Summary and Three Practices to Implement Right Now
This page of the Instructors’ Guide to Grading Writing describes different types of feedback and grading. This guide focuses on both formative and summative assessment and feedback:
- the feedback you give to help students revise or improve on future assignments (formative)
- the grades, scores, and points you give and the comments that explain these evaluations (summative)
We recognize that, depending on your teaching context, you might use primarily formative feedback, primarily summative feedback, or an even mix of both. Some instructors keep these forms of feedback separate, and some use them together. Although grades are summative, many college writing instructors use the term grading to refer to both formative and summative feedback practices. For example, an instructor who says they “have a lot of grading to do this week” could be referring to the amount of time they’ll be writing formative comments to guide students’ revisions. We give examples of formative comments throughout the guide. We also give examples of rubrics to give summative scores and recommendations on how African American English should impact summative grades.
To help students improve their writing, the kinds of feedback and grading you use should explicitly and consistently take into account students’ right to their own language and the demands for Black linguistic justice . It’s also important to consider how students make sense of and respond to the grades and feedback they receive. The information on this page can help you think through these issues for your students. You can also get started right away by implementing these three grading and feedback practices:
- Explain your writing feedback and grading approach in class and your syllabus. First, tell students why you give feedback on specific areas and why you grade the way you do. Second, show students how you expect them to use your feedback; provide examples of how to revise using typical comments that you give. Resolve any conflicting expectations. For example, word choice correction can contradict writing criteria for voice, style, and rhetorical choices. Such contradictions not only confuse students, but also devalue their language.
- Explicitly define any rubric/checklist categories or other writing criteria. Students will encounter different definitions for the same rubric categories, including mechanics, grammar, organization, and voice. If grammar, mechanics, or other language usage are part of your criteria, you should teach them in class and connect to the rubric explicitly. Define these categories in terms that make sense to your students and give examples.
- Avoid penalizing students for the use of language varieties such as African American English. To help you implement this strategy, we have created a guide so that you can recognize African American English patterns and styles common in student writing as part of students’ own language and voice. Such steps are necessary for grading for equity.
New Expectations for Students
In high school, many, if not most, students may have been accustomed to receiving writing feedback in the form of rubrics or checklists and brief in-text or end comments. High school teachers tend to have more teaching time, less grading time, and more students than college instructors. At the K-12 level, students receive more classroom guidance than at the college level, where students are expected to do more work independently. These differences mean that a high school teacher may teach six sections and be in the classroom for twenty-five to thirty hours per week, whereas a college instructor with a full teaching load may teach four or five sections and be in the classroom for twelve to fifteen hours a week. These differences result in less written feedback on student writing. As a result, new college students may be overwhelmed by large amounts of in-text feedback on their written work. At the same time, new college students can also learn more about their writing from the more considerable attention that college instructors typically devote to their papers. To provide your students with this benefit, use the information in this guide to learn how your feedback and grading can help your students improve their writing.
When in high school, your students probably received most of their writing feedback from their English teacher, although some students may have had opportunities to write papers across subjects. Their teachers may have been trained in similar assessment methods as part of their teacher education. If the high school English department shared assessment tools, students probably had their papers graded and responded to in similar ways throughout their time in high school. This uniformity can leave new college students unprepared for various feedback types and grading approaches across college instructors and courses. Do you have a sense of how other instructors in your department or program grade and give feedback? What about instructors outside of your department or program, especially those teaching your students? If not, can you reach out to other instructors to start a conversation about writing feedback?
Our research with high school teachers and college students reveals some of the writing features that tend to be emphasized in high school but not always in college. For example, college students and graduates have shared what they learn about voice over the course of their high school and college writing instruction. Some students found they were encouraged to use their voice more in high school than in college writing, which they found rewarded disciplinary and genre conventions over individual voice. Other students describe high school writing as without individual voice; students in such cases were rewarded for following writing formulas. Then, when students were asked to use their own voice in college writing, they were unsure how to approach this expectation after years of structured writing. Moreover, even when college instructors asked for “voice,” students found their voice was penalized when it encompassed African American English. College students want to know how they can maintain their voice across disciplines and genres.
Years of standardized test writing preparation can impact students’ perceptions of grammar and mechanics, as Mrs. Bradley, an experienced high school English teacher, explained. She finds that her incoming high school seniors have learned that good writing is essentially good grammar and that revising is fixing spelling and punctuation. Mrs. Bradley uses teaching strategies to help her students go deeper than correction. For example, rather than point out errors during peer feedback, students annotate each other’s writing for the rhetorical impact of features such as word choice.
