Strategies for Evaluating Student’s Work

“What will I gain from your class as a – insert non-social science – major?” As an ice-breaker, I end every first class of the semester by answering anonymous questions written on index cards. As an anthropology instructor for the past 4 years of a 300-level core-requirement, many of my students are from outside my discipline. Every semester students question the usefulness of an anthropology course, assuming we will discuss some exotic society far-far away. As educators, we want our students to engage with the course materials we have carefully prepared. And dare I say, fine tune their critical thinking skills. But what does that mean and how do we as educators ensure that students, regardless of their educational backgrounds, benefit from a course they simply enrolled in to fulfill a course requirement? In addition to preparing clear course assignments that encourage student autonomy, I found grading is an effective way to evaluate, communicate and motivate students.

Ethnography, the presentation of empirical data on human and animal societies, is at the heart of anthropology. Therefore, anthropology courses tend to incorporate writing assignments, both formal and informal, into course requirements. For an extended discussion of formal/informal writing assignments and scaffolding please see Yosefa Ehrlich’s “How I learned to stop worrying and love statistics” . In my course, I require students write several reading responses over the course of the semester. The goal of these responses is to develop students’ critical thinking skills through writing. In line with the principles of Writing Across the Curriculum, this exercise requires students to comprehend course materials to anchor their arguments. Typically, I ask students to briefly summarize the text’s main argument and supporting evidence and their thoughts. Students are provided a grading rubric outlining the goal of each assignment and my expectations. However, students often comment “I don’t know how you grade, so I hope this is alright” or “English is not my first language so I am worried” when handing in their first written assignment. These comments demonstrate how subjective grading is and how difficult students find it to imagine a reader’s response in advance. Will they be graded harshly for grammatical errors? How important is communicating their ideas?

I have struggled with responding to student’s writing, constantly questioning what do I want my students to get out of this exercise. How do I account for variation in my students writing which ranges from polished thoughtful pieces to providing exhaustive summaries of someone else’s claims? My colleagues suggested I direct students to the CUNY writing center. Let’s face it we are overworked, overwhelmed, have heavy teaching loads, personal lives and grading is time consuming! BUT, what if I put myself in my student’s shoes and rephrase that question. Asking what type of feedback do I benefit from or want from colleagues regarding my own writing? Would I want to be sent to the CUNY writing center?

As writers (in whatever capacity that is) we seek thoughtful and constructive commentary that raises important questions from the reader’s perspective. We want to know that our ideas have been conveyed clearly. We also seek validation through the rigorous academic peer-review process and so do our students. While there is no definitive way of knowing the impact of our comments on student’s writing, the Writing Across the Curriculum tradition has devised several strategies for effective grading while accounting for time constraints.

Written feedback

I must admit before attending a Writing Across the Curriculum event, I employed a heavy grading hand, hyper-correcting student’s assignments. I believed that this level of feedback would lead to improvements in student’s writing. This strategy was mildly successful. Some students did improve in subsequent assignments, others continued to make the same errors. One philosophy that Writing Across the Curriculum emphasizes is rather than commenting on everything wrong with an assignment, overwhelming students into a state of paralysis, instructors should limit their comments to the major changes they want to see. Focusing first on the higher-order concerns of ideas, organization, development and clarity rather than focus on sentence level errors or lower-order concerns (Bean 2011:66-86). While strategies for grading can vary across disciplines and faculty, one useful time saving strategy for grading is to organize your expectations into high-order concerns and lower-order concerns.

High order concerns/Lower-order concerns

Different elements of a written assignment can be categorized into higher-order concerns and lower-order concerns. This strategy allows for instructors to prioritize the most important components of student’s papers. In other words, instructors can save time by providing commentary on “big picture” elements. Focusing on higher-order concerns can also help minimize lower-order issues. Students that are more comfortable with course concepts, methods and readings tend to make fewer lower-order grammatical errors.

Higher-order concerns include:

  • thesis statement, quality of argument or ideas,
  • Evidence used to support claims,
  • Logic of conclusions,
  • Organization and development of paper,
  • Demonstrates understanding of course materials.

Then, you can turn your attention to low-order concerns, which include:

  • sentence structure,
  • punctuation,
  • vocabulary/word choice,
  • spelling,
  • proper use of citations.

The level of detail dedicated to Lower-order concerns are at the instructor’s discretion. They can range from line by line edits, a general comment at the end of the assignment, an in-class discussion in lieu of written feedback or developing a key for students to reference. For example, students in my course often use the term “modern” to describe western societies. Rather than correct each student’s paper, I held a brief in-class discussion on word choice and why words matter. In terms of minimalizing the time spent marking, an option is to develop a key for students to reference. For example, placing a word within brackets [incorrect word] refers to the use of an incorrect word.

Peer Review

Whether in class or online, peer review is an effective way to share the workload. For the most part instructor feedback is often understood as criticism, peer-review workshops provide students with a different type of constructive feedback that they may be more receptive to. One benefit of peer review is that students develop their own ideas while the process of reviewing another students’ work provides insight into the types of components needed to communicate findings and/or arguments effectively. Instructors can provide students with prompt questions to guide the discussion and ensure students are getting the most out of the workshop. Peer review workshops can take many forms but generally students can be partnered and exchange drafts in class, online or ahead of time to maximize class time. Students can submit drafts early in the writing process, such as an abstract, a two-sentence thesis, or a prospectus. For more on the benefits of peer review please see Claire Hoogendoorn’s “The Benefits of Peer Review”

In conclusion, there are many advantages to evaluating students’ work in a manner that supports and provides students with concrete ways to make revisions and encourage student accountability. Regardless of one’s discipline writing is both a process of critical thinking and a product that communicates the result of critical thinking. Through grading we can guide our students to become more effective writers and in turn critical thinkers.

Please check our Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) website for faculty resources and upcoming workshops regarding assignment design, developing a writing intensive syllabus and more. If you are interested in discussing grading strategies please join us at our “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading” faculty workshop on Tuesday November 28th from 1-2:15pm (location TBA).