Quest for Empathy: On Grading and Evaluating

To start off my Quest for Empathy series, my readings for this week focus on the topic of grading and evaluating student work, specifically student writing. Though grading is a seemingly simple and non-threatening topic, it has huge implications for student success and an educator’s quality of teaching. In one of the two assigned readings this week, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgement,” Peter Elbow (1993) explains in his introduction that grading has been, and is by nature, overwhelmingly subjective. The problem of human opinion being used as rubric aside, the subjective nature of grading is an issue because it has a direct impact on a student’s future. Simply put, what you rank a student will impact how others rank them. As Elbow explains:

“A single teacher’s grade for a student is liable to have substantial consequences – for example on eligibility for a scholarship or a job or entrance into professional school.” (p.189)

Not only does grading impact the way others see a student, grades can determine how a student thinks of themselves and their abilities. In my second reading, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, John Bean (2011) explores ranking by looking at the impact comments on student writing have on a student’s emotional well-being. His argument is that even the most well-intentioned teacher can create a demoralizing atmosphere simply by the way they comment on a student’s writing assignment. Few teachers set out to create anything other than a safe teaching environment, but the fact remains that grades and approaches to assessment can undermine teacher’s efforts and instead negatively impact learning. Ways that grading can negatively impact the learning environment include increase in cheating, lack of creativity, break down of relationship between teacher and student, and the continuance of systems of oppression around intelligence (Bean, 2011; Elbow, 1993). Though Bean and Elbow agree that evaluation in some form must be present in academia, they offer suggestions for ways it can be approached in a more person-centered and learning focused way.

Elbow’s (1993) essay offers a wider lens on evaluation beyond the writing class that gives educators insight into ways they might be able to change their current grading practices.  Most of Elbow’s suggestions and thoughts on “ranking” vs “evaluating” are rooted in seeing the bigger picture of a student’s work and humanizing quantifying measures. What I mean by this is that ranking focuses on a single assignment apart from the body of a student’s work (though in some subjects this can’t be avoided, math being one that comes to mind), and it assigns a symbol to it that says nothing about why it met a certain standard. Elbow proposes that we need to move away from the arbitrary symbols of ranking; instead, we need to adopt evaluation processes that emphasize thoughtful feedback and that allow students to view their work in terms of tracking academic growth instead of meeting a professor’s subjective standards. Some of the techniques that Elbow offers as ways to accomplish this are using portfolios that are assessed as a whole, using limited ranking (such as Elbow’s system of either H-honors or U-unsatisfactory (p.193)), and creating evaluation free assignments that allow for creative thinking and the freedom to make mistakes. Elbow suggests that the benefits of reducing time spent grading every assignment, seeing student work in the light of what it can be instead of what it isn’t, and discovering that students can grow in their understanding when given safe spaces and time are worth abandoning the comforts of traditional ranking.

Similarly, Bean (2011) offers advice for grading writing assignments that emphasizes positive and specific feedback, couching it all in a theory of student potential. Bean argues that most criticism on student papers is built around pointing out all the small, unhelpful things a student did wrong, without real emphasis on higher-order issues like forming a good thesis and supporting arguments. This results in students feeling lost as to how to improve in their writing and with a feeling of defeat. In order for a student to create a thoughtful piece of writing, they need to be able to enter into that process with the belief that they will be able to work through mistakes and improve with helpful input from their teacher. The emphasis of correction needs to work from the thesis and supporting arguments, down through structure, and eventually to grammar and stylistic choices. A teacher can provide this guidance to students by giving them several chances to edit and rewrite, which in turn allows students to think and rethink the messages they are trying to get across. Through comments that combine positive observation with critical feedback, and by placing the editing process back into the student’s hands, students can experience a deeper and more positive learning process.

Looking at these two approaches to evaluating, both men are advocating for an approach to grading that sees it as motivating the ultimate goal of learning instead of being the goal. But shifting a culture of striving to make the mark instead of working to understand and learn can be a hard dynamic to budge. It is not possible to get rid of evaluation in some form, because we will always need a way to show if learning standards are being met in a quantifiable way. And sadly, traditional grading methods are often promoted as the main way to quantify learning because of underlying politics and ties to funding (as is seen in a lot of schools who use standardized testing). Quantifying measures have a nasty habit of stripping what they are measuring of all signs of humanity and creativity. Though Bean and Elbow mention some of this, I think an area of weakness in their essays is not addressing this in a way that offers insight for teachers and students who are having to operate in these systems that are built on traditional grading and punish attempts at trying new things.

Thus far, I have discussed why reevaluating grading is needed, what scholars like John Bean and Peter Elbow present as ways to change grading, and an obstacle to why their methods wouldn’t always be easy to implement. One final thought I want to explore centers around the heart of my Quest for Empathy series, which is what is happening on a human level when grading is occurring.

In addressing how comments on papers can impact student’s emotional states, Bean (2011) talks about studies that have been done on how emotion impacts cognitive function. This research on cognitive function is incredibly important because students aren’t the only ones impacted by this – teachers are too.

When a student is getting feedback on an assignment they have submitted, their brains are on high alert (Bean, 2011, p. 319). This isn’t just a figure of speech, their brains are literally functioning out of the fear-based amygdala, which is made for survival, not thinking. If they are in a situation that continues to be threatening (e.g. “I am so afraid I am going to fail this class and the teacher isn’t giving me any helpful feedback to know how to do better.”), they will never be able to calm down enough to switch over to higher thinking. Not only are students often operating out of survival mode, but teachers are too. Educators are required to meet certain standards in a school year or semester often with their job being the thing that is on the line if they fail. If both students and teachers are working out of centers of their brains that are created for survival and not being able to calm down enough to do higher thinking, that has huge implications for how they are able to learn and teach.

