Evaluating Student Writing

Evaluating student writing is not only a way to assess a student’s knowledge and abilities but also a form of teaching. To repeat, responding to writing is teaching writing–and it is a form of teaching that is not limited to writing teachers. Successful evaluation of student writing starts with the creation of course assignments, continues through discussing criteria and assessment methods with students, and ends with implementing strategies for clear and consistent feedback.

Start With Learning Objectives

Evaluation of student writing begins with assignment design. Assignments designed with clear learning objectives tied to course goals increase students’ ability to succeed and make instructors’ work as evaluators easier. (If you need help formulating assignment objectives, utilize Bloom’s taxonomy.)

In addition to defining learning objectives and criteria for evaluation, strong assignments make purpose and task clearer. See Transparency in Learning and Teaching Design (TILT) for more guidance in designing successful assignments.

Develop an Effective Approach for Commenting

Effective comments should always include both positive feedback and constructive criticism. As Sommers (1982) asserts, “As writers we need and want thoughtful commentary to show us when we have communicated our ideas and when not, raising questions from a reader’s point of view that may not have occurred to us as writers” (p. 148). Student writers’ needs are no different.

Providing feedback on student writing can also help you assess their work by putting your own ideas into writing. For example, it could be helpful in your terminal (end of paper) or summative comments to articulate how the paper met or did not meet specific disciplinary conventions and/or how various readers might interpret or value aspects of the paper.

What’s most essential is that comments be specific. Effective terminal comments often use the praise sandwich: leading with student strengths, moving on to weaknesses, and then ending on a final positive note. When providing specific feedback, identify the weakness or strengths you observe and also offer details for how to perform better.

A Note on Grammar

When providing feedback regarding student writing, instructors might be tempted to focus solely on grammar and mechanics. Helping a student write clearly is useful, but feedback isn’t useful when students don’t believe they can improve to meet your expectations. For the most part, if a student’s point is clear despite minor but visible errors, they have been effective in communicating a message. Focusing feedback on clarity of message can even help when grammatical errors do need to be addressed, as long as they are discussed through the lens of the reader not understanding the message.

Moreover, outside of specific grammar courses, many instructors are moving away from editing student language because American English has many variations, Standard English being only one of many. Rules around grammar, usage, and mechanics are primarily learned implicitly, through immersion in language communities. Standard Academic English is a home language for many middle-class students whose parents attended college in the U.S. but a second language for many other students whose families, home, and work communities do not primarily use Standard Academic English. Asau Inoue (2019) argues that evaluating students against the metric of Standard Academic English asserts racially biased hierarchies. He writes: “We live in a racist society, one that recreates well-known, well-understood, racial hierarchies in populations based on things like judgements of student writing that use a local Standardized Edited American English (SEAE) with populations of people who do not use that discourse on a daily basis–judging apples by the standards of oranges” (p. 6). Young (2018) echoes this sentiment, arguing against cultural critic Stanley Fish’s take that instructors should enforce one type of English to help students avoid prejudice (p. 110–117). Much like novelist Amy Tan writes in “Mother Tongue” of how the many “englishes” she grew up with helped her become a better writer, Young (2018) argues for tolerance of “linguistic and racial differences,” and goes on to praise code-meshing in language which can more effectively get arguments across to audiences and also “help reduce prejudice” (p. 110–117).

Methods for Assessing Writing

There are many methods for evaluating student writing and communicating that assessment to students. Some options include:

  • Instructor-designed rubrics
  • Student-designed rubrics
  • Labor-based contract grading
  • Written feedback or video/audio feedback
  • Student reflection and instructor response
  • Guidance on Rubrics
Responding to Students’ Self-Assessments

Some faculty find it useful to respond to students’ self-assessments of their work rather than to the original work. Brian Huot (2002) argues that “a crucial missing element in most writing pedagogy is any experience or instruction in ascertaining the value of one’s own work.” Having students take part in the assessment process helps them to understand that value: “Students can only learn the power of assessment as they do other important features of learning to write– within the context of their own work. … [A] classroom discourse of assessment should provide students with a clearer idea about how text is evaluated” (p. 176-177).

One way to do this is to assign a reflection or review summary along with a paper. In this additional assignment, students can begin to assess their own writing, identifying what they see as strengths as well as what they perceive needs improvement. They can use the prompt or a rubric to reflect on how their paper works toward achieving the aims of the project, or instructors can provide direct questions for them to address.

Then when leaving feedback on the paper, instructors can comment solely on the concerns or interests indicated by the student. This not only helps make the feedback more conversational, but it can also streamline the commenting process for instructors who might be tempted to comment on every little detail of a paper. Because too much commentary from a professor can be overwhelming for a student, providing limited feedback increases the likelihood that students will retain it, and providing feedback directly about students’ individual concerns furthers that retention even more.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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