When we imagine grading our students’ written assignments, many of us visualize a single letter or number, perhaps accompanied by a few sentences of commentary, written on a student’s final draft (or typed into a box in Canvas). But grading, which is more holistically known as assessment, is much more than a final score. The most successful assessment of student writing happens throughout the writing process, from assignment (and course) design, to final grades.

Also, whether or not we choose to embrace the reality, writing (and all) assessment has important implications for equity and inclusion in our teaching. Abundant research shows that ostensibly "colorblind" or "neutral" assessment practices tend to have disparate impacts on students. Indeed, these disparities are deeply entrenched in the very discourses we are trying to get our students to learn. As writing assessment scholar Asao Inoue writes in his book Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies

If we are beyond the old-fashion bigotry and bias, then what we are saying is that there is something wrong with the academic discourse itself, something wrong with judging everyone against an academic discourse that clearly privileges middle class white students. In fact, there’s something wrong with judgment itself in writing classrooms.

While refusing to give grades on principle is not a decision most instructors have the power to make, there are approaches you can take to grading writing that help mitigate biases inherent in all of us as individuals, and in the disciplines in which we teach. That leads to more equitable impacts on students. These approaches also, importantly, improve your teaching efficiencies and benefit student learning. 

The five strategies in this guide ask you to think about:

Formative and Summative Assessment: Key Differences

There are different kinds of feedback you can provide on student writing, and these are roughly divided into the categories of “formative” and “summative.”

Formative feedback is given on work in progress; it is provided with an eye toward project development, or revision. Formative feedback might be given on a topic proposal (e.g., “Have you considered this angle? Have you checked this source?”), or on a rough draft (e.g., “As you revise, consider making your central argument more explicit.”). Some formative feedback serves only to signal that you have read and care about your student’s ideas; it expects no revision or “correction” (e.g., “Thank you for sharing your family history in this reading response; I can see why you are invested in this topic.”). While some formative assessment may have a numerical grade tied to it, feedback is often qualitative in nature-- usually it is written or typed, shared verbally in conference, or even audio recorded*. Many writing teachers consider formative feedback to be the most important because it happens during the writing process when students can respond to it, and provides an opportunity for learning and development.

Summative assessment is given at the completion of an assignment or project. It is meant to tell a student how successfully they completed the requirements of an assignment, and whether learning objectives were met. While there is often qualitative feedback included with a summative assessment, it is typically quantitative in nature and is presented as a score that represents a certain percentage of the course grade. Often students purport to care more about summative assessments for this very reason!

It is helpful to consider the differences between formative and summative feedback because that knowledge can help you determine how to structure your response to student writing, and how much time to invest in producing it. For example, do not spend hours writing comments on final papers if students will not have the opportunity to put that feedback to work via revision (or to put it in more jaded terms, do not kill yourself writing comments that students will not bother reading!).

*Canvas enables you to give recorded verbal feedback in the SpeedGrader screen. Beneath the text box for written comments, there is a button with a speaker icon. Click that to record your comments. Some may find this a faster way to give feedback.

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Providing Regular and Helpful Feedback

What follows are some strategies for offering feedback in such a way that students are motivated (intrinsically or extrinsically) to respond to and learn from it. You do not need to use all of these strategies for them to be useful. As with any new teaching practice, starting small is advisable-- each quarter, attempt one small intervention, and expand gradually.

Formative feedback:

  • Asking students to complete regular low-stakes, “writing to learn” assignments such as discussion forums, reading responses, journal entries, or post-assignment debriefs is a meaningful way to build up to higher stakes assignments. However, by no means do you need to comment on (or even read!) every informal piece of student writing. Just check in often enough to let students know you’re interested, that this is not just busy work, and offer remarks and probing questions along the way. Of course, when you ask your students to share something personal about themselves, it is the compassionate thing to respond, even if briefly.

  • Scaffold major writing assignments. Create milestones for a major project with actual deadlines, such as a topic proposal, chunks of a draft (such as an introduction), a rough draft, peer review, and a final draft. Provide the most extensive feedback at the most important points, such as the topic proposal (so you can help point students in the right direction, offer suggestions for sources, etc.) and rough draft (so students can revise productively).

