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Narratives versus numbers: Readers weigh in on unconventional grading

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This week, middle school language arts teacher and adjunct education professor Mark Barnes wrote a post about why he has rejected traditional grading in favor of a system he finds more effective: narrative feedback.

“In my classroom, students complete activities and projects willingly, without grades on their work,” he explained. “I provide feedback, using a system I call SE2R — Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit.” Each day students receive individual feedback from Barnes on their projects and progress, make suggested changes to it and then resubmit it for further review.

“What makes [that feedback] so powerful is the willingness of students to use teacher feedback when they don’t perceive it as a reward or a punishment,” Barnes continued.

Barnes’ post received a number of thoughtful responses from readers, many of whom wanted to embrace his concept but had further questions about it. Barnes responded to each response, demonstrating how a blog post that begins with one individual’s ideas can quickly become a laboratory for collaborative problem-solving.

Here are a few of those exchanges:

Natalee: I hate grading papers, and my students students have developed the mindset of assignments being a series of hoops to jump through. … I would like to switch to a narrative feedback, but I’m teaching in a traditional setting where parents and administration expect letter grades. … How do I reconcile the two?

Barnes: I have two recommendations: first, be true to what you believe is best for your students … Get your students to buy in [to narrative feedback] … Second, live within both systems. You can still provide a report card grade. Use student production, your feedback and conferencing with students to decide on the final grade, as opposed to allowing a percentage to calculate the grade.

A. Cinquemani: How might you adapt this approach to mathematics? I assume you simply take the feedback you write on the assessment and or homework and treat that as the ‘narrative’?

Barnes: Rather than simply putting a number on a math worksheet, I’d write what the student learned and how she worked through the problems, using a system or equation. If parts of the system are missing, leading to getting problems wrong, I’d explain this and redirect her to a prior lesson.

redpenconfessions: I love your idea about providing narrative feedback rather than grades. However, in a system where every other teacher and parent expects grades throughout the marking period, going rogue based on my own grading philosophy is not possible. Additionally, with a team of educators and a collaborative model, grades and assessment values are determined by the group, not the individual.

Barnes: You make excellent points — concerns that I deal with daily. I suppose I have gone rogue, as you put it, because I’m the only teacher who evaluates this way in my building. I work on an academic team, on which other teachers are using a traditional approach. My students are conditioned from day one that we do things differently in my class, and they adapt.

Science Teacher: How do you pace your instruction to match the information that is supposed to be covered according to the state? I would love for some students to be able to move on, but find it exhausting to try and differentiate so that all students are being met where they are and moved ahead at their own pace. I teach high school chemistry with about 130 students.

Barnes: I don’t find standards to be a problem. We complete year-long projects that incorporate all or most learning outcomes. What’s great about this is that students who are ahead can simply increase their project work.

Sarah Wade is a writer at SmartBrief. A recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she writes for food, retail and hospitality briefs and contributes to several SmartBlogs.

SmartBlog on Education has launched a Friday Feature series, in which editors highlight reader comments and popular blog posts from the week and ultimately create a space for educators to engage, innovate and discuss.