Types of Grading and Feedback
Here is an overview of types of grading and feedback that your students might encounter throughout their time in college:
- Letter grade (usually A, B, C, D, F)
- Numerical grade (such as percentages or points)
- Numerical rubric or checklist (direct relationship to grade: the numbers on the rubric add up to the final score): Example from the AAC&U; Example from Dr. Michelle Grue of UCSB
- Qualitative rubric or checklist (indirect relationship to grade)
- Specific comments directly on parts of the paper
- Holistic or general comments at the end of, beginning of, or attached to the paper or rubric/checklist
- One-on-one conferences with instructor
- Audio-recorded feedback
You and your students’ other instructors may use these approaches differently, so your students might not always know how to make sense of your grading and feedback without explanation. For example, do your students know how your comments relate to their paper grades? If students see many comments on one area, such as grammar, they may assume that that area was the most significant influence on their grade; make sure your students know whether or not this is your intention.
You can explain your grading and feedback approaches in your syllabus as well as in class, such as in this example explaining grading contracts. You can also teach students how to make sense of different feedback types and be explicit about what to do with your feedback using a feedback form like this one from the University of Michigan.
Once students know how to make sense of your feedback, they still need to know what to do with that feedback. For example, do your students know how to address draft feedback as they revise for another version? If the paper is a final version, is the purpose of feedback largely to explain the grade? If not, how do students learn what to do with feedback once the paper they have revised for the final time? Here are some strategies for scaffolding the learning process of making sense of feedback:
- Give examples of the types of feedback you give and how to use it to revise their current paper or apply it to a future writing assignment/project
- Set aside class time for students to ask questions about your feedback
- Have students partner and discuss their your feedback with one another (if this is possible without sharing grades)
- Use class time or an additional homework assignment for students to respond to your feedback and make a revision or writing improvement plan
- Have students solicit the type of feedback they would like and ask particular questions about their paper
- Hold one-on-one student conferences
- Learn about students’ individual voices. Dr. Shenika Hankerson offers a 3-week lesson plan on teaching voice in writing (p. 39)
- Establish linguistic safe places for students in initial class meetings by introducing activities that are rooted in them utilizing/discovering their voice.
- Assign students a literacy or linguistic autobiography, such as this example from Sierra Johnson, a student at William & Mary. A linguistic autobiography details a student’s linguistic background, cultural roots, and identity that is reflected in their writing and spoken language.
Rubric & Checklist Categories
Throughout their time in K-12 and college, students encounter a range of terms to refer to language use and language variation in writing. In particular, many different terms are used for rubric and checklist categories. Here are some examples from our research of rubric and checklist categories that you or your colleagues might use:
- Language mechanics
- Sentence structure
- Style / Voice
- Paragraph order/structure
- Effective or Clear Communication of Ideas
- Word Choice
Different teachers and professors use these terms to mean different things; even words that may seem more technical, such as mechanics, are used differently in different rubrics. You’ll want to explain to students how you define any categories you use to refer to language on your rubrics, checklists, or other feedback.
You’ll also want to define and exemplify any qualitative descriptors of these categories. For instance, the AAC&U writing rubric values “clarity,” “fluency,” and “graceful,” “straightforward,” and “error-free” language, but does not explain these linguistic preferences for students and instructors. Students interpret such undefined value-laden descriptors in different ways. Moreover, these descriptors tend to penalize African American English and other language varieties.
When you define your rubric/checklist categories and use them to assess student writing, you can draw on recommendations from our guide on African American English in College Student Writing and avoid terms like those from the AAC&U rubric quoted above. Our recommendations will enhance your writing instruction and assessment and take students’ right to their own language into account.
Although commonly used, rubrics have been criticized for, among other issues, rewarding assimilation to White linguistic practices. Dr. Michelle Grue, of University of California, Santa Barbara, offers an alternative rubric that rewards use of African American English: Rubric with clear inclusion of AAVE/BVE – Literacy Narrative Rubric.
Holistic Grading (Ex: Contract Grading, Portfolio Grading)
Many instructors use holistic grading, such as contract grading or portfolio grading, to encourage students to work formatively with feedback and revision and to reduce student anxieties about grades. These holistic approaches often offer minimums for performance that guarantee a particular grade.
