on the portfolio without demonstration of growth in the writing process—as shown by the requirement to include all feedback and drafts. By requiring evidence of the process, the instructor is showing the student that the process by which they wrote is equally as important if not more important than the final product. The process is also included in the final grade for the writing portfolio, and it’s impossible to distinguish between what portions of the grade went to the product and what to process, which in turn makes them feel equally as crucial.

Another advantage of this grading alternative is that the student is involved in assigning the grade. First of all, the student has to self-assess each piece, and that self-assessment is taken into account when assigning a grade to the portfolio. The students have to evaluate their own writing and decide how they think the piece stands against established criteria. Then the instructor conferences with the student to decide on a final grade together. Both of these steps keep the student actively involved in the grading process, which should hypothetically reduce the likelihood of feelings of unfairness and time spent justifying grades later.

Whether the student should be involved in the grading process at all is worth considering. Grades are typically associated with teachers and people in positions of power. Is it beneficial to involve the student, or does it just further complicate the grading process? One argument in favor of including students in grading is that it does break down some of the power dynamics between teacher and student. It makes assigning a grade less of a power struggle since the student also contributed. But then instructors do run the risk of students always choosing an A—whether or not the portfolio meets the criteria for an A. Students face many external pressures to get good grades, and some may feel a need to get an A at any costs, and that would involve more extreme self-assessments and potential disagreements with the instructor during the conference to grade the final portfolio. If a student insists on an A and the instructor doesn’t comply, that could leave the student feeling unheard and like they weren’t actually given a chance to contribute to the grading process—whether or not that was entirely true.

Another limitation of this portfolio grading solution is that assigning a grade to the entire body of work risks the same ambiguities of grading an individual piece but on a larger scale. When a student gets a C on an individual writing assignment, there’s the ambiguity I discussed earlier. The same levels of arbitrariness and subjectiveness that Elbow and Guskey contemplate could potentially still exist here. You, as an instructor, are still assigning a letter to a complex system of concepts working together. When a student gets a C on their entire semester, there’s the risk that the ambiguities will only increase. It’s potentially possible to mitigate this risk if lower grades are assigned to portfolios that are missing elements and show little to no revision and growth. There will still be the ambiguity of subjectivity, but there’s still the possibility that the grade will emphasize process more than anything else. Essentially, the portfolio helps to mitigate one major limitation of the traditional grading system.


The Grading Contract

Another alternative to traditional grading is a grading contract. It’s important to note that a grading contract can be used in conjunction with the portfolio, as Peter Elbow does. The grading contract focuses on what a student does, but there’s still room for flexibility in what grading process is applied. Essentially, a grading contract outlines specific things a student does that guarantees them at least a B in the class. To earn a grade above that, they must demonstrate exemplary writing—whether through individually graded assignments or a comprehensive portfolio. Peter Elbow’s B-contract requires a student to attend, participate, turn work in on time, complete all low-stakes writing, give thorough feedback in peer reviews, revise, and attend conferences (245–246). If students do all of these things, they get at least a B in the class regardless of how effective their writing is.

One strong benefit of the B-contract is it reduces grade anxieties for some students by providing a way to get a good grade purely by working hard. A student who attends, participates, and revises can receive a good grade in the course even if they turn in mediocre or merely acceptable final products. The contract also puts extra emphasis on process since that’s what receives the majority of the weight in the final grade. A B grade is well over half on the grading scale, so in the end, only a small portion of the final grade is allotted to product. The other main advantage is that it can be integrated with other grading alternatives in an effort to put more emphasis on process. Elbow combines his contract with the portfolio assessment to put even more emphasis on process.

One limitation of the contract is that it can confuse students. Right now, I use the contract in my section (which is a section that meets twice a week with five other sections that all use the same grading process). On our mid semester survey, a large number of students commented on how they felt that the B-contract was unfair, which led us as a group of instructors to realize that our students still didn’t understand the contract. We explained it at least five times and outlined it in the syllabus, but we still had students that felt that it lowered their chances of getting an A in the course. While the contract doesn’t actually lower their chances, students still worried because getting an A was their top priority in my class. Perhaps this limitation is only one that exists because of how rarely a contract grading system is used, so students are simply unfamiliar with it. But instructors do run the risk of confused and potentially upset students. Grading contracts also do little to combat the subjectivity of grading the final portfolio or individual writing assignments, but that ambiguity potentially matters less when dedicated students still receive high grades.


