by Anthony Lince
Original Blog Post in Teachers Going Gradeless: January 24, 2021
Writers have a unique relationship to failure. They understand and even embrace the fact that, before finally publishing a draft, there will be copious amounts of revision, tinkering, and mistakes. Lots and lots of it. Most student writers, however, don’t welcome failure and mistakes so easily. Why?
Grades and traditional assessment methods seem to be at the heart of the problem. Alfie Kohn notes that “grades (whether or not accompanied by comments) promote a fear of failure even in high-achieving students.” Indeed, it’s quite easy to see how this happens. Those evaluative marks insist, shout, and declare that failure is undesirable in the classroom. Perhaps early on in their education, students tried something new—they attempted to grow and learn—and, as often happens when getting out of one’s comfort zone, they came up short. What followed next was a harsh grade, one that signaled that they were inadequate at whatever it is they attempted.
One bad grade isn’t such a big deal, but being repeatedly labeled deficient or a failure can have serious adverse effects on one’s academic identity and abilities. Students of color and multilingual students are often the one’s more negatively affected by these harsh judgments, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And, of course, grades also impact a person’s chances at scholarships, entrance into schools, and even employment. Thus, for students, mistakes and failure should be avoided at all costs in the graded classroom. But this is a big problem because, as Alina Tugend writes, “If students are afraid of mistakes, they’re afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way.”
If students don’t embrace mistakes, they won’t be able to embrace learning.
We can try to tell our students that mistakes and failure are okay and a natural part of the writing process, a natural part of learning. Doing that alone, though, won’t be enough to reframe students’ ideas about productively failing. I’ve written elsewhere about modeling my struggles with writing for my students, but I still used traditional assessment methods in my class. There was a contradiction between what I said I valued and what my assessment methods valued. My grading policy conflicted with an important message I was trying to send to my students about failure.
So, while I was successful in showing my students how most writers struggle, I still didn’t provide the right conditions for students to actually embrace that struggle, to fail and make mistakes.
This realization led me to use labor-based grading contracts (one of many ways to go gradeless!) for my “Rhetoric of Written Argument” course. With this methodology, only measurable labor is used to calculate a student’s grades, no letters or numbers are placed on any student writing or other work, and quality isn’t used to determine grades.
Students are also able to try labor that’s different and unique to them, a chance for variety in the writing classroom. This sounds messy, and it is at times. Labor is accepted with an understanding that there might be faults. If failure is an essential part of writing, I had to give my students the opportunity to fail—and not punish them for it.
It was time for me to walk the talk, as the saying goes.
Feedback from Students
In an end-of-semester survey, I asked students about their thoughts and feelings about labor-based grading contracts. Not only did this different assessment method shift their thinking about mistakes, students actually started to embrace failure during the writing process. To speak about this change, here are two student responses from my class (used with permission).
First, Mayela. Mayela came into the class with “negative thoughts and feelings about writing,” saying she “always dread[ed] working on essays.” She felt that she “wasn’t a good writer.” These feelings towards writing are fairly typical for most students. For many young writers, English classes conjure up traumatic memories—papers soaked in red ink usually followed by low grades in large font. We can’t erase past memories, but we can help students shift their thinking. For Mayela, her thoughts had changed for the better: she left the class with a “positive relationship towards writing.”
Her first essay submission, which had already gone through a few revisions, still needed some improvement, and I gave her lots of feedback. With this assessment method, there’s an understanding that submissions, even final products, are not going to be perfect. And that’s okay. A “final” submission is not really final in terms of learning; rather, it’s an opportunity to reflect and grow for the future.
Knowing this, Mayela was able to exclusively focus on the feedback I gave “without having to worry about the grade.” Even though there were some areas that weren’t as strong, this wasn’t a stopping point. Instead, it was a starting point, an area for moving forward to improve and revise. Mayela saw that making a mistake only helped her get better at writing. These small failures in her writing now coincided with learning.
She confidently took the feedback on paper one and moved forward to the next essay in the hopes of doing better. And she did. Much better, in fact. By the end of the semester, she had improved her writing and forged a new identity, one that sees failure as okay—even desirable—for growing as a writer.
Next, Casey: “Before coming into class, I had a pretty positive relationship with writing.” Casey also thought that he “knew most of what there was to learn about writing.” I’m fairly certain that Casey had gotten good grades in his English classes throughout middle and high school. But, despite this fact, I know that he had suffered negative consequences within traditional grading systems, where a single standard is taught. Any deviation from that standard—being creative or trying new things—gets penalized.
So Casey thought that to be a good writer meant to demonstrate that singular standard. And year after year, he used the same structure (probably a five-paragraph essay), same tone, same format, same everything. While this might produce good grades academically, it’s not very stimulating—for the reader or the writer. At best, he would’ve continued to do the same thing over and over again in college and just gotten bored with writing. At worst, his love of writing would have been killed.
With the grading contract, he was able to “try out new methods of writing: new strategies, new formats, different analyses, and so on.” He seized the opportunity to attempt something new and different for the second essay assignment in the class, deciding to go with a different analytical approach, one that seemed interesting to him.
As a result, he struggled. A lot.
Casey says that he “made this essay extra hard” on himself because he tried a “different writing style than normal which proved to be rather difficult.” He found out that he, in fact, didn’t know everything about writing, and he had much to learn. This realization didn’t ruin his relationship with writing. Quite the opposite: it improved his relationship with writing and made him “care more about the work.”
This makes sense. Casey wasn’t doing the same thing over and over, staying stagnant. Now, he was progressing as a writer, and that was exciting. It’s something he hadn’t been able to do in a long time.
Reflecting on the semester, I can clearly see that labor-based grading allowed me to accept students’ labor with an understanding that mistakes are okay and even an essential part of learning. More importantly, it allowed my students to productively experience failure with their writing and to see that as normal. Labor-based grading also helped our class “avoid the damaging psychological effects…that grading by quality can cause many students, most notably students of color, working-class students, and multilingual students,” as Asao Inoue notes (Theorizing Failure, 345).
My students, especially the ones who have been the most hurt by traditional grading systems, embraced coming up short and learning from their experiences without being penalized for not succeeding the first time. And I’m not alone in my success, as many other educators have also experienced similar results in their classrooms when they used contract-grading (see this Google Drive folder for a comprehensive review of contract grading scholarship from the last 50 years).
As Donald Murray says, “language will not be a tool for thinking unless our students are able to allow language to run free and stumble and fall.” In the writing classroom, labor-based grading allows students to experience the messy process of writing. This method provides the conditions for students to embrace failure—an essential part of the writing process.