As faculty have adjusted to teaching during a stressful time, many have opted to make changes in the amount of work they assign and how they grade. The changes reflected compassion and empathy for our students during a stressful time, but some of these changes should be permanent even after face-to-face courses resume. Changes in how faculty grade could ease disparities in the classroom, particularly around differences in preparation for college. For instance, not grading for writing style and grammar could be a practice to continue post-covid.
To be clear, I’m a Professor of Sociology. I teach courses like “Race and Ethnicity” and “Segregation in the City,” not “Writing Composition” or “the Art of the Essay.” However, I do assign written assignments. In fact, that’s the majority of assessments in my courses. My students write short responses and short papers that demonstrate their understanding of the core concepts of class and apply that understanding to new examples. Even with all of that writing, I do not grade for grammar or writing style. Why? Because they are not things I teach in my classes.
This has always been my practice, but many of my peers do grade for these things. In my view, grading for writing style and grammar perpetuates pre-existing inequalities in education. Students who went to college preparatory schools with smaller classes and more hands-on student-teacher engagement are more likely to already have stronger writing skills. Additionally, students for whom English is a first language are more likely to have a wider vocabulary and better grammar than their international peers. Grading for grammar and writing style, only perpetuates the existing disparities through grades and GPA, which keeps more privileged students doing better than their peers.
So if I’m not grading for grammar and writing style, you might be wondering what I do grade for. My courses are substantive and empirical. They provide students with vocabulary to understand their own experiences and the world around them. Through their written assignments, I ask students to demonstrate their understanding of the core concepts we have learned about in class, apply the concepts they learn to explain other cases, and connect the concepts they have learned to their own experiences. My grading rubrics capture the extent to which the student followed these instructions. Did the student answer the prompt? Did they answer all parts of the prompt? Did they cite the number of class readings required? Did they paraphrase from these readings rather than use direct quotations? Did they include parenthetical citations to give credit to their sources? Even without perfect grammar or a flowery writing style, a student can get an A on my assignments by engaging with the questions I asked them and following the other requirements for the assignment. In fact, students who write well, but never fully address the posed question(s) do less well than their peers who fully answer the question with some awkward writing.
For me, this policy is a small contribution to equalizing the playing field in an inherently unequal system. Students who write well cannot BS their way around a question and still do well on my assignments (something some of them are used to doing). But more importantly, the student who struggles with writing can do well in my course. It is an approach to compassionate teaching that I believe should extend beyond this temporary moment in higher education.