I am not going to explore this interplay between stress and learning in detail in this essay, but I wanted to briefly because I think that is the weak spot of Elbow and Bean’s essays and in academia in general. The ideas presented in these essays about grading are really inspiring, but I have a feeling some educators will read this and feel even more overwhelmed. That doesn’t mean that this goal to change grading isn’t one that should be fought for, I just think that there are forces at work in education that often make it next to impossible to implement these strategies. But that is a subject for another essay.

Because one of the most enjoyable parts of Elbow’s essay was how structured he is in his presentation of his thoughts, I am going to take a page from his book and outline the main ideas I touched on in this essay.

  1. Traditional grading in education is an issue, not only because it is subjective in nature, but because of the toxic learning environments it creates.
  2. What you say to and about a student matters, whether it is in the form of a comment or a letter grade.
  3. John Bean and Peter Elbow offer great insight into how to change grading to a more learning and student focused evaluation system. These techniques include limiting grades, taking student work as a whole, writing comments on assignments that specifically point out areas of improvement, and giving unevaluated assignments that create a culture of creativity and mistake making.
  4. The education system has built in obstacles to implementing some of these strategies.
  5. Stress and learning are natural enemies and both teachers and students are having to combat their effects. Grading is one area where stress and higher thinking can be improved through new ways of evaluating, but it can also be another source of stress is an educator is facing the obstacles mentioned in point 4.


Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass.

Elbow, P. (1993). Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out three forms of judgment. College English, 55(2), 187-206.

Preface: Quest for Empathy Series

            When an individual decides to enter the realm of education in some way – be it teacher, tutor, advisor, administrator, etc. – there is a hypocritic-oath like responsibility to “do no harm” to the students we will encounter. Like a doctor, we are taking on the task of contributing to a person’s well-being. Not in diagnosing illnesses and prescribing cures, but in diagnosing areas of understanding that need growth and prescribing tools like problem solving and critical thinking that will encourage said growth. This analogy begins to take on a darker tone when we tease it further as it is well known that academia and medicine share some of the same issues – overpriced services, god-like egos, limited access to underserved populations, and expectations on providers that wear down their ability to keep a person centered view of the individuals they are serving. In this climate of corruption and bureaucratic nonsense it can be difficult to retain the original call to serve and help others, to “do no harm”, but it is our sacred duty to fight this erosion of empathy and person-centered focus. This call to fight is more important than ever with the societal and economic unrest our society and world are in right now.

As a current student in the field of English-Writing Studies, I feel the weight of responsibility to maintain a person-centered approach on multiple levels: as an individual who wants to be involved with educating students, as a writer putting out content, and as a fellow human being interacting with other humans. It is out of my contemplations on academia and my role in the world of writing and humanity that an idea to start an essay series has arisen. Each week I will reflect on readings I am assigned in my Writing Theory class through the lens of this journey to maintain a person-centered focus in education, both in my own life and in the larger academic world. I believe I will call this my Quest for Empathy series – title subject to change as I grow and change.

Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement” and John Bean’s, “Writing Comments on Student’s Papers”

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Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement” and John Bean’s, “Writing Comments on Student’s Papers” are a perfect pairing for the writing teacher. Elbow’s delightful charm comes out in this piece allowing teachers to feel encouraged to try something new in terms of grading written assessments, while politely shading teachers for doing it incorrectly for so long. Bean reinforces a lot of the commentary made in Elbow’s piece with a focus on feedback. 

Elbow points out that as teachers and educators we are often focused on teaching to the test rather than allowing students to learn and coaching them through the learning process. His focus is on reducing ranking papers by a single grade or mark, moving into focusing on evaluating student writing and providing feedback or coaching, orally or written, and finally moving into a state of changing your mindset about reading student writing and actually liking student writing. The ideas presented in this reading are not revolutionary, but they are helpful reminders of what we should be doing to allow students to progress. Elbow mentions that not all work needs to be graded for “rank” and that some writing should just be for the student to practice their writing. In a sense, this article is about retraining both the teacher and student’s brains to think about the learning process rather than the grade. 

From Elbow’s reading I will:

·      encourage more writing for growth and not grades

·      point out the positives to instill confidence in young writers

·      use portfolios for assessment 

·      have students share their readings aloud in small groups or breakout sessions 

·      increase low stakes writing in the classroom 

John Bean’s approach to feedback is through reminding educator’s that there are people attached to the words on the page. He, like Elbow, has a polite way of reminding educators that yes they are busy, but they need to give their students the ability to learn from their grading system. Bean has a point about giving student’s feedback that is easily readable. If you are scribbling down comments that are not legible, you are really wasting your own time. With virtual learning, it has become a bit easier to give readable feedback. He also mentions humanizing the creators of this work and coaching them through a task that they may not even like doing because of constant teacher nagging about errors. 

I have noticed that when responding to students writing that there are similar patterns that can be addressed in a stock reply easily in the comment section on LMS. After evaluating a few papers, I build a bank of replies that can be pasted from a word document to the students comment section on Canvas or Blackboard. Not all students will be able to benefit from a stock reply, but some students can use the same encouragement and reminders. Bean leads to making feedback a less time-consuming process and passing the ownership of the work back on to the student. 

From Bean’s reading I will:

·      Continue assigning “ungraded” drafts

·      Continue assigning peer editing groups 

·      Continue to allow revisions of final drafts

·      Continue to focus on a hierarchy of concerns

·      Continue to focus on organization, titles and introductions, topic sentences and transitions

·      Ask student to “figure out” what is wrong with their writing with using a “reader’s eye, to use a grammar handbook, and to keep lists of their characteristic errors”

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