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Grading Student Writing Objectively: A Myth and a Trap

Many newer teachers and non-specialists believe that above all else, teachers should be objective when they grade student writing.  That is, they should grade based on fact, not bias. After all, this kind of thinking goes, isn’t it wrong to judge student work subjectively, bringing one’s own thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives to bear on student work?

If teachers are permitted to make distinctions about the quality of students’ writing based on their own ideas and pre-conceived notions, doesn’t that give the teacher too much power? Doesn’t that allow teachers to indoctrinate students, control the ways they think? Doesn’t this encourage brainwashing?!

Grading Writing Objectively is a Myth

You are human. You filter everything through your experience, your understanding, your identify. Who you are is inherently part of how you read. When you read, you make judgments. Making judgments is, in fact, the process you use to read. Trying to eliminate yourself from your understanding of the world is a doomed project.

Plato knew this, and he spent his lifetime trying to find a way around it. He failed. His student, Aristotle, embraced this failure and turned it into a strength, creating entire fields of study to find ways to create data upon which to base decisions.

Don’t be Plato. Be Aristotle.

To put it a little less grandly: it’s actually impossible to read objectively. We can try to create distance from the texts our students create (by using rubrics, for example; or by designing authentic writing projects), but we can only achieve so much of that. Teachers create the assignments, teach ways to complete them, and then have to assess the success of their students’ products.  Teachers are way too implicated in this entire process to be able to claim any real level of objectivity with a straight face.

This doesn’t mean teachers should ignore the responsibility to put aside some of their personal beliefs when they grade student writing. In fact, teachers have a professional responsibility to be mindful of their personal biases and to ensure they do not interfere with their ability to grade student writing fairly. 

Bottom line, teachers should not feel the need to be completely objective in their grading. Nor should they describe their grading as objective. Objectivity is impossible. It’s a fantasy. Objectivity–whether or not we, our students, their parents, our supervisors like it–is a myth.

But that’s good. Grading objectively is actually not desirable.

Grading Writing Objectively is a Trap

Computers can grade objectively. They can read T-Units, count clauses, determine Lexile level, identify most spelling and many punctuation errors, and perform other rote tasks. If you think you should be reading work objectively, you’re trying to be a robot; and, despite all the problems with machine-scoring of student writing, robots will always be better at objective scoring than you will be.

So why do we pay writing teachers? We actually pay them to be subjective

The whole point of getting grades and responses from teachers is to get their feedback, their opinions, their professional judgment. The more professional judgment a grader can impose on student writing, the more valuable that grader’s feedback is. If teachers remove too much of their professional judgment from their grading in an attempt to be “more objective,” they are actually withholding the very skills, knowledge, and abilities for which they are being paid. 

Accepting Responsibility for Making Professional Judgements

Most mature teachers are very comfortable with their responsibility to impose their professional judgment. (In fact, a few are too comfortable.) But newer teachers need time to understand the value of their professional judgment. What they are learning in their education, in their professional development, in their days of teaching and hundreds and hundreds and then thousands and thousands of responses to student writing is that their judgment matters. Writing teachers are, in part, professional judgers. We need to accept that role with confidence, responsibility, and–of course–humility. 

In a follow-up blog, I discuss the important ways in which teachers should remain humble as responders to writing, so they are accurate judges and effective teachers. But for now, I want to leave readers with this: Grading effectively requires the use of professional judgment. Objectivity is neither possible, nor desirable in writing assessment.

12 thoughts on “Grading Student Writing Objectively: A Myth and a Trap”

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  6. Do you have any columns or more insight into mature teachers that are too comfortable with their judgment and those that do not rely on any objective measures when grading writing? “Most mature teachers are very comfortable with their responsibility to impose their professional judgment. (In fact, a few are too comfortable.)

    1. I’m sorry I didn’t see this comment earlier. I don’t have any more posts on that topic. The kind of thing I had in mind about teachers who are “too comfortable” are those who do things like make lists of works students can’t use or who grade stylistic differences as if they are errors (I see that kind of thing a lot when I look at papers graded by other teachers).

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