Student Self-Feedback: One Key to Gradeless Classrooms

The first time I sat down to “not grade” a stack of student essays, I panicked a little bit. To read the papers without giving them a number, letter, or any evaluation whatsoever felt so disorienting that I went crazy providing narrative feedback. That day and in the days to follow, I nearly wrote my hand off.  I worried that this sort of work was not sustainable in the long run.

Now that I have been mostly “gradeless” for a few years now, I realized there was a missing step in my feedback system. I stumbled upon that step by instinct when I asked my students to start annotating their essays and quizzes before handing them in. Over time, this annotation step became bigger and more involved. After completing any assignment, my students read through the work they have done and think aloud on the page. Specifically, I ask them to comment on what they are proud of, where they struggled, and what they would have done if they had more time. They are also welcome to make any corrections on the page. More recently, I started asking students to write a reflection about what they learned—about the topic and about themselves—from doing the assignment. Students have a chance to discuss what motivates them to do their best work and what gets in the way.

I think now that these annotations are more important than the original assignment itself. They teach me what my students really think about writing in general and about their own work. When I first started this process, I was astonished by how critical my students were of themselves, and how aware they were of their own struggles. A student would write in the margins, “I know this paragraph needed more examples but I just didn’t know what to put.” Or they might say, “This sentence doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say.” They would even admit: “I did this assignment at the last minute and now I see that was the wrong move. I rushed through everything and didn’t add evidence.” I think it’s so much better that my students give this feedback to themselves, rather than read the teacher’s comment saying “give examples,” “confusing sentence,” or “NO EVIDENCE!”

Most important, I learned that there was a gap between what students knew and what they could do. Most students were able to point out a passage in their writing that was weak. But many expressed a frustration that they didn’t know quite how to fix it. Many times, teachers give critical feedback without showing students how exactly they could do better.

On the cringeworthy side, the passage that a student was most proud of was something that previously I might have crossed out and wrote “irrelevant” next to. I was pretty dismayed that over the years, my “helpful” criticism might have been crushing students’ enthusiasm for writing. Much of the time, the passages my students were proud of represented a risk taken, such as an analogy or a creative turn of phrase. Often these risks were not entirely successful, but I now believe that an unsuccessful risk is better than a risk not taken at all.

Encouraging our students to self-evaluate helps empower them to take ownership over their writing. It breaks the cycle of students blindly doing “what the teacher wants them to do.” I know my heart always sinks when I hear a student in tutoring say, “Please tell me what’s wrong with my paper.” But when we provide critical feedback to our students without engaging their minds, we reinforce the idea that we are the ones—the only ones—who determine the value of a piece of writing. But how can students feel invested in writing if they feel they have no say over what’s “good” in a piece of writing? Certainly, those of us in the educational sphere can educate our students about what features in writing are valued by certain institutions. But we should not give our students the impression that good writing is an objective matter. I’m convinced that we do this mostly to bolster our own authority, so that we can give grades with impunity.

Authentic student self-feedback is more possible in a gradeless classroom. When I used to do self-evaluation as a student back in high school, it always felt like a mind game. I worried that if I evaluated myself too critically, it would negatively impact my grade, but if I evaluated myself too highly, maybe I would come off as cocky, which also could negatively impact my grade. In a no-grades classroom, self-feedback can be genuine. Students know that their grade is not tied specifically to the assignment, but to their learning process in general. As a result, they are rewarded for more introspection, more honesty.

It’s not a perfect system. Some students resist self-feedback, for a variety of reasons. Some don’t want to do the work of reflection; some are too conditioned to work for extrinsic motivators. But the majority of students begin to take authority over their own writing. They recognize emotional or practical obstacles. They gain a better understanding of their own learning process. One student said that she finally “understood what it means to have your own writing voice.” On my side, my job is not to provide pages of written feedback. Instead, I am working towards using my feedback mainly to respond to their own feedback. This is more doable and also better for my students’ learning.

I used to open conferences by asking students to summarize the feedback they received from me. Next semester, when I return to the classroom, I hope to begin my conferences with a different, (I think) better question, “What feedback would you give yourself on this essay?”

If you’d like more specific information about how I assign student self-feedback, feel free to email me at

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