As with test construction, the quality of a writing assignment or essay exam can often determine the quantity of time spent grading; a good assignment is easier and faster to evaluate. Constructing effective writing assignments requires some thought and preparation on your part, but such strategies also tend to improve your communication with students about expectations and their own performance on a given assignment.
Designing Writing Assignments
Assignments should give students an opportunity to demonstrate their having reached, exceeded or fallen short of the learning goals you’ve set for them. You may want them to have learned a set of principles, or to be able to apply a theory to new evidence; you may wish them to be able to sustain an argument, or synthesize conflicting sources. Perhaps your goal is as simple as wanting them to write clearly for a lay audience about a topic in your field. If you keep your goals in mind while constructing assignments, you will find students more likely to reach them, and your evaluation process easier and smoother.
Make sure your assignment clearly specifies the following information, which is often referred to by the acronym RAFTS (Role, Audience, Format, Task, Standards).
Role: What role is the student to take in writing this paper? If the student is writing a book review, for example, she takes on the role of critic.
Audience: Who is the audience for this paper? What can students assume about the knowledge and background of their readers? Often students have difficulty writing because they conceive of their audience solely as their professor: “the instructor already knows all this; what can I possibly say?” By imagining an audience to whom they can speak with authority, students can often write clearer, more interesting essays.
Format: In what format should this paper be written? Business memos, for example, typically open with standard headings and are very different from academic papers.
Task: What task is the student to accomplish? The task might be, for example, to summarize a text, to compare and contrast two theories, or to analyze an argument.
Standards of evaluation: what major items will you be looking for when grading? For example, “An answer to the question posed”; “Evidence drawn from the text”; “Proper section headings”; “Prose free of major grammatical errors.” This list need not be exhaustive or define specific weights or points, but should indicate to students what primary traits the graders will consider.
Making Standards of Evaluation Clear to Students
When we respond to student writing we are evaluating the work, commenting on this particular piece of writing, and marking error at the sentence level.
Making your evaluative criteria clear ahead of time eases your students’ fears about the evaluation process to some extent. Moreover, students who know the standards against which their essays will be judged are more likely to try to meet those standards when they write. The more clearly you indicate what you want in your assignment, the more likely it is that you will get it.
Sometimes, instructors wish to make their standards more explicit to students. A systematic representation of grading criteria and their respective worth in the overall grade is called a rubric. These might be holistic scales that describe the characteristics of an “A” paper, a “B” paper, and so on, or may be based upon individual criteria that are each rated as part of the grade; this process is called Primary Trait Analysis (See Walvoord).
Modeling Your Grading
A simple, effective method to demonstrate your standards is to grade a paper in front of the class. The paper you grade might be one written in the previous semester (with the student’s name removed, of course). It is useful to perform this exercise with a paper which might receive an average grade rather than a superior one; the average paper that makes some interesting mistakes will teach students what to avoid, while a superior paper will only excite envy or hopelessness.
Providing Benchmark Essays
Students often learn best from examples. Providing a series of graded essays that represent a range for grades is one way of demonstrating the ways in which an A essay differs from a B essay. One caveat: providing benchmarks also means that you’re circulating essays that might be plagiarized. Consider working with benchmark essays in class and then collecting the copies, or using examples that are from a “second cousin” assignment to your own so that they do not serve as actual responses to an assignment.
Regardless of the method you choose, you are welcome to consult with the CITL Writing Program, 855-4928. Its staff members will help you to construct rubrics or provide student papers to grade in class.
Commenting on Written Work
We use comments to “teach in the margins.” Comments should reflect your readerly response to students’ success in meeting the demands of the assignment. Identify those issues that are most important to you—those items identified in the assignment sheet as important—and comment accordingly.
Commenting on a First Draft
“First draft” implies revision. On a first draft, comments usually address higher-order concerns: Has the student addressed the question posed? Is there a clear thesis that anticipates the paper’s argument? Is the evidence appropriate and convincing? Is the organization clear?
At this stage, try the following strategies:
- Phrase your comments as questions that you, as a reader, would like the writer to address.
- Connect your comments to specific phrases or sentences in the student’s text and avoid vague directives such as “needs more,” “confusing,” or “expand.”
- Direct comments to the 2-3 strategies that can best improve this piece of writing over all.
- In the early stages of the writing process there is little point in addressing sentence-level problems, since after a revision many of those sentences may disappear. Focus on substantive issues.
Commenting on a Final Draft or Essay Exam
Comment on a final draft with a different purpose—to justify a grade, to point to sections that are particularly effective or ineffective, or to address sentence-level concerns that affect the overall quality of the piece, for example.
At this stage, try the following strategies:
- Begin with encouraging or positive remarks
- Avoid comments that assume a subsequent revision. These are not helpful to the student, and take far more time.
- Indicate those items that can help students with subsequent assignments, like “next time, make sure you address all parts of the assignment” or “your paragraphs tend to be too long to follow easily; try breaking them up more frequently.”
Marking Sentence-level Error
Avoid the trap of editing papers for students. The point is for students to learn to edit their own writing; tell them there is a grammatical problem in a line, but do not fix it for them. Written comments, especially about grammar and mechanics, do very little to improve the student’s next effort.
Richard Haswell advocates responding to surface error, grammar, and mechanics problems by indicating the presence of such an error “only with a check in the margin by the line in which it occurs.” One check per error, so two checks in the margin means two errors in the line. He marks these problems, records the number of them, and returns the essay to the student. He requires the student to correct checked errors and resubmit the essay for evaluation. No grade is recorded until this stage.
Here is a paragraph that is minimally marked (using “✗” rather than “✓”):
Haswell claims that with minimal marking a smaller proportion of his time is spent on surface error, allowing him to pay more attention to substance and saving time overall.
If you have further questions about using writing in your class or about how to respond to it, contact the CITL Writing Program at 855-4928.