Process, Affect, and Writing

In the spirit of some of the preceding posts, I want to dwell for a moment longer on the ideas of process and affect in relation to writing. Like some of my colleagues, I too have long envisioned writing as being fundamentally about the product. I have come to think of writing as the text, the document, the finished work. There is process, of course, for texts result from arrangement, selection, and compilation. The document is a sedimentation of prior work and work is an activity in addition to the thing produced. But on the whole, I have learned to see the process—the working—as valuable for its outcome, not for its own transient existence. This orientation has had negative implications for both the emotional experience of writing and the quality of the texts I produce.

As others have mentioned, I too have found that an orientation towards outcome infuses the writing process with anxiety. But anxiety was not always the most salient affective experience of writing. Before beginning grad school, I was one of those students who generally enjoyed writing. I approached writing assignments as opportunities to think through something, to grapple with some idea. Sitting down to write felt like an act of discovery, accompanied by curiosity and care. This lucky orientation to writing was undoubtedly the result of many factors, among which may have been that my primary schools, where I learned to write, didn’t give grades and focused heavily on the work of revision. Regardless, something has changed. Now, the idea of having to write brings with it crippling anxiety, even when the stakes are practically non-existent. I fret endlessly. I write in fits and starts. I delete and rewrite. Ultimately, I miss deadlines, view the final products as failures, and do what I can to distance myself from what I have created. The reasons for this shift are manifold, but a crucial element has been my gradual instrumentalization of writing. If I once approached the act of writing as an opportunity to explore, I now see it as a means for an end, as an activity valuable largely for what is produced.

My personal reorientation towards writing is almost certainly connected to a broader political economy of value. If I now instrumentalize what I once enjoyed for its own sake, it is because, as someone who must now write “professionally,” I am dependent upon collective allocations of value. And collectively, we have come to privilege those texts which circulate. We justify this privileging with niceties about writing being a way to communicate, to share something of ourselves with others, to participate in the public square of our common humanity, to transgress the limitations of temporal and geographic distances. But in practice, I suspect much of this privileging has a simpler explanation, for it is only through their circulation that texts have been able accumulate the kind of value from which profits can be made and livelihoods maintained. In this sense, our view of writing is ineluctably capitalist. The lexicon of “productivity” has seeped into my consciousness like a mold. And in the subtle way that words, symbolic though they may be, impose themselves upon us, this attachment to productivity has spread and grown deep roots in me. More than I would care to admit, I evaluate my days on the basis of how productive I have been, and in doing so, I minimize the importance of other sources of value, like curiosity, care, joy, or presence—values that somehow feel more intuitively worthwhile. In short, our relationship to writing is entangled with our relations of production.

This instrumentalizing of writing—the skewed allocation of value placed on product—has implications that are both affective and material. It is paradoxical, but for me and for many of my students, the valuation of the product often impinges on the conditions of production, creating a kind of negative feedback loop. When the value of writing is seen as residing in its future product, the activity of writing becomes a process of justification. The words on the page cannot be mere opportunities for exploration; they must ward off the judgement of the future, whether that judgement comes in the form of a grade, a publication, or a paycheck. This is anxiety-inducing, insofar as anxiety is a kind of inability to be present. Held down by the weight of the past and eclipsed by the shadow of the future, the act of writing can be a claustrophobic experience. When we over-value the product and under-value the process, we eliminate the jouissance of the immediate experience of writing. The present is poisoned by the need to justify, and inevitably, to the extent that the writer manages to fight past that claustrophobia, the result is often rather shabby. This post, with its tangents, unfinished thoughts, over-simplifications, and disorderly progression is a prime example.

