Open reviewing process

When Grades Get in the Way of Learning

Picture of Kelly McDougall
When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Kelly McDougall - Thursday, 14 September 2017, 12:19 PM


Thank you for taking the time to look at my work. My school year has just begun, and once again I face mystified students who sometimes initially feel uncomfortable with my approach; however, once I explain the research to support focussing on feedback and limiting marks and grades they get it. After only a few days together, all of my students are working on improving their learning, seeking out opportunities for feedback and even requesting more opportunities to journal and to conference as they join me on this journey as co-researchers.  I welcome every suggestion on how to improve my work, my research, and my writing.

Swaroop Rawal
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Swaroop Rawal - Thursday, 28 September 2017, 10:50 AM

Dear Kelly,

I really liked the issue you are dealing with in the article. As a drama teacher and a person who studied Commercial Art I find this debate of grades and /or feedback interesting. Looking back at my college years I believe if I had had a teacher such as you I would have probably been a different kind of students!

I have made a huge number of comments directly in your paper. Please don’t worry about the number as a large number are compliments. Often while reading your paper I wanted to pat your back and say “good job!”

However, I also believe you need to work a lot more on your paper, because as I see it you have left out a lot of your good work. I can sense it but I cannot find it written in the paper.

Kelly, here a few suggestions:

Please recast your sentences. Sometimes you are saying too many things in one sentence and thus losing the significance of the ideas you are sharing. I believe you are taking the easiest route in writing and not trying to appreciate the needs of the reader in terms of understanding you, your work, your students’ thoughts and the system in which you work. There is not enough clarity; we cannot get inside your head and heart.


What I find is that your article does not read like a Living Theory account-

There are not enough details for a reader to understand the value-based explanation of your educational influence in your own learning, the learning of your students and the learning of the social formations where you work. What are your driving values? And how do they manifest in your practice, and through the process of reflection?

You do not provide sufficient detail of your living-educational-theory for it to be understood. What about your understanding of you as living contradiction?

Perhaps, you would consider writing out your values and how they clarify what matters to you. Then you could explain how they influence your educational learning, others' learning and the learning in the places where you live and work. As I read the paper through I found that in your writing you have not incorporated enough about living theory. You need to show   that your own living theory has a place within the literature of living theory. You have not mentioned living educational theory points


Try this-

·         What is my concern?

·         Why am I concerned?

·         What am I going to do about it?

·         What data will I gather to help me to judge my effectiveness?

·         How does the data help me to clarify the meanings of my embodied values as these emerge in practice?

·         What values-based explanatory principles do I use to explain my educational influence?

·         How do I use my values-based standards of judgment in evaluating the validity of my claims to be improving my practice?

·         How will I strengthen the validity of my values-based explanations of my educational influences in learning?


There is not enough evidence to support the claims that you are making in your paper, for example see comment 59 and 64.   I believe if you share more of your data your paper will be stronger. Lack of details. I find there is not enough signposting in the paper as a whole. Additionally Living Theories need to illustrate the explanations of learning as well. I suggest you look through the EJOLTS archive in order to see the works of other living theorists it will give you plenty of background material for this.


Kelly, I hope I have not swamped you with my comments. That is not my intention. Please feel free to write to me and ask for help and any explanation if my comments are not clear.



Picture of Kelly McDougall
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Kelly McDougall - Monday, 2 October 2017, 2:08 PM

Dear Swaroop,

Thank you for your encouragement and your close critical reading.  After having a chance to read through all of your suggestions and comments this weekend, I recognize that I will need to re-work and re-write the bulk of the article.  Already I have numerous thoughts about how to better document my experience with the Living Theory process. Recognizing that I have to make this part of the work and my recording of it more clear, more concise and add additional support to my claims. However, as I have a heavy teaching load this semester, I will have to work away at this process as time permits.

Once again, thank you for all of your support and feedback on my research and my writing.


Picture of Joy Mounter
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Joy Mounter - Monday, 2 October 2017, 6:24 PM

Dear Kelly,

I really enjoyed carefully reading your paper. I have not tracked comments, as I absolutely agree with Swaroop. Your focus is fascinating, as a teacher and researcher it is an area I have also focused on.

Your paper left me with many questions of clarity and meaning and wanting a little more information. I did find confusing whether your focus was on resilience or marking and feedback. You hint at your values, data you have collected, please explore this more fully and relate to your practice. You briefly mention Living Theory, but this needs to weave throughout the paper.

I really look forward to reading more,

Best wishes,


Swaroop Rawal
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Swaroop Rawal - Saturday, 7 October 2017, 8:40 AM

Dear Kelly,

Your work and hence this article is very interesting and important. I say this because I feel what you have to say is meaningful. I would love to have this article published, and am sure the rest of the team feels the same.

If you need any help from me please feel free to ask. And you can take your time, I know a teacher's time table is usually very busy.

Love, Swaroop

Picture of Máirín Glenn
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Máirín Glenn - Sunday, 8 October 2017, 7:39 PM

Dear Kelly,

I think you are sharing with us the story of your learning as you have experimented with forms of assessment with your Art students.

