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Assessing Student Writing

Writing assessment refers not only to evaluating a student's final paper and assigning it a grade, but also to measuring a student's knowledge of the elements of writing we have taught him. Assessment is a crucial part of the instructional process and of a student's growth as a writer, but it also demands much of the teacher. We might revise an old writer's saying to read that "we love everything about teaching writing except the paper work."

Yet it is not true that we must assess everything students write; if we did so, our students would not write nearly as much as they must, if they are to improve. Such purposeful writing requires a constructive response and feedback that helps students revise a specific paper and improve their future performance. Students themselves, however, must also reflect on their own writing and the strategies they use throughout the writing process, for if students do not internalize the writing strategies discussed, they will not achieve the independence required to apply this knowledge in college or the workplace.

Respond to writers according to their individual needs.

Responding to papers encompasses many challenges of teaching writing successfully, all of which can be summed up by asking, "How can we respond to students' writing in ways that are fast but effective?" Correcting every error, writing detailed comments in the margin, offering encouraging and helpful summary remarks when we finish - these are noble goals, but if you have 170 (or more!) students, as many of us do, it's not possible. Well, that's not true; one of my colleagues worked with a teacher who kept an army cot in her classroom and, when she collected papers, spent the night in her room so she could return the papers to her students the next day. As a happily married man and father of three kids who strives for some measure of lifework balance, this is not a viable option for me. Our response to students' writing serves three main purposes: it provides guidance for revision of the current paper, it gives feedback students can use to improve their future performance, and it accounts for the grade you assign the paper. Here then are some ways to respond to papers when they are finished (as opposed to while they are in draft form).

  • Avoid overfocusing on surface errors. Instead, narrow your remarks to emphasize the two or three most important errors, particularly those errors you have been addressing most recently through instruction. Look also for patterns of error, as these offer targeted opportunities for quick improvement.
  • Show students alternatives to flawed usage or sentence construction. It's useless to tell them something is wrong if they have no idea how to do it right. For example, if a student writes, "World War Two was a very important war because it lasted a long time," when they were supposed to come up with a thesis about how the war changed American culture, you might scribble in the margin, "Jane, explain how it changed American culture. Ex: WW II galvanized Americans, uniting them in a common cause to defeat Japan and Germany."
  • Praise what they do well, making specific comments about their good work. Studies find that students make an effort to repeat what earned them praise. Thus, if you say, "The strong, active verbs in this paragraph really give your ideas power!" they will be more likely to focus on using strong verbs in future papers.
  • Avoid vague, general comments, as they are not useful. When you say that a sentence is "vague" or a paragraph "lacks focus," students tend to see this as your subjective opinion and dismiss it. Specific comments with explanation or illustration clarify what you are saying and help students see not only what to change but how to change it. Instead of saying a sentence is "awkward," for example, you might underline a part of the sentence and write, "How else to say this, Pat? I'm not sure what you mean here." In some cases, when it is quick and comes easy to you, you might write an example of how they might revise it to illustrate your point.
  • Respond like a reader (not like a judge), giving students your honest, supportive feedback as you read. When responding in this manner, your comments are more descriptive. I often write such notes as "Good idea but you lost me halfway through, Maria" or "I'm not sure how this relates to the previous paragraph, Dion." On some assignments, I might write at the bottom of the first page something like "After a whole page you still have not mentioned the book you are supposed to be analyzing. Consider revising to make the book the center of your paper." Such comments are best, of course, if students can then use them to revise.


Encourage students to reflect on the process, the product, and the performance.

As students use new strategies and learn new aspects of writing, they need the opportunity to examine the difference these strategies make. Each writer must study his or her own writing process, learning what works when, for example, they generate ideas. I have students who have learned that they need to talk their ideas through, so they schedule conferences with me during lunch to have a sit-down and hash out what they are thinking.

Others need to just write, getting something down on paper no matter how bad. When the paper is finished and ready to be turned in, ask students to do some thinking about not only the final product but also their process and their performance. If they do not reflect, they will lack insight about how they reached the final result and will be unable to repeat what they did well due to a lack of awareness. Their success on a paper becomes an accident, something they cannot reclaim on future performances.

Just as athletes watch videotapes of previous games, students should reread past essays. Here are some easy but effective ways to incorporate reflection into the writing process.

  • Before they begin to write, students reflect on where they are in their development as writers, identifying those specific areas they need to focus on and the ways in which such an effort will improve their paper.
  • During the writing process, have students pause to reflect, for example, on the questions they asked to help them generate ideas or write a particular section of a paper. They might also stop to reflect on what is not working and then brainstorm some possible strategies to help them solve that problem.
  • After the writing process is complete and the paper is due, ask students to reflect on any of the following:
  1. The strategies they used to write the paper. I tell students that I often don't know what I am trying to say until I write my conclusion, which then ends up working well as an introduction, at which point I cut and paste it to the front of the essay, tossing out the original introduction. Another strategy I often suggest, or even require, is to read each sentence and ask of it, "So what?" which has the effect of forcing students to explain the importance of their ideas.
  2. Their performance on this paper in contrast to their previous papers, focusing on their growth and needs. An alternative is to have them reflect on their performance on this paper based on the criteria outlined on the rubric.
  3. Their needs as a writer, reader, or thinker on future assignments. The most useful question is "What was hard and what went well?" Each assignment is a step in the year's long journey toward becoming a better writer, so it is important to keep asking where they are and what they need to learn to get where they want to be.

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