By obscuring both the activity and affectivity of writing, our product-oriented approach probably leads to an excess of anxiety and sub-par writing, foreclosing opportunities for joy, curiosity, and exploration. What if we inverted our value schema? We could emphasize exploratory or informal writing. We could replace “final” drafts with multiple rough drafts, reflections on the process, or speculative letters about the work that remains to be done. We could reformulate our grading systems to privilege the time spent working instead of the final product submitted, work towards ungrading, or abolish grades entirely. In this light, reclaiming the value of the process, the activity of writing itself, acquires a kind of liberatory glamour. And maybe that glamour is well-deserved, maybe embracing process over product would free many from enormous anxiety, unshackle the labor of writing from the logic of the market, and create spaces for some sort of authentic self-expression and deeper thinking. But I worry that on some level the glamour is more of a thin patina, a shiny coat of novelty that appears different only because it looks unfamiliar on the surface.

Writing, like language, is always a vehicle for power. And under contemporary conditions, where power is so often tied to the flexible metabolism of capital, we should be wary of things that present themselves with the sheen of liberatory gloss. Processes can be commodified just as easily as products. Social media—in turning life itself is into an endless process of drafting, freed from the inherited mandates about what makes writing good, or what counts as writing—has made this abundantly clear. There is, I think, an intuitive elegance to the act of reconsidering. The act of rendering the familiar unfamiliar is a generative one; it creates possibilities for change. There is immense value in being open to being wrong, or in merely being willing to examine what we are doing at some measure of distance. I do think there is merit to carefully reconsidering our approach to writing through a closer examination of the relationships between process and product, between activity and affect. But, unless the context in which we write drastically changes, writing will remain tied to some notion of result. And that is also something to reckon with. At some point, I have to press submit, and in doing so, I will give this text the appearance of a finality it does not possess. It will become a thing produced.

Note Taking, Active Learning, and the Writing Process

Note taking is a crucial aspect of the writing process, and yet it is a skill that is often under-emphasized in pedagogical practice. Aside from exhortations to “take notes,” it is rare that instructors take time to assist their students in understanding the functions note taking serves or in acquiring concrete strategies for developing their own note taking habits. Generally speaking, note taking serves as a means of both recording information and facilitating reflection. The former is often taken for granted, obscuring the many different approaches that can be taken. The latter is often under-appreciated, and as a consequence, note taking is construed as being prior to the writing process rather than constitutive of it.

There is nothing passive about note taking. Rather, it is an active engagement with the material that has concrete benefits in its own right. Whether listening to a lecture, participating in a discussion, or reading a text, taking notes requires an attentiveness to the situation at hand, thereby unconsciously improving engagement with the material (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2004). Writing notes also produces a “generational effect” (Foos, Mora, and Tkacz 1994). The cognitive tasks of sorting, coding, and arranging new information leads to stronger connections between newly received information and that which has previously been encoded in long-term memory. Note taking also facilitates the construction of more complex analyses, as notes themselves can serve as external storage, enabling students to hold more elements in mind at once than would be possible from rote memory (Cary and Carlson 1999).

These cognitive benefits suggest that a better incorporation of note taking within the writing process, might lead to more developed written analysis. Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy is grounded in a view of knowledge that is dialogic, a view of learning that is focused on developing the capacity for critical thinking, and an understanding that writing is a fundamental tool in that development. Not taking, I would suggest, is central to the dialogic aspects of knowledge production, since it places students in a position of active engagement with the material. Not all notes are equal, but when implemented as an active learning strategy, note taking can encourage students to think critically about the information they are engaging with.

Taking notes can strengthen the analysis and organization of student writing in at least three ways.

First, many of the challenges students face when writing stem from difficulties with reading, and note taking can strengthen students’ facility with understanding the texts they are being asked to engage with. Reading notes serve as the first opportunity for students to grapple with, unpack, and understand the key concepts that they will need to conduct written analysis. There are several ways to encourage students to develop their note taking skills while reading:

