Tips for Angst-Free End-of-Semester Writing Evaluation

DelphiblogpicIt’s that time of the semester again: your students’ final papers are trickling (or flooding) into your BlackBoard course shell, office mailbox, or are being collected in class and creating an (intimidating) pile. You look at the sheer volume of intellectual effort and feel a sense of dread.

Where to begin?

You are not alone. One of the most common teaching challenges that faculty report involves evaluating student writing. As you begin the laborious but important process of reading and grading, here are some tips to consider for your review of students’ written work this semester, including strategies you might employ in future semesters.

1. Revisit your course learning goals. What are the core objectives of your course?  How does your students’ written work demonstrate that they have achieved the learning that you expected of them in the course?  If a key component of your course was learning to identify and evaluate sources of evidence from your discipline, but less emphasis was placed upon grammar and syntax, make sure that you are not wasting precious time with copyediting your students’ work, especially if they are not likely to get your feedback at this stage.

2. Compare your evaluation criteria or rubric to a useful exemplar. The “Written Communication VALUE Rubric” was developed by teams of faculty through AAC&U with criteria and descriptors primarily used for discussing and evaluating student learning as opposed to grading:

3. Clarify with students the level of feedback specificity they can expect. In her book, “Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom,” Marilla Svinicki describes a continuum of feedback: “If individual feedback is on one end of the continuum and no feedback is on the other, some alternative points can be considered” (2004, p. 77). She notes that feedback can run the gamut from aggregated class feedback, feedback from peers, intelligent tutors, rubric for on-going self-feedback, and individual feedback from the instructor. Be clear and consistent about the type of feedback you will offer at this stage in the semester and how students can access that feedback.

4. Develop and use shorthand to signify common writing mistakes. Svinicki (2004) recommends aggregating comments that you would make to individual students into a class-wide feedback sheet. You can use the feedback sheet to note common errors (e.g., “UC” for unclear phrasing, “TH” for lack of thesis or main point, “VOC” for inappropriate vocabulary), give specific examples, and provide remediation suggestions.

5. Have your students help you. You can require your students to evaluate their written work using your rubric, assessment criteria, or a checklist when they turn in their assignment.  You can also require students to hand in a self-critique along with the finished product.  As Svinicki notes, “Getting in the habit of using a criterion checklist prior to submission helps build good work habits” (p. 79).

6. A lot of feedback is not always good, giving feedback that students do not read is worse, and not allowing time for any feedback at all is a bummer (for everyone involved).  Doyle (2011) cites a study in which “50% of students [in a composition department] did not even read the feedback comments they received, and the other 50% read them but made no real effort to incorporate the suggestions into their next writing assignment” (p. 58).  Consider requiring that your students choose one part of their work (rather than the whole work) for focused feedback. You can also require that your students write a brief summary of your comments and all suggested improvements to ensure that your comments are read and considered (understanding that this may not be possible with a final class paper).

7. Be a reader, not a proofreader.  UofL anthropology professor Jennie Burnet  recommends making minimal comments in the body of the paper and focusing on one or two examples of problems. She recommends writing a brief paragraph of summative feedback at the end of the paper that outlines the two most important things the students could do to improve their work.  Dr. Burnet also recommends referring students to websites that describe how to address the most common writing challenges (such as the UofL Writing Center).

8. Give meaningful feedback. Ask yourself: What kind of feedback do students need to be successful in my field or discipline?  “Giving meaningful feedback that promotes improved learning is one of the greatest skills of an effective facilitator of education” (Doyle, 2011, p. 58). Learn good feedback principles by reading Dorothy Spiller’s 2009 article “Assessment: Feedback to Promote Student Learning.”

9. Stay fresh and grade in chunks. Schedule your grading for when you are most alert, energized, and focused. Consider how many papers you have to grade, set manageable goals, and take “restorative breaks” once you have read and evaluated your goal of a set number of papers. Out of fairness to yourself and your students, avoid grading all of your students’ papers in one sitting (for better or for worse, your assessment of the 64th paper will undoubtedly be less objective and consistent than your assessment of the first paper!).

Tell us what you think: What is your best advice for grading student writing?  What has worked particularly well for you?  What has been your biggest challenge?

Resources For You
“Grading Student Writing: Making It Simpler, Fairer, Clearer,” Peter Elbow, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 69, Spring 1997, Jossey-Bass.)
This chapter suggests two ways to make the grading of writing easier, fairer, and more helpful for students: using minimal grades or fewer levels of quality, and using criteria that spell out the features of good writing that we are looking for in the assignment.

Improving Student Writing,” David W. Smit, Kansas State University. (IDEA Paper No. 25, September 1991.)
This paper argues that in order to improve student writing, all college teachers must teaching writing more often and more effectively. Discusses ways to promote writing with informal writing to learn activities, including examples of these, and effective methods for teaching formal writing using a wide variety of writing forms.

Resource For Your Students
Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing,” Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney (University of Chicago).
This is a concise guide for students to help them write more effectively in college.

One thought on “Tips for Angst-Free End-of-Semester Writing Evaluation

  1. I like some of the recommendations here, particularly the note about spending time focusing in on giving good feedback on the things that are most relevant for one’s field (if it’s a major-specific course) or most relevant in that moment. The blog suggests “not wasting precious time with copyediting.” But it leaves me wondering how good writing skills are reinforced/taught throughout the college experience if their grammar/syntax are not graded equally as part of the whole assignment. Does a rubric help point out when students have problems with grammar/syntax, and that serves as enough of an indicator that it’s sufficient to help the student develop his or her writing skills? Are a few notes and a recommendation to visit the writing center enough? It’s not realistic to think that good writers will be cultivated only from within the English 101-102 requirements, so if they’re not consistently graded on all elements of their writing, then where else does this happen in the college curriculum? I recognize that it takes a lot of time to do it all, so does this inhibit instructors from assigning papers, or do most faculty try and strike some balance so it’s more manageable?

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