Summary & Questions to Ask Your Instructors
You may have already found that writing in college can be a different experience from writing in high school. On top of that, the kind of feedback you get on your writing can be a lot different, and so can the way that your college instructors–professors and teaching assistants (TAs)–grade.
Grades on writing can reflect racism. As one college graduate, Anna (a pseudonym) put it:
“[I wish I’d had] more understanding that as a person of color you’re going to be graded more harshly, especially by white professors. Standardized ways of doing things are code for white. Certain expressions are not seen as acceptable or important. I wish I had more knowledge of that. I think people who go to college need to know that you’re going to face these issues. Do you tell people that you need to learn to write standardized or stay true? If you’re not going to be accepted in academia, how can you change it?”
Anna poses key questions that we encourage you to think about as you determine your writing goals and what you’d like to get out of your college writing classes. Throughout this guide, we offer suggestions for working with your writing instructors. Which suggestions you use in what contexts will depend on your own goals. In a certain context, for example, are you aiming to learn existing writing conventions or to change them? Are you aiming to stay true to your own voice and language?
Martine, a recent college graduate and current PhD student, shares her experiences with having her writing graded throughout her educational trajectory, while aiming to be a good writer with her own voice:
For many students, there is an innate desire to be a “good writer” in their academic papers since this is a skill that could be applied to literally any field of study. Grades are very important, but I know that many students write because they genuinely enjoy it and want to be proud of their work! At the same time, it is very difficult to identify as a good writer when students will interact with so many teachers who have their own ideas on what constitutes good writing and articulation. This issue is even more difficult for folks of color who are literally at the mercy of teachers who are likely not judging their writing in an objective manner. Growing up in the American K-12 system, I found it almost impossible to find my own voice as I elected to express myself in ways that I assumed would please my teacher (and therefore, earn me a high grade). To this day, as a graduate student, I still struggle with finding confidence in my own natural cadence, due to the fact that I never felt like a good, natural writer. Instead, I always felt as though I was presenting different versions of myself, none of which were ever good enough to thrive under multiple writing systems.
This page explains the different types of writing feedback that you might receive from your college instructors. Throughout this page, we’ve included questions to ask your instructors about their feedback–in class, office hours, or one-on-one conferences–so that you can reach your own goals for becoming a good writer with your own voice. You may also be able to use some of these questions during Writing Center consultations. To get started now, here are key questions you can ask your instructor in these settings:
Ask questions in class in order to clarify expectations which might differ from one professor to the next.
In class, you’ll want to ask more general questions that can benefit the whole class and not just your individual work. These questions can help you get a sense of how your instructor uses feedback. You can ask them even before your first writing assignment:
- What are your expectations for revision? What should that process look like?
- How do we revise without losing our voice?
- What are your expectations for how we should use the feedback you give on our papers?
- Can you give positive examples of what you mean by___(ex: grammar, mechanics, style, organization, effective communication, etc.)___? Once your instructor has provided writing or rubric criteria, ask questions to make sure you understand what the terms in the criteria refer to. These meanings will be different for different instructors.
In Office Hours and One-on-one Conferences
In these settings, you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions specific to your own paper. Use these questions to make sure you not only understand your instructor’s feedback but also know what to do with that feedback moving forward:
- How do I maintain my voice in my writing? How do I maintain my voice while incorporating feedback?
- I see I scored low in this area of the rubric. Reflecting back, I think I misinterpreted what this area of the rubric was looking for. I thought it meant___, which is why I wrote using___(ex: particular words, grammar patterns, organizational styles)___. What would be some examples of___(ex: word choices, grammar patterns, organizational styles)__that would score high on this area of the rubric?
- If you’re required to say what type of feedback you would like: My goals for college and for after college are______. Considering my goals, what do you think is the most important area of writing/oral communication for me to focus on? See what your professor says and then request feedback on this area.
For first drafts:
- I see I scored low on this area of the rubric. Can you give some examples of how to improve in this area on my next draft?
- How do you recommend I begin to use your feedback to revise?
For final versions:
- I see I scored low in this area of the rubric. Can you give some examples of how to improve in this area on my next assignment?
- How do you recommend I apply your feedback to my next paper?
Differences Among Your Instructors
Instructors who teach college writing take different paths to get there. For example, many writing instructors come from the discipline of English literature. They may have served as a college writing teaching assistant (TA). This TA role may have included some formal training, but many TAs do most of their training on the job. Other writing instructors may have completed undergraduate or graduate programs in education or in composition where they took courses in how to teach writing. If you’re curious about how your writing instructor learned to teach, ask!
What do these differences mean for having your writing graded? First of all, different instructors have different levels of training in the assessment of writing. Even some instructors with a formal background in the study of teaching (called pedagogy) may not have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time learning about writing assessment. Moreover, many writing instructors have a good bit of autonomy in how they grade in their classes. So you can expect different instructors to approach and grade your work in different ways.
Because of variation in grading strategies, some instructors want to be as transparent as possible so that you understand how they grade. Still, this process can be confusing for you as a student. Some instructors think that less is more on feedback, but this approach can leave some students unsure of how to improve or why they got a particular grade. Some instructors believe that the more feedback, the more transparent their grading process, but this approach can leave some students overwhelmed, especially if your high school teachers didn’t write a lot of comments on your papers. Still, other instructors decide not to grade individual papers at all so that students can focus on learning instead of grades, but this can leave students wondering what their final grade will look like.
Your instructors may not realize their grading process is confusing you, so it’s important to ask questions! It’s also important to remember that, while each instructor has their own preferences, you can still develop your own agency as a writer, making decisions that suit your language, voice, purpose, and audience. The questions and information included throughout this guide can support you in that goal.