    • Annotations: Incorporate reading annotation into course requirements. This can be done by asking students to make a minimum number of annotations per page, asking students to write out in their own words any sentence or concept that they underline/highlight, and asking for different kinds of annotations. For example, an English professor I worked with at a community college asked students to include one personal reaction, one summarizing annotation, and one question on each page of the reading.
    • Dictionaries: Another way to encourage close reading of texts is to ask students to find definitions for words or key concepts that they do not understand. The act of finding and writing out the definitions encourages students to pause and reflect on difficult aspects of the reading rather than skimming over them.
    • What It Says/What It Does: For each paragraph in a reading, ask students to write a sentence summarizing what is said and a sentence explaining what the purpose the paragraph serves in the context of the whole reading (Bean 2011: 170). This type of assignment encourages students to do the metacognitive work not only of understanding the text, but of understanding how analysis is structured.
    • Outlines: By reconstructing the structure of the reading in the form of an outline, students learn to recognize the hierarchical nature of analytical writing. Asking students to identify the research question, the argument, the literature review, the evidence, and the findings can also familiarize students with practices for organizing their own writing.

Second, note taking can serve as the basis for more formal, written assignments. When students have engaged in note taking that promotes active thinking, they will already have done aspects of the analytical work required of the assignment. There are several ways to encourage students to take notes that prefigure the analytical work they will be expected to do in their formal writing assignments.

    • Thesis statements: Ask students to write, in their own words, the thesis for each of the readings you assign. Doing so encourages students to view readings as arguments in their own right rather than merely as sources of information.
    • Author’s Frame: Ask students to reflect on the author’s reasons for writing, and to consider how the author’s own positionality may be informing the analysis itself, making note of places in the text that provide support for the student’s claims. As with the thesis statement, this kind of note taking/mini-analysis fosters an awareness of the dialogic aspects of knowledge production by situating the reading within an intersubjective context.
    • Before/After: Help students understand that texts are attempting to persuade them of a particular view by asking them to respond to the following questions. “Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed…; After I read this, the author wanted me to believe…; The author was (not) successful in changing my view because…” (Bean 2011:174).
    • Summaries: Asking students to write brief summaries of the readings, in which they simply restate the essential argument and ideas of a text without quotations, both helps students to internalize the information and can serve as the basis for future analysis.
    • Diagrams: Ask students to find ways of visually representing the arguments of different texts or illustrating how different texts can be situated relative to each other.

Third, many of these note taking strategies can be employed as tools for self-reflection during the process of revising one’s own work. Ask students to take notes on drafts of their own papers using some of the above assignments. Engaging with their own text as a reader can help them to identify areas in need of stronger analysis as well as strengthen the structure and organization of their writing. Similar note-taking tasks can be incorporated into peer-review, to guides students towards providing feedback on higher order issues of analysis, structure, and organization.

In short, treating note taking as a serious analytical task offers a window into some of the ways writing and learning are mutually entangled. Focusing on the activity of taking notes helps to illustrate the linkages between reading, drafting, and revising, and throws into relief the iterative nature of writing. In doing so, we undertake the difficult work of reorienting our expectations away from products and towards process. From a student perspective, note taking offers an opportunity to learn to treat texts as vibrant interlocutors rather than dead documents to be harvested for facts. In this sense, spending time teaching note taking not only helps students develop their reading, writing capacities; it helps empower them as producers of knowledge in their own right.



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

Cary, Melanie, and Richard A. Carlson. 1999. “External support and the development of problem-solving routines.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 25(4): 1053-1070.

Foos, Paul W., Joseph J. Mora, and Sharon Tkacz. 1994. “Student Study Techniques and the Generation Effect.” Journal of Educational Psychology 86(4): 567-576.

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2005. “Cognitive Effort During Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19(3): 291-312.

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.



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,

“Do I have to be an Expert in Grammar to Assign Writing.” WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University, 25 Nov. 2019,

“Giving Feedback on Student Writing.” Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan, 25 Nov. 2019, writing.html.

“Grading Criteria and Rubrics.” The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University, 25 Nov. 2019, /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.

