(How) Should We Count Effort in Students’ Grades on Writing?

I’m sure most teachers have experienced this: You watch some students struggle and struggle to write well. They revise and rewrite. They come for extra help. They work with a writing tutor. But, short of having someone else actually do some of the writing for them, their final products are only so-so.

And then other students with very little exertion of effort can produce a good or even excellent piece of writing that scores high on the rubric. Do we simply file this under “Life Isn’t Fair,” and move on, or is this more of a dilemma?

What is Effort?

Effort goes by many names: sweat-equity, determination, perseverance, grit, work-ethic. To reach one’s true potential, it’s imperative that one expend one’s full effort in a task. In a 2014 Research in the Teaching of English article, Asao B. Inoue calls it “labor failure” when a student underperforms on a writing assignment due to lack of effort. 

“[L]abor-failure,” Inoue says, “is often associated with not achieving or demonstrating a defined degree of effort, quantity of written products, and/or amount of time spent on an weightliftingactivity such as reading or drafting. . . Labor-failure is associated with noncognitive dimensions such as conscientiousness, persistence, and motivation.” (339)

An ability, a willingness, even a disposition toward expending effort is a good thing. Few adults would disagree.

Oddly enough, some students disagree. I remember an enlightening conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, accomplished young student when I was in my first couple of years of teaching. Sydney was talking to me about the comments we teachers put on students’ report cards along with their grades. (This was in the very early 90s, and we had a scan-tron system that allowed us to choose from about 40 different comments, such as Student shows excellent potential or Student is frequently late to class.) Sydney told me bluntly that the “smart kids” considered the comment Student works hard in class to be an insult. She said it was equivalent to saying the student wasn’t really succeeding, but at least the student was trying. I countered that often I assign a grade of A and I also comment that the student works hard in class. Sarah was unimpressed. She said, “That’s just as bad. You’re saying the only way the student did well in class was by having to work really hard.” Huh?

This was extremely telling. It wasn’t enough for “the smart kids” to be getting As. Those As had to come from natural ability, not hard work. I was polite to Syndey–who went on to an Ivy League college and I’m sure a fantastically successful career–but I found her attitude utterly loathsome. Doesn’t effort matter? Shouldn’t determination, work ethic, sweat be admired?

Clearly not all students believe this. Maryellen Wiemer cites a study in her 2012 blog for The Teaching Professor in which 120 undergraduates were asked how much effort should count in a writing assignment’s grade. They said effort should count for 39%.

Even still, is the amount of effort expended really relevant to the quality of a piece of writing?

The Value of Writing Quality

Ultimately, writing is what writing does. And no matter how hard one works on a piece of writing, what it does is all that matters in terms of its success. In the world outside school, no one really cares how much the writer has worked. The quality of the piece of writing itself is all that counts. At least until the writer achieves celebrity acclaim, a complication few of us will ever have to worry about.1_diamonds-girls-best-friend

Students deserve an honest assessment of the quality of their pieces of writing, and they need such an assessment to have an accurate sense of how effective they are as writers in general. Putting too much emphasis on effort could give students an inflated sense of their strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t being nice: This is setting students up for failure.

So what’s a teacher to do?

Putting Effort in Its Place

Teachers have several dilemmas when they grade. I’ve blogged recently about deliberately avoiding objectivity and about retaining humility when one responds to writing. I think determining how and when to include Effort as a criterion is another judgment a teacher has to make each time s/he assigns writing.

Here are some of the guidelines I use as I decide how and when to count Effort:

  • The younger the student, the more important it is to include effort as part of the grade. We need to assess and count students’ effort, so they expend the best efforts they can and learn to derive pleasure from working hard and achieving higher-level success from that effort.
  • The more advanced and more unfamiliar the genre of writing is to the student, the more emphasis should be placed on Effort. Students will take more risks and try harder if they know their trying will be counted more than the quality of their finished product.
  • The older the student and the more specialized they become in the genre being assigned, the less Effort should count, even to the point of not counting at all.
  • At the beginning of a school year or a semester, Effort should count more than it does toward the end of the class, when the students are more comfortable with the genre(s) and the teachers’ grading. The steepness of the change should depend on the maturity and writing experience of the students in the class.
  • Just as we suspend judgment in some aspects of writing process (brainstorming, for example), we should also suspend judgment of quality in some writing assignments. When that happens is the purview of the teacher and needs to be made on a case-by-case basis for each assignment. As Inoue points out, grading solely on effort can help students focus on their efforts and can also help avoid “the damaging psychological effects, such as performance-avoidance and low self-efficacy, that grading by quality can cause many students” (345).download
  • There may be occasions when effort should count differently for different students in the same class. It depends on what experience and tolerance for risk-taking the student brings to the assignment.
  • When a student’s effort is being considered as part of a grade, the student should be told. It’s important that students know that their effort has real value and is thus worth grade “credit.” Students also need to know what the quality level of their finished writing is.

How to Solve This Dilemma? Student Learning!

Like all dilemmas in teaching, there is a clear compass: student learning. Do what will increase your students’ learning best. Use grading Effort as a dial you can turn from 0-100 to employ the appropriate degree to get the best learning results in each writing assignment in each class for each student. Making these decisions effectively is what professional teachers do, and it’s what makes us experts. 


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