Some Further Reflections on Minimal Marking and Effective Grading

At the core of WAC philosophy is a commitment to the view that learning is fundamentally about developing the capaciousness for critical thinking, that writing is foundational rather than ancillary to this aim, and that writing-to-learn as a pedagogical orientation entails viewing writing and learning as processual and iterative. Drawing from and expanding on our most recent faculty workshop “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading,” I would like to suggest that a WAC-inspired approach to providing feedback on student writing entails adopting two conceptual orientations to student assessment: privileging higher order concerns in student writing and viewing grading (in addition to assignment design) as a scaffolded process. I will briefly elaborate on these two conceptual orientations before turning to some concrete strategies that can help foster their implementation while also reducing the labor-time entailed in writing assessment.

Orientations Toward Student Writing

Higher vs. Lower Order Concerns: Thinking about student writing in terms of higher and lower order concerns provides a heuristic device that can help instructors provide feedback to students that prioritizes the substantive learning outcomes in their courses (Bean 2011: 322). Higher order concerns refer to the conceptual and structural aspects of student writing: Does the student respond to the assignment? Does the student articulate a clear argument? Is the essay structured in a clear manner that supports the argument? Do the paragraphs develop ideas grounded in a topic sentence and do they flow together in a logical fashion? Has the student provided evidence and/or reasoning to support their claims?  In contrast, concerns about grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and usage should be seen as lower order concerns, not because they are unimportant to student writing, but because there is little point to encourage revision of these concerns until the larger conceptual and structural issues have been addressed. Emphasizing higher order concerns in feedback on student writing will guide students to concerns of more substantive import, reduce the time spent marking small errors on student work, and can facilitate more thoughtful revision.

An emphasis on higher order concerns entails a shift in how we think of our role with regard to student writing. When we focus on lower order issues we often fall into the role of editors and judges, pointing out, correcting, and penalizing errors in the written assignments we receive from our students. By shifting our focus to issues of argumentation, structure, organization, and analysis, we open the door to approaching our students as serious interlocutors and seeing ourselves as engaged readers of their work. This shift from editor to reader, from judge to mentor, is not only more constructive in helping students to develop their capacity for critical thinking, it also models the kind of work that is actually carried out in our respective disciplines. Approaching our student’s work as we would that of a respected colleague will inevitably also move us towards forms of commentary that replace condescension and judgment with forward-looking and more substantive feedback.

Scaffolding: Scaffolding is often used to refer to the practice of breaking large, formal writing assignments into a series of smaller, more informal components. The basic premise of scaffolding as a pedagogical tool for teaching writing is that students become more familiar with the subject of their writing the more they return to it. Through the iterative process of working from rough free-writing eventually polished final drafts, students are given the opportunity to refine their ideas, deepen their engagement, and develop confidence in their ideas. As a consequence of this structured, gradual development, final student work tends to be of higher quality than non-scaffolded term papers. The efficacy of scaffolding depends, in large part, on the privileging of revision  as a fundamental aspect of the writing process. At the same time, the extent to which opportunities for revision actually lead to substantively improved writing is conditional upon us as instructors adopting a view of assessment and feedback as similarly scaffolded.

Approaching assessment as a scaffolded process enables us to focus our attention as reviewers in ways that are more efficient with regard to our time and more helpful for students. Extensive comments and feedback should be reserved for earlier drafts of student work. There is little reason to provide extensive commentary if we do not give students the opportunity to take that commentary into account. Redirecting instructor effort to earlier stages of the writing process gives students a chance to respond to instructor suggestions before receiving a grade on their work, reduces the time spent on writing comments on final drafts, and improves the quality of work that is submitted for a grade.

Strategies for Effective Grading

Adopting a pedagogical orientation to student writing that emphasizes higher order concerns and sees assessment as a scaffolded process might, on the surface, seem to be asking a lot of instructors in terms of their time and level of engagement. However, I’d like to suggest that this is not necessarily the case. Specifically, I want to consider how several clusters of concrete strategies might help to achieve these conceptual reorientations while limiting the amount of time and energy spent marking and responding to student work.

Minimal Marking: Adopting an approach to grading that prioritizes higher order concerns does not mean abandoning a commitment to helping students improve their facility with English grammar, mechanics, punctuation and usage. Rather, such an orientation encourages us endorse a minimalist philosophy when it comes to marking students’ work for such lower order issues. A minimal approach to marking asks us to be reflective in our notations on student work; we should be attentive to both the individual student as a thinker and writer, as well as the stage of the assignment that we are currently revising. A foundational principle for minimal marking is that we avoid asking students to correct minor errors if we are also asking them to rewrite the sentences/paragraphs that contain those errors. Asking students to correct errors of grammar in situations when there is a deeper conceptual problem entails a contradictory demand, and students will often opt for the easier route of lower order revision while leaving the larger concerns unattended to.