Aligning Instruction and Assessment in Writing Pedagogy

In the classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire articulated a radical critique of what he called the “banking model” of education. In this model, Freire argued, teachers “deposit” information into the minds of students, who are seen as passive recipients rather than active participants in the process of learning. Against the authoritarianism of the banking model, Freire offered an emancipatory vision for education, one that sought to overcome the student-teacher dichotomy and to replace the transmission of information with a “problem-posing” approach. Foregrounding the validity of student experience and emphasizing the posing of problems over the transmission of information empowered students as agents in their own education. “Problem-posing education,” Freire wrote, “affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (1970, 84). The role of the educator, in this view, is not to mold students into certain expected outcomes, but to help them become attuned to their own process of becoming. Freire recognized that education itself is a political process,  the structure of which plays a central role in the reproduction of broader relations of power and oppression. A more democratic pedagogy, one that challenges the teacher-student and active-passive dichotomies, would empower students as agents of change, not only in the classroom, but in the world at large.

In many ways, WAC pedagogy is informed by the democratic ethos of Freire’s “problem-posing” education. WAC pedagogy views learning as an active process grounded in “critical thinking,” and writing as an integral aspect of that process. As John Bean suggests, awakening students to problems and encouraging them to engage them lies at the core of teaching critical thinking (2011, 3). Moreover, in WAC philosophy, understanding is not derived from the passive process of memorizing and internalizing information, but comes from actively engaging with course material. Writing is seen as a prime vehicle for this engagement, creating a space where students become agents in the process of knowledge production. Therefore, implementing WAC principles can have a democratizing effect in the classroom, as students experience agency and voice in the process of writing. In this sense, WAC emphasis on “critical thinking” and the student-oriented qualities of “writing-to-learn” can be seen as part of a broader project of emancipatory education.

Although the radical language of emancipation has been displaced by a more technocratic jargon of best practices, writing pedagogy has largely embraced the ideas that underpin Freire’s “problem-posing” education. And yet, despite the ways in which writing instruction has democratized the classroom, student assessment has often remained stuck in the more authoritarian mentality of the banking model. I would suggest that there is now a disjuncture between the more processual and recursive understanding of the writing-learning process, and a system of assessment that reduces student effort and engagement to a single quantifiable metric. Even as we endorse a more student-centered understanding of learning, we participate in the reproduction of a system of grading that sees learning and assessment as independent rather than interconnected. It is as though there is a disconnect between our ontology of learning and the epistemology that informs how we evaluate it.

To begin to think about how we might begin to bring our process of assessment in line with our understanding of learning, it is worth considering why we assign grades in the first place. The “A-F” system itself is somewhat arbitrary, but there are at least four reasons that proponents often give for why we grade student work. First, grades have a communicative function, providing students with feedback about their performance in a class, or on an assignment. Second, grades provide an incentive structure intended to motivate students to do the work asked of them. Third, grades provide a simple, quantifiable metric of performance that enables teachers (as well as colleges and employers) to compare students to one another. Finally, grades are thought to perform an evaluative function, providing information about the quality of student work.

Do grades actually perform these functions? A review of the research on grading suggests that the validity of these assumptions is questionable at best. First, receiving a letter grade does provide feedback to students about their performance, but on its own, a grade provides no indication of the rationale, and as a consequence, does not link performance and assessment in a manner conducive to student improvement. Written feedback can be effective in communicating areas for development, but attaching this feedback to a grade often discourages students from even reading the feedback. Second, rather than increasing student motivation, a number of studies suggest that grades as an incentive, especially for creative tasks, may reduce intrinsic motivation to learn, undermine performance, and increase anxiety. Third, grades do enable comparison, but the practice still begs the question what is being compared and why? On the one hand, grade inflation and the subjective nature of assessment undermine the reliability of grades as a metric of student performance. On the other, because they “flatten” students to a single category, grades ignore the diversity of student experiences outside the classroom and reproduce patterns of oppression (Inoue 2019). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, counter to their basic premise, grades do not provide an “objective” evaluation of student work. This is true even of multiple-choice assessment, since teaching method, exam construction, and student backgrounds all influence student performance. These problems are exacerbated by the undeniable subjectivity and bias introduced in evaluating written and creative work.

As instructors, we are often obligated to assign grades by our institutions, but are there strategies for assessing student writing that contribute to the learning process rather than undermine it? Are there ways in which the democratic ethos that informs our writing pedagogy might also inform our assessment practices? Briefly, I would like to suggest that there are. In the remainder of this post I want to briefly offer a few strategies that not only serve to democratize the assessment process, but can also improve the communicative, motivational, comparative, and evaluative functions we often ascribe to letter grades.

