Developing an authentic and effective grading system in a journalism class

April 8, 2013

Every year I struggle with how to grade my journalism students –– they all have different responsibilities and assignments, and there just isn’t an easy formula for grading all the things they do.  Some students write, some take pictures, some design pages, some copyedit, and some lead and coordinate –– none of it translates easily into points.  And to make it even harder, my school’s grading software is built around two main assumptions: one is that the entire class is doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, and the other is that everything accomplished in a classroom can be reduced to points in the first place.

And these aren’t the only problems.  The generation of students I teach are so motivated by grades and points that they often see learning as the thing they do to get points rather than what they do naturally when they’re engaged in the world of ideas.  While grades may be effective at forcing students to work on specific tasks, they are utterly ineffective at getting students to care about what they’re doing and at getting them to think critically and write effectively.  When we reduce what we do in the journalism class to grades and points, there can be negative consequences that ripple their way through our publications.

I used to create rubrics for all the different types of assignments my students would do and apply the school’s grading scale to each story by assigning it a grade of A, B, or C based on the number of points it earned on the rubric.  But I never liked this system –– the rubrics seemed more like a way to explain and justify a grade rather than a way to help a student become a better writer.

I also started recognizing that rubrics can have a damaging effect on students’ writing.  When writers are given checklists of things to look for, that’s where all their focus goes, rather than on making sure that what they write is truly meaningful, filled with passion, and engaging to the audience.  When rubrics rule the grading process, the underlying assumption is that all good stories are exactly the same.  A writing teacher, and especially a journalism teacher, must see that every piece of writing, if it’s going to be engaging or effective or artistic, must be allowed to break out of any preconceived mold we teachers have for it.

What my journalism grading system has evolved into is a system that simply rewards students for the work they do.  I now set out at the beginning of each term with a number of points I want students to earn during that period, and then I set some baseline values –– a story between 300-400 words is worth 100 points, a 50-100 word brief is worth 25 points, and photo shoots can be worth anywhere between 10 and 75 points based on how long they take and the challenge of the assignment.  Rather than assigning a grade to a story or photo, I award points for completing it.  And if a student writes a longer, more in-depth piece, I give it more points.  The catch, though, is that I will only award points to a story or a photo after it’s been tagged as approved by an editor, and no points are awarded for work that doesn’t meet the class standard. 

While I still dislike the idea of reducing work to points, I’ve found ways to embrace the arbitrary nature of points.  I often have conversations with students about how many points something they did should be worth.  Any time I’ve asked students how many points they should get for an assignment, the answer has always been reasonable. 

When I have to turn in grades at mid-quarter or quarter breaks, I simply add a single entry in the school’s grading software for the number of points I expect by that period, and then I enter the total each student has earned.  Whenever I enter these grades, I find that more than half of my students have exceeded my expectations, sometimes doing more than twice the amount of work I required.

The most important thing I do, though, to prevent grading from damaging the motivation of my students is that I consciously move it to the deep background of the class.  It never enters our conversations as we plan and draft and revise our stories.  We do those things because we love to do them; the grade is never why we work and why we write.  Underneath it all, I want to teach my students that if they work hard and care about what they do, the grade will follow.  And if they all get A’s, I’m absolutely fine with that.