Making the Grade: Students Reflect on Writing Criteria that Support Their Work

Matthew Luskey

Dark days; a wintery mix of rain, snow and ice; final projects; and grade submission deadlines—welcome to mid December! Many instructors, like their students, may be focused on the immediate present as they finish the last week of classes. The Spring Semester, like the spruces in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man,” may be “rough in the distant glitter.” However, as we wrap up the semester, it can be helpful to take a few minutes to hear from our students about moments of success. In this end-of-the-year blog posting, we continue the tradition of taking stock, of looking back in order to look ahead, and of learning from our students about the practices that have supported their writing. Specifically, here are three undergraduate students’ perspectives about the grading criteria that have been beneficial to them, along with a few suggestions for how instructors can use these insights in the semester ahead.

The Benefits of Task-Specific and Sequenced Criteria

“The grading criteria in my Media Ethics course are much more specific than the usual ‘exceeds standards, meets standards, and below standards’ rubrics that are typically used. It is much easier for me to follow clear-cut instructions, and eliminates any guesswork of what the professor actually wants. I find that when I have a thorough rubric to follow, I spend less time on the assignment, but my work usually has more substance and is more concise.  I would absolutely love it if all my instructors provided instructions and rubrics that were this detailed."

-Allison, a junior in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Allison’s praise for the rubric in Media Ethics touches on a concrete actionable practice for instructors, namely, closely aligning the grading criteria with the specific assignment task. Though such criteria, often in the form of a rubric, can take a bit more time to describe and sequence, they can help to locate the writing task in a specific rhetorical and discipline-based situation. For example, three of the criteria in the Media Ethics rubric articulate and sequence the description, implication, and application of the specific ethical issue the students choose to work with:

  • Essay accurately describes a problem, controversy, or practice that is related to the chosen topic and that implicates an ethical dilemma
  • Essay clearly explains why the chosen problem, controversy or practice implicates an ethical dilemma
  • Essay applies the Potter Box to the ethical dilemma in an accurate and clear manner. This includes a careful and thorough analysis of each of the Potter Box elements.

Having articulated the criteria into distinct and measurable components, the instructor then describes the larger, overall effect of the analysis: Based on the Potter Box analysis, the essay clearly articulates the ethical dimensions of the problem, controversy, or practice with nuanced and thoughtful examinations of the ethical implications from multiple perspectives and with pluralistic consideration of competing or conflicting values, theories and principles. Without the three prior criteria, many students may struggle to realize this fourth and more ambitious criterion. As Allison observes, the previous criteria reduce the guesswork that goes into a complex, ethical analysis assignment without reducing the critical analysis and substance  required. You can read more about articulating clear and sequenced criteria and designing task-specific rubrics on our TWW Resource page, Designing and Using Rubrics.

The Value of Anchored Criteria

“One grading layout that was helpful for me was for my Environmental Sciences Policy Management issue exploration assignment. It was a big (slide-based) project with multiple parts and lengthy instructions, but I appreciated the instructor’s posting previous abridged examples, alongside the grading rubric, so we were able to see how the given assignments were graded and on what criteria. I found this helpful because it demystified the rubric and expectations, which can too-often feel very abstract and vague. However, this way I was preemptively able to identify and avoid common pitfalls. Seeing specific examples of grading helped me to better focus on my specific assignment.”

-Madeleine, a sophomore in CFANS

Similar to Allison, Madeleine praises their instructor for providing writing criteria that demystified a complex assignment. In this specific example, Madeleine describes the use of previous (abridged and redacted) student examples and how they were specifically assessed using the grading criteria. This practice is often referred to as the use of an anchored assessment. As Jay McTighe notes, the samples of previous student work can “provide tangible and specific illustrations of various levels of performance or degrees of proficiency based upon established criteria.” Along with providing students with concrete examples of performance, anchored criteria can be integrated into courses as instructional tools. For example, instructors might also use the strong anchors to teach effective writing strategies and some of the lower-scoring anchors as part of an in-class writing and revision activity.

The Value of Practiced Criteria

“In my Usability class (WRIT 4501), we spent the majority of the class working on a usability test we designed and ran. At the end, we had to submit a long, group-written research paper, and its rubric was immaculate. The grading criteria clearly listed all the required elements of each section of the paper; then, we were graded on whether we mentioned all the elements and how clearly they were conveyed. With such a long writing assignment, it was really helpful to have a clear breakdown of every detail we needed to include. It especially made it easy for us to proofread each other’s sections against the rubric to make sure we all met the criteria.”

-Sumeya, a senior in CLA studying Technical Writing and Communications

Along with Allison and Madeleine, Sumeya identifies how valuable a detailed rubric with clear grading criteria was for a complex writing assignment, one that included team-based work. Here, Sumeya also describes how effective the criteria were  for facilitating the peer response process. When criteria are used by students to provide feedback and support for one another, prior to their use as a summative assessment by the instructor, they are much more likely to be concrete for student writers. You can read more about how to integrate grading criteria and peer response activities on our TWW Resource pages.

Please Share Your Successes

Allison’s, Madeleine’s, and Sumeya’s observations speak to the hard work that instructors put into supporting their student writers. We encourage you to continue this reflection and celebration in the comments below. What has worked for you this semester?

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages or teaching resources. 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 and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting.

Looking to change up writing assignments or grading strategies? Talk to us! We like thinking with faculty members, instructors, and TA/GIs about any and all matters related to teaching with writing in courses across the University curriculum. Got questions about writing assignments and activities, grading writing, providing feedback, or using digital tools? Ping us! To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.