Why I Don’t Grade Essay Drafts

Let me be plain: I don’t really believe in grading writing in the first place.

I am, however, a teacher in an institution that, like most, requires me to assess writing on a normal A-F scale. I dutifully come up with rubrics, I apply them as best I can, and I send some kids home with a smile and some with a frown. Ten or twelve I’ve sent home in tears. Now, one or two of those may have been weeping tears of joy, but who’s counting?

I refuse, however, to do three things:

  1. I refuse to give a writing assignment without also assigning at least one preliminary draft.
  2. I refuse to grade the non-final drafts.
  3. I refuse to comment on the final draft, save for a short blurb at the end.

Here’s why:

Let’s be honest. When you get a paper back in school, you flip right to the back to look at the grade. A few students then go on to skim the comments. A very few students will read the comments carefully. Most never look at the thing again. And why should they?

What matters to students is grades. I can tell them all about how the process is more important than the product or how I’m teaching them a way of thinking or anything I like. They care about the grade. Nothing I say can change that because, frankly, they’re smarter than that.

Our educational institutions, by their very structure, encourage perfectionism, easy choices, and grade-driven study. They discourage risk-taking, learning through failure, and process-oriented study. Students know this better than anyone.

Sometimes, this is what we want: the product does, in some sense, matter more than the process. We would like students to take care with their work. But this environment stifles creativity and straitjackets students with alternative learning styles. It raises up formulaic thinkers as the pinnacle of achievement and denigrates thinkers whose intelligence expresses itself differently.

Essay-writing is especially frustrating from a student’s perspective. Most students see writing an essay as throwing a bunch of words into a box, shaking it up, and seeing what grade comes out.

Rubrics help (sort of), as do writing workshops and other ways of making this process more open. But for most students essay-writing is a mystery.

So, why don’t I grade drafts?

A student can feel comfortable handing me an unfinished or risky draft, knowing that the worst thing that can happen is I’ll tell them to delete it and start again. They e-mail me

Papers

How I used to grade essays. Note the nonalcoholic beverage.

I write copious comments on these drafts (I use Word’s commenting tool, never “track changes”; they have to change their own work). In a 3-page essay, I average ar

Then—and this is the key—I give them a week to revise their essays. Some of that time is unstructured, some of it is given to team edits or writing workshops.ound 35-45 comments per draft. It is a hellacious amount of work, although I keep common comments (“No topic statement,” “I don’t see how this relates to your thesis,” “What does this even mean?”) on the clipboard for easy pasting.

When they turn in the final product (hard copy: it’s more final and easier for me to read), that’s it. Their work is out in the world and it is no longer subject to line-edits.

I read the final essays through without a pen, pausing only at the end to write a quick blurb about my overall impression.

Here’s the catch: if I make a correction of discrete suggestion in my comments on their draft, they must make the requested change, or I dock them points on the final.  This forces them to review every single comment on the draft.

This method has cut down my grading time and mitigated much student angst.

In my ideal world, writing would be assessed without reliance on the reductive letter-grade scale. As it stands, this seems to be a happy compromise.

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