Annotated examples: Using student writing samples in the classroom

Daniel Emery

When students seek help with the writing tasks they are assigned for class, their most common requests are for detailed and specific feedback and access to effective examples. Assignment sheets with clear evaluative criteria, rubrics that specify expectations, and formative feedback can help to satisfy the first request. How can instructors use student writing samples without creating an accidental template, or worse, encouraging plagiarism and patchwriting?

Identifying effective samples: Selecting evidence for student success

One of the best resources for annotated examples comes from students who have already successfully completed the assigned task. Instructors should obtain written permission from students and should remove any identifying information. For departments and colleges participating in the WEC program, de-identified student samples are available through your WEC Liaison.

The best samples are often brief and very specific. Rather than using a single effective student response or an A+ paper, consider selecting multiple short paragraphs that illustrate a particularly valuable criterion. While it can be tempting to select weak examples as models of “what not to do,” students benefit most from models of successful performance.

Annotating the examples: What works, how, and why?

While selecting examples is the first step, the most important one is annotating the sample to help students recognize the features of success. Annotations can identify the sentences and paragraphs where writers have met the expectations for an assignment. Annotations specify how and why a particular example models effectiveness.

Consider the following paragraph from a student sample:

Hybridization manipulates plant species through reproduction to create novel combinations, while transgenic species are created when genetic material from another (sometimes unrelated) organism is introduced into the genome of a target crop. While McAllister (2018) suggests that the creation of transgenic species is similar to traditional crossbreeding and simply another incremental step in genetic research, Garuz and Hanneman (2018) suggest that crossing the species barrier represents a transformative change in plant genetics.

If one criterion for the assignment was to illustrate a variety of perspectives on a topic, an instructor might highlight and annotate the second sentence.

Using annotated samples in class

  • Show a variety of ways to demonstrate success on any given criterion. Multiple examples of a single feature help to avoid the template effect that single examples can sometimes encourage.
  • Use descriptive annotations that clarify the elements of success. Clear connections to grading criteria and important textual features help to clarify what you value.
  • Use the most examples with the most unfamiliar and conceptually challenging components of the assignment. Students who want help identifying textual examples of higher-order thinking skills like analysis and synthesis benefit from multiple specific examples.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.


I'd add that you can use, an online collaborative annotation tool, to take this assignment online and out of the classroom. The students can not only review your comments about what makes a particular paper or paragraph successful, but also comment with their own annotations or pose questions as well. is a great tool to use.