Grading is a charged topic among educators. When it comes to grading papers, the matter is especially complicated. What are the criteria for grading? How can we be sure that we've graded fairly? Do my standards match the standards of other instructors? Active Learning models suggest that students should have a role in assessment. What role is best, and how do we facilitate it?
In terms of the mechanics of grading: Should we give two grades, one for content, the other for style? Should we use rubrics or grade from the gut? Should we grade first drafts? Should we try to grade our students' processes? And finally, are grades helping or hindering the writing process? If so, should we defer grading for as long as we can?
Many professors struggle with how to develop a set of fair criteria for grading papers. Some professors will give an "A" to a paper with solid ideas, even if it has grammar errors. Others reserve the "A" for a paper that is excellent in content, organization, and style. Some professors reward progress in a paper: if a student has struggled through several drafts with a difficult idea, they may factor the student's effort and progress into the grade, regardless of the final product. Some professors value originality over clarity; others value clarity above all. Which of these criteria is best?
The Writing Program respects professors' rights to grade as they see fit. Having said that, we do expect that you are evaluating your students' arguments in terms of their sophistication, organization, evidence, and clarity. We also encourage you to make your criteria for grading as transparent as possible. You can manage this by talking with your students about what makes an "A" paper. You can ask them to define the criteria with you, leading a discussion whose aim is to determine consensus about what the standards should be. You can offer them models of excellent papers from previous classes and talk to them about why you think they're so good.
Whichever strategy you choose, be sure that your students understand your standards for grading. If you can, involve your students in the assessment process. Proponents of active learning assure us that engaging students in a thoughtful assessment of their own writing, or the writing of their peers, is an excellent way to teach them the values that you want them to internalize.
Below are questions, frequently asked, regarding grading practices:
Should we use split grades, offering one for content and another for style?
While some instructors find it easy to tease out style issues from content issues, most instructors operate on the assumption that content and form are inseparable and reflect this assumption in their grades.
Should we grade drafts?
While some instructors grade drafts as a way of insuring that students hand in their best work, most do not grade drafts. We believe that getting students' minds off of grades creates an atmosphere in which writing-for-writing's-sake can be accomplished. We also feel that students are more likely to take risks in a draft if it's not graded.
Does the Writing Program have a rubric for grading that it has approved?
We don't. We believe that rubrics work best when instructors and students design them together. Such an exercise requires students to think critically about what constitutes good writing. We've also found that different assignments have different aims; if this is true, then these assignments would require different rubrics as well.
How do we justify grades to our students?
While we're not sure that justifying grades is good practice, most writing instructors do indeed craft final comments to justify the grade we've given. Sometimes, though, the need to justify overshadows other, better pedagogic aims. Of course you should point to where the paper succeeded and where it came up short. But justifying a particular grade is typically a frustrating and maybe even unproductive endeavor.
Writing is a process. How can we (should we?) assess a student's process?
Our job as writing instructors is to facilitate the writing process, and to improve it. Should we then grade students' processes? If so, what should the criteria be? Instructors typically consider commitment, attendance, participation, engagement, and growth when they determine a process grade. Some of these things are quantifiable; others aren't. In any case, you should make your criteria for the process grade as clear as possible. You should periodically let students know how you think they're doing, and suggest ways that they might improve.
Before determining your grading practices, you may want to consider the impact that grading has on the writing process. Some professors in the Writing Program delay grading for as long as they can, claiming that it's only when they move their students away from thinking about the grade that real writing begins. Indeed, many educational theorists find that grading interferes with learning. For an interesting discussion on this matter, see Alfie Cohn's "Grading: The Issue Is Not How, but Why" .
If you have thoughts that you'd like to share on this controversial topic, please send them to Karen Gocsik, Executive Director of the Writing and Rhetoric Program. We hope to post an ongoing forum on this topic.
Last Updated: 7/11/08