Grading writing often seems to be a dreaded instructional task. It’s time-consuming, cognitively demanding, and effortful for instructors and teaching assistants. It can be anxiety-producing for students and course instructors when expectations feel unclear or assessments seem subjective or capricious. Finally, and unlike formative feedback or revision, it’s difficult to tell if grading alone helps students to improve as writers.

Fortunately, instructors can combine a number of strategies to overcome these challenges and to create systems for grading that can be efficient, fair, and beneficial for student learning.

Deciding what writing to grade and how

Instructors assign writing for a variety of purposes, and depending on the reason for a writing activity, different grading schemes may be appropriate. We can divide these activities into three categories.

Informal, no-stakes writing activities might include brief assignments and exercises done before, during, or after class where the primary benefit for students is to consider or reflect upon a particular course topic or question. In these activities, the act of writing itself is the primary site of learning, and the written products can serve as preparation for new material, springboards to a discussion, or quick checks on understanding. These assignments can be scored simply on a pass/not pass scale or with easy holistic scores (Check +, Check, Check -)

Low-stakes writing activities often include informal assignments that might count for a portion of the course grade but are preparatory for additional assignments or are a part of a larger cumulative assessment. Discussion posts, blog entries, project proposals, and correspondence may fit this category.

Formal, High-Stakes Assignments include writing activities that account for a significant portion of the course grade.

Recommended grading practices for formal assignments

Articulate and prioritize grading criteria. The best assignments are derived from working backward—begin with the course learning goals, determine how to measure progress toward those goals, and create assignments that allow you to assess those goals in action. Prioritizing and specifying particular criteria for a particular assignment works towards a more transparent and tenable arrangement between the teacher/grader and the student/writer.

Grading rubrics (or grids) can foster consistency in criteria. When specific grading standards are shared with students, they are better able to understand the features and characteristics of strong performance. Similarly, the chance to discuss grading criteria can help students understand what “strong analysis” or “effective citation” may mean in context. Designing rubrics can also assist instructors in weighing the most important features of a particular assignment, and those emphases can help students to see connections between writing activities and learning goals.

Provide students with examples of successful moves in producing an effective document. While students may ask for complete sample papers, a more effective strategy is to select exceptional sentences or paragraphs that demonstrate excellence in at least one of your criteria. Instead of a template, this model emphasizes the student’s ability to recognize and produce effective writing independently. It may also be useful to compare sufficient performance with better and worse examples.

  • Sufficient: The reaction produced a yield of 2.4 grams.
  • Weaker: The reaction produced a significant yield. (the description lacks quantitative precision)
  • Better: The reaction produced a yield of 2.4 grams, which was within the anticipated range of our hypothesis. (The quantitative result is placed in the context of the wider experiment).

Faculty can also work inductively with students to help to build their own examples.

Ask students to comment on their work before submission or resubmission. Asking students to create a cover letter or reflective 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 it using the same rubric you plan to use, you are in a position to agree or disagree with their assessments and to check their understanding of your criteria.

Provide opportunities for students to respond to assessments. Asking students to reflect on their documents and scores encourages reflection, planning, and learning. This reflection can be done in simple in-class exercises, in conferences, or via email.

When identifying sentence-level errors, don’t allege intent. When we detect a written error, it is difficult to distinguish between careless proofreading, misapplication of a grammatical rule, or a lack of knowledge. Remember to identify errors and patterns of errors, but allow students to diagnose the source of the error and correct it. If patterns of error are common across a class, a brief workshop or in-class activity can be useful.

Similarly, be wary of grading on perceptions of students’ “effort.” We might assume that a very brief response with a number of surface errors could be symptoms of a rushed response, poor proofreading, or insufficient effort. It’s valuable to avoid making these assumptions and to assess student writing according to learning goals and criteria. A well-prepared, successful student may write an effective response with minimal effort, while a novice student working in an unfamiliar context may put forth a great deal of effort in producing a less successful document.

Your response can also be given during individual conferences, in-class discussions, or in small group settings. Every opportunity for students to make changes before turning in an assignment for a grade is a valuable learning opportunity.

Comments delivered with a graded draft are understood as justifications for the assigned grade. Your commentary should promote dialogue about improvement. When identifying errors or problems, do so with the goal of recommending strategies for solutions. Summative comment can be shorter, especially if it includes a detailed rubric.

Instructors who teach similar courses may find periodic “norming” sessions helpful. By identifying the features of satisfactory, proficient, and excellent features of written texts, instructors can make their grading more consistent and fair across sections. Read more about conducting a normal session.