University of Wisconsin–Madison

Principles of Assessing Student Writing

Grading and giving feedback are deeply linked to student educational outcomes. In an online environment, it is especially important for you to offer thoughtful, substantive feedback to your students on their writing–to help them understand where they are communicating their ideas successfully and where they can continue to develop. In a remote course, responding to students in a clear, engaged, and specific manner, provides an opportunity to connect with your students and to support their learning both within your online course and beyond.

Assessing writing can and should be complementary with your pedagogy and curriculum. We suggest that you create a plan to assess student writing that promotes transparency, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy. This requires some advance preparation and careful thought. Writing scholar John Bean writes that “Because we teachers have little opportunity to discuss grading practice with colleagues, we often develop criteria that seem universal to us but may appear idiosyncratic or even eccentric to others.” Criteria for student success should be fair, consistent, public, and clear.

Your feedback is where students can see and/or hear you engaging with their ideas and acknowledging their labor; it’s also where students feel most vulnerable and where you might feel pressed for time or frustrated at students’ missteps. It can help to remember the purpose of commenting on student assignments: to coach revision and growth (in the present piece and in future work for your course or program). Using audio feedback or screencast feedback can be a great way to articulate these priorities.

You should also be mindful that writing assignments are not a neutral component to students’ experiences in your class. Along with course syllabi and policies, assignments comprise a significant component of larger “ecologies” of assessment – that is, systems of judging student learning and performance (Inoue 2015). The ecology of your course shapes not only what but how students learn, and it does so in ways that can be either inclusionary or exclusionary. Inclusive assessment asks instructors to think about assessment as a way to support student development in writing, rather than for the purposes of gatekeeping a discipline or profession from “poor performers.”

Other characteristics of inclusive assessment include transparency (the TILT framework foregrounds equity in education); flexibility; alignment among an assignment’s learning goals, its central task, and its evaluation criteria; and linguistic justice (which recognizes that student performance of “standard” English is not a measure of intelligence or effort).

The WAC program’s principles of inclusive assessment are:

To make your expectations clear, be sure to identify how you will be assessing student writing, and how that assessment fits with your course’s learning objectives.

Beyond a few basics, what makes for effective writing will vary depending on the learning goals for the assignment, the genre of the paper, the subject matter, the specific tasks, the discipline, and the level of the course. It is crucial to develop criteria that match the specific learning goals and the genre of your assignment. What’s valued in one discipline differs in others. 

In addition to sharing your evaluation criteria, spend time in your online class discussing the kinds of feedback you’re giving, and give students the opportunity to ask questions about your responses.

For an example of a writing assignment that ties evaluation to learning objectives, check out Professor Jennifer Gipson’s French 248 assignment.

Whether on a rough draft or a final draft, offer specific, actionable feedback to students with suggestions for improvement that emphasize “global concerns” such as ideas, argument, and organization over “local concerns” such as sentence-level error. In a draft where students will have the opportunity to revise their work, this feedback will likely be more substantial than in a final draft.

Research shows that students are often confused by what we want them to concentrate on in their writing and in their revisions. Our comments on their writing too often lead students to make only superficial revisions to words and sentences, overlooking larger structural revisions that would most improve a paper. So as we design writing assignments, develop evaluation criteria, and comment on and evaluate our students’ final papers, we need to find ways to communicate clearly with students about different levels of revision and about priorities for their writing and revising.

We can help signal priorities if we clearly differentiate between global and local writing concerns. In our assignments, comments, conferences, and evaluation criteria, we can help students by focusing first on conceptual- and structural-level planning and revisions before grammatical- and lexical-level revisions. By no means are we advocating that we ignore language problems in our students’ writing. But we want to offer students clear guidance about how to strengthen their ideas, their analyses, and their arguments, so that students have papers worth editing and polishing. Then we can turn our attention—and our students’—to improving sentences, words, and punctuation. When we respond to their ideas, we signal to students that we care about their development as writers.

To see sample online feedback on a student paper in Sociology, check out this resource.

For more support on global and local concerns, check out the WAC program’s resource, Global and Local Concerns in Student Writing.

A criterion-based evaluation guide that communicates an instructor’s expectations for student performance in an assignment, specifically through the identification and description of evaluation criteria. Our resource on Principles of Rubric Design is an excellent resource to draw from.

For more information about the limits of broad, general evaluation rubrics, see Anson et al, “Big Rubrics and Weird Genres: The Futility of Using Generic Assessment Tools Across Diverse Instructional Contexts,” The Journal of Writing Assessment 5.1 (2012).

Acknowledge and support (rather than penalize) the range of languages, dialects, and rhetorics used by students for whom white mainstream English (often called “standard” English) is not their accustomed language.

For ideas to support your students’ diverse languages or dialects, here are a few resources:

When you take time to provide feedback, it is worth taking the additional step of creating an activity or assignment that asks students to review and reflect on your feedback with the goal of identifying priorities for their attention and improvement on future assignments. For example, students can submit short learning journal entries or individual assignments reviewing their strengths, areas for improvement, and plans for their next assignment or draft.

Alternative Ways to Assess Student Writing

Recent conversations in the field of Writing Studies have identified how traditional writing assessment can lead to an overemphasis on letter grades and an underemphasis on feedback and student development. In our current difficult learning and teaching environment, it can be challenging to imagine and implement new assessment practices; at the same time, these practices can allow you to connect more deeply with students who are learning remotely.

We hope to provide more robust resources on alternative assessment practices in the near future. In the meantime, we offer links below to two types of alternative assessment.

A version of competency-based assessment that uses pass/fail grading paired with feedback and revision.Individual assignments must meet stated specifications in order to receive credit. There is no partial credit or stepped-down grades (A, AB, B, etc.), but students are provided feedback as well as options for revising or dropping assignments that did not meet specs. See Chapters 5, 6, and 8 of Linda B. Nilson’s Specifications Grading for more information, or access the full book online.

A determination of students’ course grade based on cumulative labor or effort. Individual assignments receive feedback but no grade, and negotiation between instructor and individual students is encouraged. Contracts have been documented to work best in democratic classrooms where they are built into the classroom culture.