Grading contracts typically prioritize quantity over quality (see Grading Contracts 101 for examples of different types of grading contracts). Yet, practitioners of grading contracts do account for quality in various ways to include standardized writing conventions which can perpetuate racist grading practices. In response, Dr. Asao Inoue uses a version of contract grading that excludes any grading based on a single set of quality standards. In this antiracist grading contract, Dr. Inoue grades students based solely on their time, effort, and processes, rather than on notions of merit and quality. If you use contract grading, you may want to adopt Inoue’s approach. Otherwise, standardized English as a contract grading criterion can prevent even more of a barrier to student success than traditional methods of grading. Because of its holistic nature, contract grading that includes standardized English may exclude a full explanation of what the expected conventions are and how exactly students can improve their grade with that criterion.
If you’re using holistic grading, make sure to explain the process and rationale to students. It’s important for them to know how to achieve their grade goal. Even if you aim to devalue grades in the classroom, course grades will hold important consequences for students, so make sure they are equipped with the information they need to succeed by both qualitative and quantitative measures. “So Your Instructor is Using Contract Grading…” from the Writing Commons offers helpful background and tips for students in contract grading writing classrooms.
Types of Comments
Our research and the research of other scholars indicate that critical or for-improvement comments vastly outnumber positive comments on student writing. Moreover, the positive comments that instructors do provide tend to be general rather than refer to a specific feature of the student’s paper. Yet, specific positive comments are effective for students learning about writing. Our research has found that when students receive general positive feedback, they are left wondering what exactly they did well in their writing, as the following quote from a college graduate indicates:
I would spend tons of time on an assignment and get a B. Why? Then do last minute and get an A; this is amazing. What did I do differently? I didn’t understand or get feedback on what changed. I want to repeat what I did here. But I don’t know exactly what I did.
Throughout the section African American English in College Student Writing, we include examples of specific positive comments that demonstrate the rhetorical function of particular language choices. Similarly, the examples of for-improvement comments specify what can be improved and why and how.
Other types of comments directly correct students’ language or label it as “confusing” or “inappropriate.” Tangible negative impacts of such comments on students may include adding unnecessary pressure or stress, mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, thoughts of giving up or dropping out of college, GPA decline, and linguistic insecurities that can manifest in how the student views their own identity. A student reflected on their experience with receiving help from a writing center and through this experience claimed that it was as if he was “revising his voice out of his essay” (Mitchell & Randolph, p.27).
An antidote to alleviate these consequences include demonstrating support for the students’ linguistic freedom, creating opportunities within the classroom for the student to express themselves or their identities with linguistic autobiographies or self reflective compositions. This lays the groundwork for bringing awareness to the language variation inside the classroom which is a byproduct of diversity. Having more awareness limits the possibility of dialect biases when giving feedback to students.
Here is a testimony from college scholar Sierra Johnson:
“In my ‘Race, Religion, and Gentrification’ class, we had a professor that made it her goal to scare us about the program we are in and consistently made remarks regarding whether we would fit the studentship at College of William and Mary. After she graded our first writing assignment, she delivered a speech to the class detailing how we would be considered “middle to the bottom of the barrel at William and Mary” and we wouldn’t find success there. Before each writing assignment, we would all meet at each other’s rooms and work on our assignments together. Sometimes we would spend hours upon hours peer reviewing each other’s work. We even recruited a couple of other professors to find our issues and use their help or feedback on what to work on to improve. None of her feedback would be helpful. It would be small criticisms that only contributed to more confusion. A couple students started failing because they would still get low grades and minimal feedback at best. It felt like she was setting us up to fail. I started having terrible panic attacks before each assignment. Two of my classmates failed the class and were subsequently removed from the program. One student had thoughts of dropping out of college completely. Professors are supposed to be able to guide us and aid in our journey within academia. The methods that she employed only enabled the opposite. The only reason I ended up being successful was due to the help that I had from two professors who not only advocated for me, but also spent much of their time trying to help me in every way possible. Without their support and productive feedback, I would have never passed this class.”
Positive aspects of this experience in further testimony by scholar Sierra Johnson:
“Despite this challenging experience, I did have two professors that advocated for me and helped me. This created the possibility for me to renew my love for writing and academia. They would stay after hours in their offices or the writing center to provide me with access to one on one help which included proofreading my papers or other writing assignments, give me very constructive feedback, and they even gave me advice on how to deal with the problematic professor. Without their encouragement and advocacy for the betterment of my experience in academia, I likely would not have improved as much as I had in that class.”