Transparency: Given the subjectivity involved in assessing student writing, we should be as transparent as possible about our expectations for students, and our processes for assessing their work. Using rubrics is one way to both communicate our expectations to students and to keep ourselves accountable and consistent in our assessment of student work. For rubrics to be most effective, they should be provided to students at the outset.

Feedback Timing: Instructors often provide students with comments on written work in addition to the letter grade. Written feedback is an excellent way to communicate to students what they have done well, what they could develop further, and how they might go about revising. However, providing such feedback once a grade has already been assigned does not give students an incentive or opportunity to actually respond to the comments. By limiting substantive comments to earlier drafts, we can give students an opportunity to respond to our feedback and to develop their ideas more fully before they are evaluated. Feedback given on earlier drafts that identifies a few primary areas for improvement gives the student a concrete direction forward for developing subsequent drafts. As members of the academic community we know how crucial feedback is to developing our ideas, but in the classroom we often do not give students the same courtesy we offer to our colleagues.

Peer-Review: Peer-review workshops where students speak about their own work and receive suggestions and feedback from their colleagues can be a valuable way to elevate student perspectives and strengthen final drafts. The effectiveness of such workshops depends, in part, on how they are structured; providing explicit instructions that guide student feedback on a few aspects of the rubric can help focus discussion. For example, asking students to do a reverse outline of their peers’ work can help students identify ways to improve the structure and organization of their writing. Peer-review also gives students a sense of accountability to one another that may help incentivize on-time submission of work.

Self-Reflection: Asking students to provide evaluations of their own work can be helpful for a number of reasons. In giving insight into the challenges students face, self-reflections can facilitate more targeted comments that are tailored to the needs of individual experiences. Additionally, self-reflections can help instructors to understand how much time students spend on assignments and whether some of the difficulties may have stemmed from the assignment design itself. Finally, students often write more clearly when they do not feel pressured by the task of a formal writing assignment. By asking for an informal reflection, students often have a chance to talk about their ideas freely in a manner that can be helpful for instructors in deciphering student intent in formal papers. Because grading is subjective, and because student experience is so diverse, having insight into the writing process can be a helpful tool in assessing what kind of feedback would be most helpful for developing an improved draft. Moreover, it gives students the sense that their experience matters.

The mismatch between commonly understood reasons for grading and the mixed empirical evidence about whether grades fulfill these objectives, suggests that we need to rethink student assessment. The institutional inertia of our current grade system is immense (although it appears to be changing), but transparency, feedback before grades, peer review, and self-reflection are all practices that align with a the democratic ethos of WAC writing pedagogy. More importantly, we need to ensure that the reasons we assess correspond to the reasons we teach. I teach because I want to help students foster their curiosity about the world, identify and think critically about substantive problems, and develop a sense of empowerment in their own process of becoming. WAC pedagogy, in emphasizing the processual and recursive aspects of the writing-learning relationship, and in privileging ideas and engagement over presentation and product, seems well-suited to these aims. A grading system that reduces the complexity of student experience and engagement to a single letter arguably does not. As we revise our syllabi to incorporate practices of informal writing, scaffolded assignments, and revision, we often cling to a mode of assessment that reflects the rigidity and depersonalization of the banking model of education. Moreover, when the expectations, standards, and process are not fully transparent, we run the risk of reproducing authoritarian tendencies in the classroom that seem at odds with the democratic ethos of WAC pedagogy. To the extent that we deem critical thinking a foundation of substantive pedagogy, we should imagine practices of assessment that can reflect and strengthen this foundation.


Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Inoue, Asao. 2019. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse and University  Press of Colorado.

Kohn, Alfie. 1994. “Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why.” Education Leadership 52(2): 38-41.

Shinske, Jeffrey and Kimberly Tanner. 2014. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently.” CBE Life Sciences Education 13(2): 159-166.