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Grading writing: recommended grading strategies

Pamela Flash

Grading final drafts of students' work satisfies institutional demands and also helps students measure their growth as writers against a group of reasonable expectations. Complications can arise for instructors when they grade student work, however. They may be concerned, for example, about the impact grades will have on students' motivation. Also, when final drafts indicate that students understood an assignment differently from the ways instructors intended them to understand it, that instructor might be forced to debate the ethics of docking the student, or changing grading criteria to accommodate a less-than-clear assignment. Also, late at night, exhausted graders might get the distinct feeling that the standards they used in the beginning of the evening changed as they worked their way down the pile of drafts.

The strategies listed below can help instructors navigate these kinds of concerns.

Recommended grading strategies

  • Grading rubrics (or grids) ensure that you are sticking to your criteria. Create rubrics using announced criteria and consider including them on assignment sheets. When students are apprised of grading criteria from the start, they can be more involved in the process of working toward success.
  • Providing successful samples of past students' writing will give current students a clearer idea of what you're after. That said, it is important to provide a variety of models so that students don't feel that they are being asked to follow the models as recipes. Once you have obtained permission from students to use their writing in future classes, you are free to put student-written passages on overheads, in course packets, or on handouts.
  • "Effort" is not a useful criterion. University of Minnesota grading standards are based on achievement. Although many first-year students may expect to be rewarded for "trying hard" on a writing assignment, in the post-secondary environment, effort is expected, not graded. If these rubrics are to work, students whose writing meets the criteria for an "A" paper should be rewarded that grade whether they "tried hard," made radical revisions, or not.
  • Asking students to create a cover letter or revision memo can save you from telling them what they already know, and can provide you with valuable information. When students identify what they think of as the strongest and weakest aspects of their work, and perhaps assess full drafts using the same rubric you plan to use, you are in position to agree or disagree with their assessments and to check their understanding of your criteria.
  • Recognizing that formative (constructive) and summative (evaluative) responses are often incompatible, writing instructors find it most effective to offer them in alternating stages. Intervening early in the process with brief responses may help students to establish ideas they care about, and devise manageable projects. Note also that commenting on grammatical mistakes when you still hope for large-scale revisions presents student writers with mixed messages. Are they to look at surface features or fundamental content? Why correct a passage that may end up being cut?
  • By assigning (and grading) numerous short assignments, instructors offer students opportunities to improve, and underscore the idea that writing is an integral part of learning subject matter (rather than an "add-on"). Complaints can understandably result when only one, heavily-weighted paper is assigned in a class.
  • Instructors who teach similar courses may find periodic grade-norming sessions helpful.
  • If grammar and mechanics are heavily weighted on a grading rubric, and students are indicating shared patterns of difficulty, course instructors should consider addressing these concerns with the entire group.