Implications for grading your language: Know that, whatever your instructors’ grading approaches, you have the right to your own language. This right means that you deserve to understand the value and structure of your own language variety, including how this value and structure can apply to writing. This right also means that you deserve not to have your grade penalized for the use of your own language variety. Even though these statements on the right to your own language and antiracist grading come from professional writing organizations, your instructor may not be familiar with these statements or with language varieties such as African American English. Use the information here as a guide to help you advocate for the right to your own language in your graded writing.
Martine, a recent college graduate and current PhD student, reflects on developing her own writing style while working with different instructors:
There is no “one size fits all” method that will yield positive feedback from every single student’s instructor. The average student will experience a writing course with a different teacher 2-4 times a year, depending on their school’s academic calendar. This means that it is virtually impossible for a student to be able to please every single one of their instructors in a similar way. Expecting such assumes a level of objectivity from the instructor that is very rare to actually experience. In other words, most instructors are biased under their own assumptions and ideas. Under these circumstances, it is more important for the student to prioritize themselves, and learn to develop their own writing style in a way that feels familiar and comfortable to them. While this is easier said than done, I can honestly say that I’ve never felt truly comfortable with my work until I began to focus on and fully emulate the style that I wanted to present to people. In doing so, I’ve learned to adapt my writing to fit most situations, while still expressing myself in a way where someone could point out my voice from an anonymized line-up.
Types of Grading and Feedback
Grading and feedback on your college writing may take any combination of the following forms (or others not listed here):
- 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)
- Comments directly on parts of the paper
- Comments at the end of, beginning of, or attached to the paper or rubric/checklist
- One-on-one conferences with your instructor
- Audio-recorded feedback
Different instructors and instructors use these types of grading and feedback differently, even if they look the same, so they can be challenging to make sense of.
Implications for grading your language: In different classes, you may encounter different relationships between the grade on your paper and the comments on your paper. For example, if your instructor put a lot of comments about grammar on your paper, this may mean that grammar played a significant role in the grade you got, but it also might not. One way to sort this out is to make sure you have the answer to the question: what should you do with your instructor’s feedback, including their feedback about language?
You may want to ask your instructor: “What are your expectations for how we should use the feedback you give on our papers?” You can ask this question in your instructor’s office hours. Many instructors expect you to use their feedback to improve your writing, but you may still have questions about how specifically to use that feedback to improve. For example, if there are corrections to grammar on your paper, ask, “How should I apply these corrections to my next paper?” This application can be difficult for many students, so definitely ask your instructor if you’re not sure how to learn from their feedback beyond just making their corrections. Asking such questions may elicit more useful feedback from your instructor.
Many students are concerned about maintaining their own voice as they apply instructor feedback. Moreover, writing instructors sometimes say they expect students to use their own voice, but their feedback may contradict this expectation (Hankerson, 2017). Ask your instructor: “How do I maintain my voice in my writing?” If there are corrections from your instructor that detract from your voice, point out this imbalance to your instructor. They might not be aware of the impact of their feedback. If your instructor has included voice or something similar in assignment expectations, you can connect your writing goals to this expectation.
You may also want to make your own decisions on how to use instructor feedback. What do you want to get out of the class and the particular assignment? You may be figuring out how to get a good grade, but there might also be certain writing areas that you would like to develop. How can you use their feedback to improve these areas?
Rubric & Checklist Categories
In your instructors’ feedback on your writing, you might encounter a variety of terms referring to language use in writing. On rubrics and checklists, categories referring to language use may be labeled in many different ways. Here are some examples of terms you might encounter:
- Language mechanics quality
- Sentence structure
- Style / Voice
- Paragraph order/structure
- Effective Communication of Ideas
- Word Choice
Implications for grading your language: While you might recognize some of these rubric/checklist categories from high school, your instructor may use these categories differently from your high school teachers. To make matters more complicated, different college instructors mean different things by these terms. There are not only differences in how instructors define words like “style” and “effective communication,” but also words that you might think would have consistent definitions, such as “mechanics” and “grammar.” Ask your instructor how they define certain terms and for specific examples. Review our guide on African American English in Graded Writing and ask your instructor how their rubric or checklist values such African American English patterns and styles.
Holistic Grading (Ex: Contract Grading, Portfolio Grading)
If your instructor uses holistic grading, contract grading, or portfolio grading, this probably means they will not put a grade on individual assignments. However, they will probably give you a final grade at the end of the course, and perhaps one or two midterm grades. They will probably list criteria that will lead to or guarantee particular final grades. “So Your Instructor is Using Contract Grading…” from the Writing Commons offers helpful background and tips for students in contract grading writing classrooms. Be sure to ask your instructor as many questions as you need to understand how to approach the course and get the grade you want.
Implications for grading your language: In holistic versions of grading, including contract and portfolio grading, your instructor may provide a list of criteria they use to determine this final grade. Look over these criteria to see:
- Do the instructor’s criteria mention anything about language, standard English, grammar, mechanics, style, voice, or something similar? Does your instructor explain what these terms mean? If not, ask for definitions, examples, and non-examples.
- Does your instructor teach how to apply these language criteria in class? If not, ask how you can ensure that you’re meeting these criteria during your writing process. Also, ask how the criteria value patterns and styles of African American English or other language varieties.
- Do the instructor’s criteria apply to all types of writing in the class? Are there differences based on the writing’s context, purpose, or audience?
- Do the language criteria include space for your own language and voice?
If you’re looking for something that you don’t see in the criteria, talk to your instructor in office hours. Ask how you can both meet the expectations for the course and develop your own voice as a writer. With holistic grading, many instructors make room for both of these goals.