  • Research, and our experience, show that students benefit immensely from verbal feedback. Even better is providing verbal clarification of written feedback on writing in progress. If you or a TA is able to meet with a student, or a small group of students at a time (asking everyone to read each other’s work in advance), to discuss the students’ progress on a project, they will be much more able to internalize what you want them to prioritize for revision.

  • Structured peer review can be immensely profitable for students. You can even set it up so that students conduct peer review sessions outside of class, thus preserving precious class time for other matters. However it is essential that you provide very clear procedures for students, and require students to submit some kind of document (for credit), documenting their participation. Such documentation might include copies of their peer feedback or minutes from their session, which you would only need to spot check. Please see a sample peer review prompt here.

  • Remember that there are several writing centers on campus that can support students’ writing in progress, such as the OWRC, CLUE, and OWRC for Health Sciences students. Encourage your students to go! And remember, the clearer your prompt and assessment criteria, the better the feedback tutors can give.

Summative feedback:

  • Final grades should always be derived from transparent criteria that students are familiar with from the start. Assessment criteria should be explicitly tied to assignment- and even course learning goals (see the next section, “What Is a Rubric and How Should I Use It?” for more on this).

  • Make sure students know what form their final assessments will take. If you plan to only offer a series of numerical rubric scores with no commentary (because, say, you will be expending your energy on providing feedback on rough drafts), be sure to say so in advance.

  • Encourage students to ask questions. If you create a class culture wherein grades are perceived as objective and permanent measures then students are less likely to become active participants in their learning (and in the field of study they are working to enter). This is not to suggest that you encourage grade haggling; it will likely be necessary to set boundaries there. But being available, or asking TAs to be available, to walk students through their scores will help students see how they can improve next time, which also incidentally aids their learning. You might even consider permitting the revision of one assignment for a new grade, or for extra credit.

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What is a Rubric, And How Should I Use It?

Rubrics can take so many forms that, often, when we talk about rubrics we are imagining different things. Partly because the genre of "grading rubric" is so huge and amorphous, the use of rubrics has generated some amount of controversy. As Alfie Kohn writes, rubrics are not great when they only serve to rank students and give extrinsic motivation (nor when they perpetuate harmful ideologies about language). Rubrics can be valuable if they "offer feedback that will help [students] become more adept at, and excited about, what they’re doing."

To that end, we offer here some definitions of what a good rubric is, and is not.

A good rubric IS:

A heuristic for feedback and assessment that thoroughly describes higher order characteristics of a successful writing assignment. Here is one example.

A good rubric IS NOT:

A list of check-boxes with points attached that penalize students for not conforming to surface-level conventions or unexplained criteria (like "logical argument"). Here is one example.

Key Practices:

  • Distribute rubrics along with the assignment prompt so that students know in advance what your feedback and assessment will center on. Take time to discuss the rubric in class. If there is time, review it with an anonymized sample student paper (alternatively, share a sample paper with criteria-driven feedback written on it).

  • Rubrics should mirror the assignment prompt; they should not include criteria that students do not expect or that they have not learned about.

  • Settle on no more than five or six criteria so your students do not get overwhelmed. What are the most essential elements of this particular assignment? Try to provide "higher order" criteria that really matter to the genre or the learning goals of the assignment. Criteria that address word count or mechanical correctness are not particularly helpful.

  • As we discuss in the next section on antiracist approaches to assessment, you can even ask students to help collaborate on a rubric. See next section for details.

Key Benefits:

  • Grading writing is time-intensive, and rubrics save time. Having a set of clear criteria with designated points reduces the time you need to spend belaboring various aspects of a student’s work and the letter or number grade it has earned. Only focus on student work insofar as it does or does not fulfill the assessment criteria.

  • Rubrics help reduce (perceived or actual) grading bias. Without explicit criteria, it is easier to be guided by bias when grading work that has fewer clear-cut signals than a multiple-choice test.

  • When students clearly understand how they are being graded, it is easier for them to succeed and achieve the learning goals for an assignment.