Minimal Grading

Peter Elbow has tried a variety of grading processes in his classroom, so I’m drawing this alternative from him as well: minimal grading. To understand minimal grading, Elbow asserts that we need to decouple stakes from levels (130). Levels are the traditional grading steps A through F. Stakes are how much effect an assignment has on the final grade. These are two separate ideas, and separating the two offers new grading possibilities. While many teachers and students think more levels have to be used to indicate higher stakes, that’s not true. Many levels can be used on low stakes writing, and fewer levels can be used on high stakes writing. Minimal grading involves using fewer levels (like “pass and fail” or “good, adequate, needs improvement”) on writing assignments that are worth a lot on the grade. Elbow’s theory is that more levels don’t actually increase how hard a student works on an assignment, but it does put more work on a professor to decide how to grade a piece (131). Instead, Elbow recommends that instructors raise the stakes of the assignment rather than the levels (131). For the final grade, instructors can calculate the grade based off of stakes and the levels of low stakes writing assignments (132).

This alternative to grading has many advantages to teachers. It reduces the amount of time spent deciding between arbitrary levels, for one. Teachers also have the freedom to choose how many levels they’ll use and what the benchmark for each of those levels means. Pass and fail can go where a teacher believes it should. If an instructor wants to use three levels, they can, and they can choose the names for and the standards for each of the levels. For students, minimal grading also could potentially reduce the ambiguity and stigmas of what certain grades mean. In addition, minimal grading can still be used in conjunction with other alternatives like the portfolio (something Elbow highly recommends) or even the grading contract.

One limitation of minimal grading is, again, students can be confused. Elbow emphasizes that he has to spend a great deal of time explaining his system to students and helping them separate levels and stakes (131). You run the risk of students assuming fewer levels means lower stakes since that’s what they’re used to in a majority of their other classes. Again, these limitations may be only because of less exposure to this style of grading rather than an actual shortcoming of the system. In addition, minimal grading offers a solution to the arbitrariness by creating new levels, but it doesn’t seem to emphasize process or remove any subjectivity.


The De-Graded Composition

The de-graded composition comes from academic Richard Veit, and it is very similar to the portfolio assessment. Essentially, Veit responds to student writing by writing all over them but only puts a check next to the student’s name in the gradebook (436). At the end of the semester, Veit gathers all of a student’s writing (usually in the form of a portfolio. Again, this is a very popular alternative) and “then undertake the task of comparative evaluation for grades” (433). Other low stakes assignments, attendance, and participation are also calculated into the final grade. It’s very similar to a portfolio in that the instructor uses a cumulative gathering of writing to assign a grade to writing, but it varies slightly in that this style doesn’t necessarily include accounting for revision or student self-assessment. Students also don’t see their grade on their portfolio. Instead, they just receive a final grade with all the other bits factored in. Teacher Paul Thomas also implements the de-graded composition and considers removing grades from writing to be crucial to teaching. Thomas regularly writes and speaks about the importance of removing grades from writing classes entirely in order to better practice teaching and help students learn in the ways we claim we want them to. Thomas argues that removing grades entirely provides “the best opportunity for students to learn in holistic and authentic ways.” He would suggest a benefit of a de-graded composition is to allow students to truly learn the art of writing.

This style of grading removes grades completely from individual pieces of writing. Students will never receive a grade on their writing (not even on the portfolio), so it’s as close as an instructor can get to removing grades from writing and therefore removing as many grading complications from grading as possible (while still assigning a grade at the end of the day and meeting university requirements). After all, grades aren’t required or sacred or even necessary for learning or for motivating students.

A big limitation of this approach is that students will be unsure of what their final grade in the class will be up until the end. Though I’ve never tried this grading alternative, I’d imagine this uncertainty will cause a lot of anxiety in the students who are particularly worried about grades and financial aid. There is also an argument to be made that it maintains a lot of subjectivity because the teacher is deciding a final grade at the end of the day. Students may see this process as “mysterious” and potentially unfair. Instructors may still have to justify grades right at the end of the semester, which may take a toll on the teacher.



Overall, there is no perfect alternative to traditional grading. No one option offers solutions to every limitation of traditional grading, so choosing how to grade all comes down to what a teacher wants to emphasize in the classroom. After evaluating the theory and alternatives and my personal experiences, I offer a solution to the question of how to grade writing: the modified portfolio. Though this solution isn’t original (Elbow did it first), it offers the best combination of reducing grading pressure and avoiding grading individual pieces of writing. I lean toward the portfolio solution because it provides the most emphasis on process while still providing a way to give the registrar office a final grade. By having students spend time reflecting on their process and the feedback they received, they will hopefully understand the importance of the writing process. In addition, there will hopefully be less stress about assigning one letter to a product. Final papers won’t ever receive a grade of its own. Instead the grade for each unit will be negotiated with the student and determined more on participating, revising, reflecting, and implementing feedback. The key aspect that draws me to the portfolio is that students will receive a lot of feedback on their writing without the looming letter grade on their final piece.



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