How do you improve writing without “Purposeful Practice”, review, and renewal? This applies to all forms of writing, of course, not just literature essays. We all know the routine: student hands in essay / piece of writing; teacher carefully reads and annotates it over the following week; teacher assigns a grade based on some kind of rubric; teacher hands back paper; student reads the grade and files the work or throws it out. Teacher sighs – why did I bother? The student was actually supposed to review, correct, and improve!

Here is a different experience of a teacher, Kristy Louden, who really wanted to change this decades long scenario, improve her students’ willingness to read her remarks, improve her own motivation to spend the hours reading and annotating, and thus improve the standard of learning throughout her classes. Best part of her experience is that it takes no special training, no money, and with the pay back of far greater intrinsic motivation for student and teacher. The magic? Separate handing out the comments from handing out the grade. That’s it.

Well, not quite. Kristy thought through how the process would work and added in these steps:

  • Read over your whole essay, including what you wrote and my comments.
  • Write THREE observations based on your reading and TWO follow-up questions to discuss with me at our conference. Ask about comments, how to improve things, how to do things differently, etc.
  • Use the rubric (posted online) to grade yourself.
  • Be ready to discuss all of this.

Once this process was completed, they received their grade. Outcome? Students read the comments, carried out this interesting metacognitive process, improved their writing, and the teacher had greater satisfaction. But why does this work? Why does separating the grade from the comments change the student’s perspective?

The answer to this is also very simple and hence very profound. It moves the student from an extrinsic motivator to an intrinsic motivator. Grades are rewards and punishment. They are Pavlovian. Ring a bell for your dog, give it food, and soon when you ring the bell, the dog will salivate. We have conditioned the dog to respond to a stimulus.  Grades are supposed to work in the same way. Give a good grade and the student will work hard to replicate it. Give a bad grade and the student will work hard to improve it. Trouble is, students don’t respond that way. Grades certainly condition – students figure out what you want and give it to you but that has nothing to do with learning. Bad students know you have them put in a box and give up trying to be more than what you are willing to give them. Yes, there have been experiments where it is clear that what we expect is what we get called the Pygmalion Effect. And grades condition teachers as much as students. When we take away the extrinsic motivation and focus the students on their intrinsic desire to improve through opportunity for reflection, discussion, and renewal, they come to the task from a different place. And stay much longer on that task. Removing the grade doesn’t “fix” motivation but it is an enormous step in the right direction.

Kristy Louden changed the experience of her students and her own effectiveness as a teacher. It took one decision. Every classroom can be transformed, every student engaged, and every teacher empowered in the same simple yet profound way.