The UW Center for Teaching & Learning also has a resource on developing and using rubrics that includes some example templates.

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Antiracist Approaches to Writing Assessment

A growing body of scholarship is dedicated to antiracist writing assessment, and the richness of that work is too expansive to share comprehensively here. There are a few practices we would like to feature here, however, as starting points for antiracist praxis. 

  • Make visible and de-center deficit language ideologies. A deficit language ideology is a belief (explicit or tacit) that conformance to a particular language standard shows intelligence and worth, whereas lack of conformance speaks to a lack of intelligence and worth. This does not mean ignoring language use; on the contrary, having inquiry-driven discussions about language in your field can help surface language ideologies. On an even simpler level, posing a question about your student's language use in a writing assignment can have a stronger impact than correcting it.

  • Co-create assessment criteria. Enlist your students in the creation of an assignment rubric, based on the prompt and on sample writing from former students or from the field. Asking students to identify what traits make a successful scientific research article (say) can help them internalize those traits, and it gives them ownership of the writing process. You can do this in class or discussion section, or you can ask students to read sample texts on their own time and propose rubric criteria as a homework assignment. Then incorporate their suggestions into your rubric as appropriate. We have done this with excellent results: often students will identify important criteria we had not thought of. 

  • Explore the use of grade contracts or ungrading. Grade contracts (sometimes called labor-based grade contracts) award credit for labor and process, rather than the quality of finished products. Ungrading offers qualitative instead of quantitative evaulation. These are approaches that mitigate against unintended bias in more traditional grading systems, and are designed to encourage students to take more risks in their writing and have greater ownership over their learning.

Taking on approaches like these can feel intimidating because, while we all want to teach in ways that are socially just, it is also scary if we feel we have to upend everything we know about teaching. However, we encourage you to take it one small step at a time. You can practice developing your own higher-order assessment criteria for a while before inviting students to collaborate on them. You can experiment with a grade contract for just one assignment before implementing it throughout your course. And so on. Feedback from our own students shows us that even small efforts have big impacts.

Further reading: Council of Writing Program Administrators' statement on antiracist writing assessment, with bibliography.

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Targeted Commenting

Offering targeted commentary on student writing is essential for both you and your students.

Commenting on a student paper can feel like going down a rabbit hole. We may feel it is our duty to point out every little error, but if you did that you would spend way more time than you have to spare. Limiting the time you spend and the amount of feedback you give is the only way to stay sane. 

Here are some tips to regulate the amount of time you spend grading:

  • Set a timer for yourself if you find it difficult to pull yourself away (15-20 minutes can be a reasonable amount of time for a 4-5 page essay, though of course it depends on the nature of the paper and on how many students you have).

  • You may find it best not to hold a pen or to allow yourself to type marginal comments as you read, and just wait until you have read the whole draft.

  • When offering global commentary at the end of the draft, limit yourself to a few sentences about a small number of key issues explicitly drawn from the assessment criteria.

Offering targeted commentary is also (perhaps counterintuitively) better for students. It enables them to focus only on a couple substantive issues in revision; if you cover their drafts with the proverbial red ink, they can become overwhelmed-- remember what it is like to have your own writing critiqued! It is a vulnerable experience. Make sure that the key issues you want your students to focus on are clearly signaled, and are explicitly tied to the assessment criteria (discussed previously in the “What is a Rubric?” section). That is to say, if you ask your student to focus in their revision on summarizing source material more succinctly, then this should be something that will be covered in the rubric, and that will count toward the final grade.

Here is an example of commentary that is well-intended but not well-focused, followed by a more targeted response:

Example 1:

Promising start, Hannah. Your central argument is clearly stated, and is grounded in one of the anthropological frameworks we’ve covered in class. Transitions between paragraphs are tough to follow; it feels like you jump from one topic to another without clearly showing your reader where you are going. Are you planning to use the Smith book as one of your sources? It’s not required, but I think it would strengthen your argument. Please focus on run-on sentences! Also number your pages. Etc…

Example 2:

Promising start, Hannah. Here are some suggestions for revision that will help you better fulfill the criteria described in the rubric:

Argument: This is one of the paper’s greatest strengths. It is clearly stated, and is grounded in one of the anthropological frameworks we’ve covered in class, as the prompt requires. Are you planning to use the Smith book as one of your sources? It’s not required, but I think it would strengthen your argument.

