Grading English papers isn’t a straightforward task—and neither is writing them. Students are often asked to showcase too many skills within an assignment—or not given specific, actionable guidance and feedback—which can make the entire process bewildering. “I thought I’d clarified that grades on papers came from students demonstrating their skills in a number of areas,” says middle school teacher Stephanie Farley in a piece for MiddleWeb. “As it turned out, the students couldn’t figure out how facility in those areas translated into points or a letter grade.”
Having concluded that she was assessing too many skills at one time, and hadn’t clearly articulated the skills she wanted students to learn, Farley invested a lot of time in refining a grading strategy that would change the way her students are graded: they would grade themselves.
“Student-centered assessment is the most transformative change I’ve made in my English teaching practice within the past five years,” Farley says. It began with her asking students to try grading just one paper themselves, and soon enough “there was no stopping the kids [and] I had successfully transitioned my class to student-centered assessment.”
Here are three steps Farley used to help kids evaluate their own work, with consistent oversight from herself:
Create Kid-Friendly Standards
Good writing encompasses mastering many skills all at once, and for kids who are starting out, breaking it down into smaller, concrete goals as they work towards fluency can make progress seem more feasible.
Farley concluded that rewriting all of her learning targets in “kid language” and only focusing on one skill at a time helps her students better understand what they’re aiming for. Teaching what a “big idea” or a “supporting detail” looks like in a written piece of work, for example, helps students get familiar with the language used for assessments.
She also recommends replacing more formally worded statements like “Develops a big idea that is well supported by details within the story” with simpler sentences such as “I can write a story or essay with a purpose – or big idea – in mind,” and “I can use details in my story that support – or give examples of – the big idea.”
Beside providing a rubric for all written assignments, Farley encourages students to evaluate each other’s work based on learning targets. “It’s hard to be objective about your own work, but practicing on others’ work trains your brain to take a step back and look for the learning targets,” she adds.
Teach the Basics of Self-Evaluation
Assessing one’s own learning requires a solid grasp on what skills are being evaluated, and Farley gives her students plenty of written feedback—using language clearly tied to the learning objectives—and time to make revisions before asking students to evaluate their own writing. “In this way, they already knew which areas of the work needed improvement and what was strong, so if they edited successfully, they’d have a fair understanding of where the work stood in terms of the rubric,” she writes.
To make the evaluation more specific, Farley asks her students to pinpoint an example of how they fulfill a learning target, like highlighting where a “big idea” is in their story—which corresponds to the goal of “writing a story with a big idea in mind.” This visual connection not only helps students see how well big ideas are expressed in their writing, but also means that the teacher doesn’t need to do as much work to explain problems in the future.
Hold Individual Conferences
Once students have completed a self-evaluation and it’s time for grading, Farley sits down and talks through what they’ve come up with to help fill in any gaps in their own assessment. “I was quick to point out when students didn’t give themselves enough credit or underrated their achievement,” Farley writes. “If needed, I’d also mention where their work didn’t quite align with their evaluation of it.”
During these one-on-ones, Farley’s students would explain their revisions using examples that correspond to the different criteria in the rubric, and eventually arrive at a conclusion of what grade they merit. She adds that it’s rare for her to disagree with her students’ evaluations, but when it does happen, she “explained how the work could improve and invited the student to revise again.” Finally, the agreed-upon grade is recorded in the gradebook.
Farley notices that self-grading has led students to internalize some of the language of good writing; they now know how to articulate in very specific terms where they’re succeeding and where they have room to grow. “In this class, I learned how to write using descriptive language like metaphors and sense imagery. But most of all, I felt like I got better at and more confident about writing,” according to one of Farley’s students. Witnessing her students feel “safe and confident in the classroom” is one of the greatest rewards to Farley as an educator, she writes.