Reframing How We Assess Student Writing
The work of assessing writing assignments can be shared with students, creating a critical learning opportunity for them.
Every teaching role has its unique burden. Science teachers invest long hours in preparing laboratory experiments with expensive and sometimes hazardous materials. Math teachers wrestle with innumeracy and negative stereotypes of math, especially at the higher levels. History teachers work hard to avoid turning their subject matter into the rote memorization of isolated facts.
English teachers like myself, and upper division ones especially, are witness to a tidal wave of written work: quick writes, compositions, literary responses, annotated bibliographies, timed and take-home essays, and more. I consider myself an effective and disciplined teacher, but I am regularly submerged under the work produced by my 180+ students.
The problem with the traditional method of handling the paper load is that it is still fundamentally teacher-centered, relying on our time management and efficiency rather than on innovations that broaden the number of stakeholders and focus on qualitative outcomes over more traditional grading. A better way, one that I first considered as I learned to teach students to think about their audience, involves turning students from mere producers of writing into scholars and theorists whose experiences carry authority, merit, and value.
Students should write a lot. The following strategies aim to help English teachers in particular, and teachers of writing more broadly, understand how to reframe the assigning and assessing of writing to improve students’ skills—while improving teachers’ mental health, too.
4 Ways to Increase Student Writers’ Authority
1. Complicate the audience: One of the biggest problems with in-school writing, whether in high school or college, is the one-dimensionality of the compositions. They are generally intended for an audience of one—the person doing the grading—and read like an extended advertisement, parroting the grader’s ideas back at them.
My time at the Reynolds High School Journalism Institute as a journalism teacher showed me how powerful writing for a complex, multifaceted audience can be. Rather than writing to impress, students should aim for communicating their ideas, regardless of topic, to a heterogeneous and educated but uninformed audience that is willing to be convinced—if the writer conveys information with careful, measured argument and prose. This requires that teachers teach and reinforce an understanding of audience as an expansive, open category rather than a closed one.
2. Develop the students’ ability to synthesize: The most important aspect of the AP English Language and Composition exam, and one that is increasingly relevant outside of the classroom, is the synthesis essay. For this task, students read a series of short texts on a topic and then create their own informed position. Instead of a straightforward argumentative essay—though there is that, too, on the exam—students must aim to be inclusive and nuanced, situating their thought among ideas they find interesting and those they actively disagree with. The goal here is not to win the argument but to demonstrate an understanding of the topic and take a stance, anticipating and responding to a reader’s counterarguments and questions.
In the classroom, teachers can easily create opportunities for synthesis writing. For example, teachers can have students draw on their peers’ ideas about a topic as the bank of information they can use in their own responses. The resulting papers will aim to integrate and respond to the many classroom perspectives and teach students that their classmates are sources of wisdom. An essay about America’s place in the world, the purpose of education, or our duties or obligations to the environment, for instance, would produce a wide range of opinions that students could then synthesize, expanding their own understanding and situating themselves among the stances of their peers.
3. Focus on individual growth over grades: Overemphasizing grades can stifle growth and creativity. Students of writing should understand how they are developing relative to their own past performance—in addition to where they stack up against other writers generally. Ideally, this means that teachers would work with students on developing a writing portfolio, a cross-section of work completed throughout the term or class that reflects their strengths and growth as writers.
Using those materials as a historical record, teachers can lead students through the revision process in a deeper, more comprehensive way—not just fixing the small, conventional things but also looking at persistent, high-level structural and organizational issues that, once addressed, can turn adequate writers into exceptional ones.
One of the main differences I have found between the typical and the excellent student writer is an awareness of one’s own prose and style. After taking a close, honest look at their body of work, students become more comfortable speaking to their own writing in a mature and introspective way. At a bare minimum, requiring revisions will ensure that students know how to improve their work, taking a look at it later with clear eyes.
4. Let students practice self and peer assessment: Every year, I tell my students that my objective is to make myself irrelevant—I’ll help during the course of the year, but they eventually need to go it alone. In my class, this has meant incorporating metacognition as a part of my classroom’s daily practice.
Students spend a great deal of time scoring essays—their own, those of their peers, and, when I can get them, sample essays from other teachers or the AP exam. While rubrics are critical to ensuring reflective conversations, it’s not enough to ask students to evaluate the writing against the rubric alone. Rather, I try to have students mimic the kind of conversations that teachers have with colleagues when they’re assessing writing: The goal is not just a grade, but a clear, persuasive explanation that identifies specific passages and choices the author made.
From there, teachers can have high-level conversations about why the student score is right or wrong, and move on to a brief, targeted writing conference on specific ways to tweak the piece. As students gain fluency, these writing conferences can be student-to-student, gradually removing the teacher from the equation (I told you I’d make myself irrelevant!).
The important takeaway here—across all of these strategies—is that teachers are not the best or only source of assessment, and they are not the only audience for writing. It is far better to teach students how to fish; far better for teachers to spread the hard work of assessment around so more writing practice can be incorporated; and far better for student writers to consider the craft from many perspectives, and with an awareness of the complexity of real audiences of readers.