Structure: One element of structure it’s important to consider is that of transitions. Transitions between your paragraphs are tough to follow; it feels like you jump from one topic to another without clearly showing your reader relationships between them. Please think about how to close and open your paragraphs so as to tie ideas together and improve cohesion-- a tutor at the OWRC may be able to help you with this.

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The Ever-Present Question About Grammar

Here we offer some reflections on some frequently asked questions about grading grammar, mechanics, and usage.

Should I correct my students’ grammar in their writing?

Many instructors feel that if they assign writing, they are obligated to “correct” students’ “grammar.” This is understandable—most of us were graded on “grammar” and other sentence-level issues when we were in school. Yet research on how students learn has more recently pointed to the inefficacy of “correcting grammar” for a host of reasons:

  • "Grammar” is often used as a blanket term that obscures actual writing choices, such as language or communication conventions unique to a particular discipline/field; citation issues; typos; poor use of Spellcheck; etc. Compressing these complex and varied issues under the singular term “grammar” decreases students' ability to notice and address them in the future.

  • Unless you are a scholar of language, the complexities of English “grammar” are most likely outside of your area of expertise (they are outside of ours!). Instructors have often unwittingly given students false and conflicting messages about usage, and these messages hurt students who use them to guide their writing in other classes or disciplines. One common example of this is the use of active/passive voice. While you may prefer one or the other, remember there is no universal truth about which is better. Rather, authorial voice should be a consideration informed by the particular genre, audience, and context.

Teaching & learning scholar and former UW Writing Director John Webster has written extensively about effective ways to respond to student writing and why focusing on sentence-level errors actually distracts and detracts from students’ learning. In summary, if you feel you must grade students on a particular issue of mechanics, make sure that that issue is explicitly tied in with the learning goals of the prompt. Also make sure that you teach the particular issue you will be grading them on.

But what if my students turn in writing that is full of grammar errors?

A key point that Webster makes in light of grammar concerns:

Perhaps most important: as a general (and research supported) rule, the more challenging students find an assignment to be, the more surface-level error shows up in their drafts. This is normal. The human mind has only so much capacity. When students are straining their mental capacities simply to understand how to work with the concepts in your course, many will have little energy left over when the paper is due to take care for surface level error.

If you are finding your students making many sentence-level errors, this is likely because their brains are full from attempting to grasp and process the new concepts from your course. Additionally, a psychological theory called stereotype threat describes a situation where people fear they may be judged for conforming to particular stereotype (e.g., international students may fear judgment of their language use). That anxiety can become self-fulfilling; distracted by their anticipation of penalties, they may commit a greater number of "errors." De-centering language use in your prompt, in your rubric, and in your class culture gives your students the freedom to focus on ideas instead of mechanics.

But good writing is important to my field!

Yes! Effective writing and communication are key to most fields. And while you may not be an expert on the complexities of English grammar, if you have written and published a lot you are most likely an expert on what makes writing effective in your field.

Importantly, the characteristics of “good” or “effective” writing in one field differ dramatically from those in another. If you want students to learn how to write effectively in your field, discuss these characteristics with them, sharing examples from key texts in your discipline. Then, if you want to grade on students’ use of these in their papers, make sure that those criteria are explicitly built into your grading rubric.

How can I teach my students to edit or proofread their own work?

Given that students are more likely to make spelling errors, typos, and other common writing mistakes while they are working with new/complex ideas, make sure that your students carve out time and space at least a day or two after they have finished drafting the big ideas in their writing to proofread. It is often difficult to see these issues right after we are finished writing, since our brains are still focused on the ideas. You can add (optional) deadlines for this in the assignment prompt and/or ask students to bring a penultimate draft to class to share for peer review.

Students can benefit from reviewing some editing or proofreading techniques as well (e.g., read the paper out loud, read the paper backward). The University of North Carolina Writing Center has a helpful page with strategies for editing and proofreading that you could share with students.

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