Where it is appropriate to address lower order concerns, there are several strategies that might be employed that still align with a more minimalist mentality. One strategy for de-emphasizing our role as editors and empowering students to take responsibility for their writing is to simply place an “X” or other mark in the margin whenever we encounter a sentence with a lower order error (Haswell 2006). This strategy asks students to do the work of reviewing their writing, rather than relying on their instructors for editing. Such a technique will likely lead to papers with fewer typos, but may not help students to address issues that they are simply unaware of.  A second strategy that provides for more focused grammatical instruction is to highlight one lower order concern that is recurrent in a particular student’s writing. Emphasizing a single concern enables the instructor to spell out exactly what the issue is, identify some instances of the error in the student’s writing, and illustrate by example how the student might revise for the recurrent issue. A third strategy is to revise one or two paragraphs for lower order concerns to illustrate the kinds of errors a student may be prone to. Asking them to review the rest of the paper to try and identify similar occurrences encourages proofreading and limits instructor time spent looking for such errors. Each of these strategies enables instructors to guide students in addressing lower order concerns while also leaving a lighter footprint on student papers and time spent grading.

End Comments: When providing substantive feedback to students on higher order concerns, replacing excess marginal notes with a single comment (at the end or beginning of the paper) is an excellent strategy that clarifies instructor priorities for the student and reduces the amount of grading time required. Effective end comments often do the following: 1) open with a salutation, 2) restate the paper’s central claim, 3) identify the paper’s strengths, 4) discuss a few central areas for further development, emphasizing higher order concerns first, 5) end with a constructive and positive summation. Comments should be specific and constructive. For examples, making connections between marginal notes and end comments can help to ground larger comments in specific examples from the paper.

Technology: Providing feedback on multiple drafts of student work can be a daunting task, and identifying exactly how students have responded to previous feedback requires meticulous attention is student writing is submitted by hard copy. However, digital platforms can drastically reduce these difficulties while also creating opportunities to foster substantive revision. Use the “compare” function or “track changes” in Microsoft Word to quickly see what changes have been made from one draft to the next, or use a document sharing platform like Google Drive that stores past versions of student work. To encourage students to actually engage in the work of revision, post comments digitally and ask that students respond to the comments as the revise. Digital platforms that allow shared documents can also facilitate remote one-on-one student conferences (see below) or peer review, both of which can make writing a more collaborative effort.

Conversation: Another strategy for reducing time spent marking student papers while emphasizing higher order concerns and fostering substantive revision is to think about the role of conversation in the grading process. Being explicit about our expectations by providing detailed assignments and providing examples of strong student work are practices of transparency that help our students understand what we are asking of them before they begin the writing process. Once they have submitted drafts of written work, building discussions of their writing into class time gives students a chance to articulate and defend their ideas orally and lets instructors provide suggestions about how to further develop their work, or how to address discrepancies between spoken and written iterations of their ideas. Framing grading as a conversation pushes students to be reflective about their work, which facilitates revision-oriented writing and discourages last-minute word dumps. Asking students to submit a cover letter that identifies strengths and weakness in their work holds them accountable to thinking about their writing once a draft has been completed. Asking students to submit a reflection along with final drafts that discuss the kinds of revisions they undertook can similarly promote student accountability. Finally, in-person conferences can often be an effective way to provide students feedback without having to write up extensive comments. Simply reading the draft aloud and reacting as you might if you were marking the paper at home can give students insight into what it means for you to be a reader of their writing. Giving feedback in conversation like this can help ensure that students aren’t left guessing at what an instructor’s written comments might mean.

In this post, I have tried to suggest that WAC philosophy encourages us as instructors to privilege higher order concerns in student writing and to think about grading and assessment as scaffolded processes. Adopting these conceptual orientations has implications for how we understand our role and for how we consider temporality with regard to providing feedback on the written work of our students. On the surface, this orientation can feel intimidating because it demands a different kind of engagement with our students. However, as I have illustrated above, there are concrete strategies that we can employ to encourage substantive revision that emphasizes higher order concerns while also mitigating the amount of time we spend assessing student work. By adopting strategies for minimal marking, writing effective end comments, making use of available technology, and bringing our students into a conversation about their work, we might both improve the quality of written work and use our own time more effectively in aiding students in developing as writers.

 

References

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

“Commenting on and Grading Student Writing.” WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University, 25 Nov. 2019, wac.colostate.edu/resources/teaching/guides/commenting/.

“Do I have to be an Expert in Grammar to Assign Writing.” WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University, 25 Nov. 2019, wac.colostate.edu/resources/wac/intro/grammar/.

“Giving Feedback on Student Writing.” Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan, 25 Nov. 2019, lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/instructors/teaching-resources/giving-feedback-on-student- writing.html.

“Grading Criteria and Rubrics.” The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University, 25 Nov. 2019, www.brown.edu/sheridan/teaching-learning-resources/teaching-resources /course-design/classroom-assessment/grading-criteria.

Haswell, Richard. “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess.” Across the Disciplines, no. 3, 2006.