As I read through your paper I was left in no doubt as to the passion and excitement you have experienced in undertaking this piece of research. Therefore, I can imagine that your work has had substantial influence on your practice with regard to assessment and your understanding of it. I perceive that your ideas regarding assessment are fairly ground-breaking and so therefore, your work and the theory you are in the process of generating, is potentially quite significant for colleagues and even policy in your place of work. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the significance of your project.

However, I’m not getting as clear a picture as I’d like of your work. I can only get a sense of these achievements. I think you clearly know what you have done, but as your reader, I find the account a little too vague. I think you need to remember that you are telling your story to those of us who want to learn from you but who weren’t with you in your school and are not familiar with your story and, indeed, who are not familiar with your system of education. Don’t forget to tell us readers what exactly happened from the outset: what was wrong in your practice; why was this making you uncomfortable; what did you plan to do; what actually happened; what did you learn and what was the relevance of your project?

 More specifically, I think, in your next draft, you could provide your readers with much more data or evidence to show what you did; to outline what happened and to describe what you learned. This data could also help to support your claims. You appear to have collated large quantities of data but, to date, you have presented very little of it in your text or appendices. I suggest that you should bring your data right into your paper because not only will it strengthen your case, it will all paint a more in-depth picture of your story in a more convincing manner. Your data and the evidence you present will toughen up your story and give it a robust supporting framework.


You need also bring your awareness of the role your values play into the story of your learning, more explicitly. As a reader I can sense them, I think, but for publication they need to be stated more overtly and clearly. I think it might be worthwhile to clarify for yourself and your reader, what exactly your values are, at the outset. Then, you can use them as the foundation upon which you build your research, and tell the unfolding story of your learning. Tell us more about your concerns around the assessment system as it stands and why this system contravenes the values you espouse (as I imagine it does!).

Maybe you could tell us a little more about the literature with which you have engaged in the process of your learning? Do you agree or disagree with it and how has it influenced your thinking?

I think you could use your values to help you draw up the criteria or living standards of judgement by which you evaluate the veracity of your claim, as is often the practice in academic accounts of living educational theory. I think you could state these criteria more overtly in your paper.  Perhaps you could tell us some more about how you have found that you are living more closely in the direction of your values ( or not) as your research progresses? And again, these claims should be substantiated by hard evidence so as to make them stand up to the scrutiny of the most sceptical reader.

I am going to ‘borrow’ Swaroop’s comments and add just a little to one or two of them (Swaroop's words are in italics):

‘·         What is my concern?

·         Why am I concerned? [What are my values and how do I perceive that I am not living as closely to them as I would like, at this time?]

·         What am I going to do about it?’ [What plan will I make? What are the criteria or living standards of judgement that I establish for myself to benchmark that I am working more closely to the values I hold?]

I recommend having a look at this short video clip of Jack Whitehead talking about having difficulties living to his values as a young teacher- it is less than two minutes long- but it captures how he experienced himself as a ‘living contradiction’.


Like Joy, I will send not on my marked-up text, because Swaroop has picked up on a lot of the points I had questioned myself.  

However, I would make the following specific points:

Just checking that you are careful in using the name of your school, if this is not a fictional name. Have you checked ethical expectations and permissions with all relevant bodies.

I would like a clearer explanation of more ‘local’ terms such as ‘First Nations students’, ‘First Nations students’ issues’ as well as ‘collaborative creation of rubrics’. Yes, I know what you are talking about, but I think it would make for easier reading if the terms were explained briefly.

While you are clearly familiar with Dweck’s work, I think a short explanation, for those who have not read it, would be helpful.

You state ‘We as a class decided…’, but it would be very helpful if you tell your readers (especially practising teachers) how this happened. Who suggested what and was the decision made?

I am suggesting that you might consider using more headings on sections of your paper so as to signpost to your readers what they will encounter in that section.

Kelly, I think this is an exciting story and indeed, one that must be told. I think you have done a lot of the hard work already but I also think you need to work some more on your draft because your account needs to be more robust and your ideas need to be formulated more rigorously. Remember that you are aiming to convince the most cynical of readers of the authenticity and importance of your work and you need to use every weapon or artefact that you have at your disposal to do this.


Thank you for sharing your text. Be sure to get back to me if you are unclear about my comments. I am looking forward greatly to your next draft.

With all best wishes,





Picture of Kelly McDougall
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Kelly McDougall - Monday, 6 November 2017, 1:41 PM

Hello Swaroop, Joy, and Mairin,

Following your suggestions both of a broader nature and those specifically regarding the written aspect of the article,  I have revised my writing.  I hope that by adding my process and reflections from my first foray into action research that I have been able to clarify some of the confusion; however if this additional writing is too detailed it can easily be edited or removed.  

I have been permitted to use the name of my school in my work.

Thank you for the considerable commitment of time involved in writing and commenting on my work.  


