can't get there from here--or, distancing grading from writing

Most of my time preparing for and now working with mLearning this academic year has been focused on students' use of mobile devices in their learning, but one wonderful byproduct has been the impact on my teaching--and specifically on how I grade and respond to student writing. Today I'm going to talk about a grading app I've been using this year, Gradebook Pro.

my teaching situation

I teach rhetoric and/or writing courses. Many of these courses are workshops, which are capped at 15, and the largest classes I teach (ENGL 101 and 102) have a capacity of 25.

screenshot of course site home page

Naturally, responding to their writing is a central part of my work with students, and one of my goals when responding to writing is to have students engage in thoughtful revision of their work. As writers of all stripes know, this is hard to learn. It's also hard to teach, especially in a context that also includes anxiety brought on by grades.

One strategy that scholars in the field of composition studies recommend is separating the acts of responding to and grading writing, and this is something that I've never been especially good at. In the past, I've used one-on-one conferencing, especially in first-year writing, to provide comments to students during the version process and prior to grading. This is really rewarding and usually quite productive, but it's also time-consuming for me as an instructor, usually requires canceling a class meeting, and isn't really sustainable across multiple writing assignments in a single semester.

This semester I am teaching ENGL 329: Grammar, Style, and Writing. The course has 22 students, mostly junior and senior English majors in the writing emphasis.

table with course assignment structure

The notebook entries and reading responses are low-stakes assignments worth 10 points each. The reading responses are designed to check for understanding and to allow students to make connections between their projects and the course readings. The case study notebook entries work like field notes that are eventually synthesized into a style case study report. The guide is worth 100 points, requires a significant time commitment by each week's student team, and functions as a service, both to the course community and the public. The two former assignments are viewable only by members of the course; the latter is publicly available. This course is graded on a 1000-point scale.

separating student writing from grades

As the structure chart above shows, the assignments in weeks 2-9 are performed online and viewable by people beyond me and the individual student. Our entire class community can, and is expected to, read all reading responses and notebook entries. In fact, they are required to comment on five notebook entries each week. And the guides can be seen by anyone. This kind of visible, public writing is not unusual in writing classes, and some of colleagues even require submission for publication at the end of a writing course.

Having students perform their writing in such visible ways have a few benefits. First, and many have noted this, students can been to imagine an audience beyond me as the instructor. Likewise, students are engaging with genres and technologies that they may encounter later. This is really important to me, since the students in this course are almost exclusively English majors in the writing emphasis. Students are drawn to this emphasis by their love of writing, and many hope to write professionally. When we shared future ambitions at the beginning of this semester, students aspired to become fiction writers, poets, and teachers, to attend graduate or professional school, or--and a number of students mentioned this--to get paid to blog. Making a living as a writer requires skills and experiences beyond talent and drive, and I hope that the assignments I give my students both strengthen them as writers and increase the likelihood they'll be paid for their craft. (As I write this, I'm thinking that I should make this connection more explicitly when I'm teaching and working with students.) Finally, student writing that is visible and public cannot marked up and returned with a grade attached.

sharing grades with Gradebook Pro

This year I have been using Gradebook Pro to manage attendance and grading in my courses. Although I was hesitant to purchase this 9.99 app, it has been well worth the price. Indeed, the first year I simply used it for attendance and was not disappointed. When I began using the full functionality last semester, I accidentally discovered the opportunity to remove grading from student writing, and I am thinking about that intentionally this semester. Example Gradebook Pro Roster Screen (gradebookapp.com)

I've attached student photographs to my class roster, which helps with learning names, and I can store all attendance and grading information in any easy-to-learn app that allows for grade reporting that's useful for me as an instructor and for my students. In the past, I've used a spreadsheet program to store grades, and I've found that handy for sorting and managing grading information but not great for sharing grades with individual students. More recently, I've used course management systems for grading. I find entering grades difficult and course navigation counterintuitive on the CMS we use here at Boise State. Thus far, Gradebook Pro has been a nice balance of ease of use with simple information sharing.

The greatest benefit to using Gradebook Pro in my writing class is that it supports my desire to separate writing and grading. This activity is powered by the app's student report generator.

screenshot of gradebook pro report generator

By simply selecting a course, student name(s), report type (e.g., grade), and destination (e.g., e-mail), I can send students an individual report that includes their grade on each assignment for the course to date and their cumulative course grade. I can also add text to the report (e.g., general performance comments) before I e-mail the report to the student.

screenshot of gradebook pro student report

Thus far I have been including comments on case study notebook entries, reading responses, and guides in this report. I review student work, keep a document with comments, and copy and paste the comments into the report. That does keep the writing distanced from the grading, but students are receiving comments alongside grades. I think this is less of a problem for low-stakes assignments and public writing. When students write their style case study reports in a few weeks, they will submit those to me separately, and I'll comment on those assignments when I return them.