Evaluating and Responding to Student Writing

Part of the test to decide whether or not an assignment is successful lies in how painful is the evaluating process. If your expectations are clear in the assignment, students will have less trouble fulfilling it and you will have an easier time evaluating their efforts. Once you have determined the kind of grades or comments the completed assignment should receive, you will need to develop a hierarchy of concerns to direct your comments and grading.

John C. Bean from Seattle University separates grading concerns into two categories: higher order issues and lower order issues.

Higher order issues consist of problems with ideas, development, organization, and clarity:

  • Does the draft or completed work fulfill the assignment?
  • Does it have a thesis that addresses the appropriate question or problem? What is the quality of the argument?
  • Does is show cohesive organization on a paragraph scale?
  • Are the paragraphs themselves well organized and clear?
  • Does the writer use clear transitions to move from one paragraph or idea to the next?

Lower order issues include sentence correctness, style, mechanics, and spelling:

  • Does the student have particularly annoying recurring style problems?
  • Are there a lot of surface errors or recurring errors?

The priority in evaluating student writing are the higher order issues. When a student is successful on these issues, only then do lower order issues become a priority. That doesn’t mean that you should not comment on mechanical and stylistic problems if you want to or find it necessary. These comments, however, should not be the primary response to student writing. Instead, either summarize mechanical problems and ask the students to correct them on their own, or correct these problems in one or two paragraphs of the draft and indicate that the same types of problems exist throughout the paper.

Do: Describe what is good and the specific problems, ask questions for clarification, make suggestions, and give encouragement

Avoid: overcorrecting, sarcastic comments, and rewriting students’ language

Just as content should be the center of the writing process for students in your classes, content should also be at the center of your evaluations of student writing.

* Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. 243-50.

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