How We Grade, How We Write: Encouraging Students to Try Again, Fail Again, and Fail Better

We have arrived at the point in the semester when most instructors are in the process of grading their first (or second) batches of student writing assignments, and many instructors may accordingly find themselves struggling to resist the urge to spill red ink (or typed comments) on students’ work. Returning to the subject of Sam’s post on the inherent frustrations of writing—and in anticipation of our upcoming November 8th workshop on Minimal Marking and Effective Grading—I would like to consider how grading strategies and peer review can facilitate students’ successful negotiation of the confidence-shaking challenges of formal writing.  Writing is nothing if not a never-ending process of editing one’s failures—or, as Samuel Beckett puts it in the aptly named “Worstward Ho,” an undaunted willingness, despite having “ever tried” and “ever failed,” to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In fact, failure is such an indispensable—and unavoidable—aspect of the writing process, that it has a proper place as heuristic tool in the classroom.

How can we harness these inevitable failures of the writing process? As we all know, students’ ability to respond to their own writing as critics is indispensable to their growth as proficient writers. Research has amply shown that how we grade students’ writing plays a vital role in encouraging students to view their own writing as an active process, and not a product. Since there is no royal road towards the perfect student essay, grading techniques which invite students to continuously edit and improve on how they express their ideas in writing are invaluable in giving students the confidence to “try again.” For example, a grading system that provides students with lines of discovery or roadmaps to explore in future assignments (or to implement in revisions) can instill self-confidence by equipping students with a deeper appreciation of their own nascent abilities and a tangible baseline from which to build. As we learned last week, this willingness to tap into the existing potential of one’s early attempts at writing is the single most important means of overcoming the inertia of any writing assignment, whether a short essay or a dissertation. Conversely, grading that disproportionately penalizes students for relatively minor grammatical errors often has a chilling effect on students’ ability to view themselves as (potentially) capable writers of well-organized, effective papers.

Here I am inspired by the work of Peter Elbow, one of the trailblazing voices in the field of critical pedagogy. The chief aim of Elbow’s Learning without Writing Teachers is to galvanize teachers into rethinking their approaches to teaching and grading college writing. In our world of ubiquitous assessment metrics, Elbow’s clarion call for dispensing with the counterproductive technique of “autopsying” student writing—treating student writing as if it were dead on arrival by punitively marking up relatively trivial mistakes without offering any real hope for improvement—is as provocatively refreshing as ever. Integrating peer-review into the classroom is another great way to take up Elbow’s mantra to “teach writing as a process, not a product.” For instance, scheduling a rough draft reverse outline workshop the week before an essay is due (when lack of confidence peaks among students intimidated by the prospect of finishing an assignment alone) can foster students’ sense of themselves as proficient writers actively engaged in parsing out the logical connections between their ideas and their writing. We were all obviously student writers before becoming teachers; we know that, for all of the halting first steps and dead-ends of the writing process, there is nothing quite as satisfying (and relieving!) as seeing an assignment through the stages of brainstorming, drafting, and revising. Positively constructive grading techniques and peer-review workshops go hand-in-hand to empower students to complete formal writing assignments with confidence—to learn the fine art of “fail[ing] better.”