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To my mind, the worst thing a student can say after turning in an assignment or taking an exam and being asked, “How’d you do?” is “I have no idea.”

I’m not talking about the inevitable lack of total certainty when your work is being assessed by another, but an experience of genuinely not knowing or understanding the criteria by which you’re going to be judged.

If you’re in over your head or lost, at least in theory there’s a destination that could be oriented towards.

If you’re clueless about what you’re even supposed to be doing, you drive in circles.

These tensions underpin one of the common attitudes I see in students entering first-year writing class. Many of them report having written something in high school they thought was good, but then received a low grade. When I ask what happened, I get shrugs and responses along the lines of “I guess the teacher didn’t like it.”

When it comes to developing as a writer, this is not good. In any writing class, above just about anything else, I want students to be working towards becoming “self-regulating.” The gap between what the writer is trying to achieve and what the audience experiences should be as narrow as possible and the best approach to achieving this is for the writer themselves to feel in control of their objectives, including the purpose and audiences for their writing.

One of the reasons I think students struggle with this is because so much of the writing they’re asked to do prior to (and even in) college is written to standards, imposed either by teachers (often through rubrics) or by standardized assessments. I believe students just don’t have enough practice at writing as a “custom job,” which is how the writing they’ll be doing in the larger world functions.

Writing well is difficult enough as is. Not having a handle on what’s trying to be accomplished and why makes it impossible.

It also creates unnecessary and unproductive stress and anxiety over school in general and writing in particular. When your confidence and belief in your abilities is consistently outsourced to a teacher, a bad grade will for sure throw you for a loop.

To help students develop the skills of self-regulating their writing and reducing the anxiety and stress they experience over writing, I make significant use of self-assessment and reflection as part of their ultimate grade.

Self-assessment recently came in for some ridicule when the syllabus for University of Georgia Prof. Rick Watson’s course, which includes a “stress reduction” self-grading policy, was picked up by “right-leaning media outlets.” 

The policies themselves are…strange, including:

  • “If you feel unduly stressed by a grade for any assessable material or the overall course, you can email the instructor indicating what grade you think is appropriate, and it will be so changed. No explanation is required, but it is requested that you consider waiting 24 hours before emailing the instructor.”


  • “Only positive comments about presentations will be given in class. Comments designed to improve future presentations will be communicated by email.”

In fact, the policies are so strange that many have speculated the syllabus was some sort of parody, perhaps reflecting a desire to raise an alarm about the current generation of “entitled” students. As of yet, Prof. Wilson isn’t saying. Either way, it seems like a lapse in judgment. If it’s a joke, it’s a poor way to kick off a relationship with one’s students. If it’s serious, it’s not well-considered pedagogy.

If followed, Prof. Wilson’s original policies (since changed) do nothing to help students develop agency, instead encouraging ignoring sources of stress, never a good thing. And the idea that comments for improvement are somehow not welcome is just, well…can’t do better than strange.

Anxiety breeds when situations feel like they’re out of our control. I want students remembering that what they learn is largely in their control. (Even if their grades aren’t always.)

In my experience, self-assessment and reflection are powerful ways to tamp down student anxiety by changing the question from “How’d you do?” to “What’d you learn?”

One of my favorite reflection questions following a completed assignment is a simple, “What do you know now that you didn’t know before?”  or alternatively, “What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?”

I use a grading contract that privileges labor, rather than putting letter grades on final artifacts, but even if I didn’t, and the student is not pleased with the grade, they walk away considering the experience as a whole.

Another route is to ask students what they would want to do to the piece of writing if they had more time. This recognizes that writing is a process, deadlines attached to school are artificial and an idea that may not be fully formed in time for the grade assessment may be worth picking up again later. I also like them to examine their writing processes, sometimes asking them to reflect how much time they spent on different stages of the project.

Self-assessment done well should increase the rigor of the course because grades are not particularly reliable indicators of rigor, and they often aren’t reflective of learning.

And some of what students may need to learn is that sometimes grades really don’t matter, or some things matter more than grades.

I had this epiphany probably too soon, as a junior in high school when I was supposed to be writing a by-the-books, single-author term paper. My subject (my choice) was journalist/novelist/white suit rocker Tom Wolfe. At some point, I decided it would be fun to write the term paper itself in the style of Wolfe’s “new journalism,” going so far as to include myself as an authorial presence working on a term paper. I put more into that assignment than any three other assignments combined.

I got a C.  

I got a C because I didn’t meet the objectives of the assignment. I had freelanced my way out of the boundaries. My teacher, not being familiar with Tom Wolfe’s work, appeared entirely confused by what I’d done. I don’t really blame him. It wasn’t a research paper.[1]

I learned an important lesson: there may be a disconnect between what I want to do and what the occasion demands. I didn’t always toe the line after that. In fact, I often didn’t,[2] but I also understood the consequences of that choice, an inmportant lesson.

Deciding what was important, a grade or the experience, was one step on my way to becoming self-regulating writer.


[1] This was the first and only time my parents intervened to argue my case with a teacher. I was too upset to explain, but they were able to convince him I’d acted out of passion and enthusiasm, rather than disrespect or blowing off the assignment. My memory is the grade was raised to a B.

[2] In college in literature courses I often took pride in B’s I earned on papers where the professor would comment something like, “I don’t see anything in here related to the assignment, but it was interesting.”

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