Grading and Responding to Student Writing
© copyright 1997, University Writing Program at Virginia Tech -1997-98 Informational Flyer Series -Issue 4, Fall 1997
A. Investing Your Time Earlier In The Process
Often we wish simply to hand out the assignment and get back to the work of the course, assuming, if there are no immediate questions, that students "get it." Too often the students don't fully "get it," with the result that the process of completing such a project for students may be time-consuming and frustrating, the process of evaluating for me equally time-consuming and frustrating. This is unfortunate, since such small and large assignments, fully realized, ought to constitute the essential educational experiences of the course. Though many of the options below appear to be time-consuming, they can in fact lead to a reduction in time for students and teachers and, more importantly, a more productive, more fruitful use of that time.
- Clearly explain criteria: Include your criteria for evaluating papers on the syllabus and/or on the assignment.
- Model: Present and discuss in class a professional example or successful student example of the kind of writing you are asking for in the assignment.
- Discuss the assignment: Go over the assignment aloud, sentence by sentence; clarify important terms; reword; illustrate with examples, analogies, metaphors or ask students to provide these.
- Attempt the assignment yourself: Doing so may alert you to potential problems or pitfalls in the assignment design, help you determine evaluative criteria, or persuade you to foreground certain key concerns in class.
- Include informal writing: Build in to the assignment ungraded writing that will help students better understand it and will help you gauge students' progress. Examples of such writing: a paraphrase of the assignment immediately after you hand it out, a prospectus, a progress statement or self-evaluation mid-way through the project, a cover letter or memo on top of the final paper.
- Conference with students: If time, see each student half-way through a project to help them develop and revise. Make your key contribution here; put a grade and only minimal comments on the final paper. Even seeing just a few students can clue you in to common problems which you can then address and help remedy in class.
- Use peer review: Set some time aside for students to read and comment on classmates' drafts. If written peer critiques are submitted with the final paper, you may find yourself agreeing with some or all of the critique; point to it in your comment to save yourself time.
- Respond to drafts: Tell students you will comment on drafts, giving only a grade on the final paper.
B. Working Through The Pile
- Review criteria before grading: Know exactly what you expect of an A paper, and how you will differentiate among A, B, C, D, and F papers.
- Locate range finders: set aside one or two representative As, Bs, Cs, Ds which can act as touchstones if you lose focus or struggle with a given student's work.
- Read through the writing once without commenting: Respond-as-you-go is a tough habit to break, but it can interrupt the flow of your reading too often, creating frustration and comprehension problems.
- Separate problem papers: Agonizing over problem paper may disrupt your reading; deal with these papers later, perhaps calling upon a second reader for help.
- Take breaks: Learn to read your fatigue signs and schedule breaks at strategic times. Don't read an entire batch of papers in one sitting.
C. Responding Strategies
- Tailor responses to individual writers: Address an individual human being and sign your name to your response; if possible, connect this writing to other writings the student has done in the course and/or address the student's progress.
- Make precise comments that refer to specific information in student texts: Generic comments--"some of your reasoning breaks down in places," "develop your analysis further"--can't be acted upon; point to particular moments in the text, pose specific questions, etc.
- Treat a limited number of issues in a given paper: You can't do it all, and multiple suggestions or criticisms can overwhelm students; prioritize and suggest two or three things to work on.
- Balance positive and negative modes of commentary: Help students see what they do well as well as what they need to work on.
- Invoke the student's intended audience: Reinforce audience awareness by explaining how a student's tone, word choice, organization, etc. would affect the intended audience.
- Shift proofreading and copy-editing responsibility to the student: Correcting errors for students will not help them learn to correct errors themselves. On the first set of papers, you may choose to identify representative errors by means of labels, handbook references, or checks in the margins, but these props should rapidly fall away as students assume responsibility themselves for finding and correcting errors. A recent study found students able to identify and correct 61.1% of all errors on their own with careful proofreading.