Picture of Máirín Glenn
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Máirín Glenn - Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 1:37 PM

Dear Kelly,

You have a very worthwhile and interesting story to tell here and I can see you have begun editing your paper well. Because this is an important story, you should take your time about the drafting process. I also think you are still unearthing your learning in the process of your writing and so, I believe it is worthwhile to dedicate some time to it. I have been a teacher for the whole of my professional life myself, and I empathise greatly with the passion and the struggles your paper outline.

I love the way the story of your own learning has run in tandem with your understanding of the learning of your students. I feel you are telling two intertwined stories of learning, which is very interesting. I think your paper would be strengthened by drawing a more overt link between your values and their educational influence in your learning, as well as that of your students, and keeping that as a focus for your writing. I can see you have done this to an extent, but I think it would be helpful to bring this focus to the attention of your readers a little more overtly. (See Jack Whitehead’s short video clip on the role of values in living theory at, for example).

You have done some good work in ‘chunking’ your ideas under headings but I think it would be helpful to have some more headings and ‘chunking’, as they help your reader and guide them through your ideas. Try to ensure that your headings are appropriate to the text because it can be confusing for the reader when there is a mismatch (check Living Theory Methodology on p.3 for example). It might be an idea to jot down a draft plan or outline for your paper for yourself, listing the main ideas you wish to include in each section and the heading you might like to put on each section, perhaps?

As is the case with all forms of research, it is important to support your claim with evidence, to link specific pieces of data to your claim and show how it provides evidence of your claim. You have added in a huge amount of data in this draft of your paper but I think it might be more helpful for the reader if you could link each claim with the specific piece(s) of data that you can show to support that claim and meet that living standard of judgement.

Your paper is beautifully reflective and shows a good deal of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on- action’ as outlined by Schon (1983). I think your paper might be even more convincing if you showed more critical engagement with the literature, not only in the area of living theory but perhaps also in the area of well-being, resilience and standardised testing- or whatever areas you feel are at the heart of your work. Why don’t you have a peek at some of the papers published here at to get a flavour of how engaging with the literature can give you an extra set of lenses (Brookfield 1995) as you reflect critically on your work?

I love the criteria for publication in EJOLTS listed at . They are not only helpful for publishing papers in EJOLTS but are also useful for reminding us about how we think about living theory and how we write about our experiences.

I hope you find this feedback useful. Please do not hesitate to get back to me if you need any clarification on my comments.

I wish you the best of luck with your drafting process!





Brookfield, S. (1995), Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Scn, D. A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York: Basic Books

Whitehead, J. (2100)  ‘ How should action research be conducted? Jack Whitehead interviewed’, available online  (accessed 14 November 2017).





Picture of Kelly McDougall
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Kelly McDougall - Thursday, 23 November 2017, 4:29 PM

Hello Mairin,

Thank you for giving me this feedback on my work and my writing.  I am struggling to find time to commit to the process: to reading other articles, research and re-considering how I might make my experiences and my writing be more in line with your suggestions.  Already feeling overwhelmed with my commitments to my students and my school, I know that realistically I may not be able to find the time necessary for this work until next summer.

The Bluewater Action Research Network has just received funding for another year in which we will be able to support teachers either beginning or continuing their self-directed professional development and their journey into living theory action research.  I had already committed to facilitating this project before submitting my work to EJOLTS, and so I feel that I need to honor that commitment and recognize the limits of my time this school year.

If my situation changes and I can make progress in the revision process, I will be in touch with another version of the article.

Thank you again,


Picture of Máirín Glenn
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Máirín Glenn - Monday, 27 November 2017, 3:45 PM

Hi Kelly,

Finding time to do everything can be very challenging and overwhelming. I do think you have a story of learning that needs to be told but I appreciate that it will take time and energy. Perhaps when you return to your paper at the end of the school year, you will have more time to commit to your writing.

I wonder, though, if you would consider continuing to engage with the ideas and trying to clarify your own thinking some more in the intervening months? I suspect that your learning in the BARN project will help you think more clearly about your EJOLTS’ writing. I think the practice in which you engage, and the values you hold are linked very closely and you might find it beneficial to develop a keener awareness of how you are living in the direction of your values as you teach and as you facilitate your BARN work. I suggest that you continue to keep a journal of your reflections about all the work you do between now and summer time. As you write in your journal, it might be helpful, perhaps, to bring a keener awareness to events that show that you are living and working to you values (or not).  

When you return to your paper, Swaroop’s excellent advice should help you with your revision.

Wishing you the best of luck with your practice and the theorising of your practice,

Warm regards,


Swaroop Rawal
Re: When Grades Get in the Way of Learning
by Swaroop Rawal - Friday, 24 November 2017, 7:56 AM

Dear Kelly,

I am sorry it took me so long to reply. 

I find your work extremely important. It is beautiful. However, I find your paper very difficult to read, partly because of your sentence structure and partly  because of the flow of your writing. 

I am posting you my comments I do hope they will help you create  a strong and wonderful paper. You need a more dynamic engagement with living-education-theory and the idea of you as a living contradiction. It is in your work but not in your writing.

love, Swaroop