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.

 

 

Why We Grade

At a recent WAC meeting, we watched this video of students relating their feelings about receiving graded papers back from instructors. The general theme among the students was that getting comments (often somewhat inscrutable negative ones like “Bad” or “No”) scribbled in red ink all over their papers feels demoralizing.

This prompted a vigorous debate within our WAC team: Do students just want to be coddled? Or should we heed these pleas for kinder and more constructive feedback?

As instructors, we want our students to improve the quality of the work they turn in to us. How can they learn to improve if we don’t show them where they are failing? This drives the spilling of much red ink. But as our discussion unfolded, we realized that the underlying debate about how much marking and “correcting” is appropriate had to do with differences in the kind of work that students are turning in. Before we even begin to grade, we need to ask ourselves why we are grading. Yes, to help students improve. But to improve at what?

If you teach math, some of what you’re grading might be proofs; getting the details of a proof right might be the very thing you want students to learn, so marking up all the details that are incorrect might be the appropriate way to grade that sort of assignment. The same goes for subjects like introductory foreign language instruction, in which the learning objectives are about grammar and proper word usage.

If the overarching goal of the assignment isn’t about the details, however, a different kind of grading might be more appropriate. I teach political science. I would like for my students to be able to write using polished prose. I used to take that goal to mean that I should mark up all of their grammatical and stylistic errors in order to help them identify and avoid them in the future. But I’m not actually teaching them grammar or style in my class; of greater concern to me – and what I spend most of my course trying to work on with them – is that they learn to engage deeply and thoughtfully with readings and concepts, and to formulate informed arguments about them. So now that’s what I mostly grade for – deep, thoughtful engagement and informed arguments. And my feedback tends to come not in the form of marks all over the page, but an acknowledgment at the end of what they did well and two to three concrete suggestions for improvement.

That doesn’t mean I ignore mechanical errors altogether. But filling a paper with red marks does have a tendency to overwhelm rather than to inspire, so I try to pick out just one or two recurring issues the student seems to have (semi-colon usage, for example) and demonstrate and/or explain how to fix them.

Of course, this “minimal marking” approach is not just a way to help students get more out of my grading – it’s a way to help me be a more efficient (and less frustrated) grader. For more discussion about grading strategies, come to the next WAC workshop for faculty and staff on Tuesday, November 15 at 1pm in Midway 205 – or if you can’t make it, check back in afterwards to our Open Lab page for the Powerpoint slides and handouts, which will be posted under “Workshops.”

 

 

Putting Down the Red Pen

red ink pen

If you have been exposed to even a moderate amount of WAC pedagogy, you have probably heard this advice: when you mark student work, use anything other than a red pen.

 

On the surface this seems reasonable, after all, no one likes to see their paper dripping red ink like a poor, wounded animal. But after a couple of hearings you may find yourself asking, as some of the City Tech WAC team did recently, is this just an old teachers’ tale? Is there evidence to back up the assertion that student reception of the same marks, grades, and marginal comments can be affected by the color they are written in? It turns out there are a number of researchers out there trying to answer these questions.

 

One 2012 study published in The Social Science Journal set out to test whether the use of red pens by instructors was viewed negatively by undergraduate-level students. Researchers Richard L. Dukes and Heather Albanesi provided participants with one of four marked and graded essays. These were actually just two essays, one at an A- and one a C+, in which the identical comments were either rendered in blue or red. Students were asked to assign their own grade to the essay and to assess the comments on particular values. While students tended to grade similarly and to rate the instructor comparably on for knowledgeability and organization regardless of the color of the comments, students who read essays marked in red were significantly more likely to rate the instructor as less nice and having less rapport with students.

 

Objectively, in an educational setting being nice is not as important as being knowledgeable. However, student-teacher rapport is an important and valuable thing and if a small adjustment like changing the color of a pen makes a difference it is worth considering. And a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 suggests a further reason for putting down the red pen: object priming.

 

Simply put, object priming proposes that when an object becomes closely associated with a concept then it has the potential to influence behavior. So, if an instructor associates red markings with harsh correction, he or she is more likely to make harsh corrections while using a red pen. The 2010 article by Abraham M. Rutchick, Michael L. Slepian, and Bennett D. Ferris includes the results of an experiment in which participants were given a writing sample to grade and either a blue or red pen with which to do so. Participants with red pens marked more errors than those with blue pens. The researchers hypothesize that this is a possible example of object priming, although they have plans for further research to confirm or disprove their theory.

 

Whether or not you are convinced by the object priming theory, a growing body of research suggests that students, instructors, or both can be negatively influenced by red ink. Choosing a different pen color is just one way that you can make the grading process more positive for all involved. For more instructor-focused tools to improve the grading experience, join us for the Effective Grading and Minimal Marking workshop this Thursday, November 19 at 1pm in Namm 1005.

Tackling the Paper Pile

Spring Break has come and gone. Every instructor had their wish list of things to get done during break, when suddenly not having to prep for teaching freed up what seemed like days of free time. And yet…if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t get through all of that wish list. Now that school is back in session, that big pile of midterm essays you collected before break is on your desk, staring at you, (still) waiting to be graded.

Many of the principles that we espouse with WAC philosophy require advance planning before the semester begins, as they deal with assignment design and syllabus organization. But there are things we can change and implement mid-semester, and one of these is the approach to grading.

We covered much of this in detail in our minimal marking workshop last fall, but let’s revisit just a couple of the most important points that can help alleviate some of your grading woes.

1. Focus on higher order concerns

When we try to catch every grammatical and usage mistake that our students make, we can end up with an overgraded paper. The student will see their paper full of corrections and suggestions and will do one of two things: 1) get overwhelmed and just ignore everything, or, 2) only make the corrections that you’ve marked and then consider their “revision” done. Neither of these are optimal. We want our students to read and seriously consider our comments on their papers, and we want them to take the initiative to improve their writing. Consider only marking one important, content-based error per page. Choose the one thing that the student could do that would vastly improve that section of their paper (it’s likely not fixing that run-on or semicolon usage). And write out your comment/suggestion in a full sentence that doesn’t leave the student wondering what you mean.

When students can handle higher-order mistakes, their lower-order mistakes often improve alongside.

2. Consider offering a revision option

If you don’t already have a draft built into your assignment, consider allowing your students to revise their final paper for a higher grade. This might seem like you’re creating extra work for yourself, but in reality you can mark the first version they hand in less, saving some of those comments for the final draft. Just pick one or two issues per page to comment on (and then consider a global comment at the end such as “there are many issues with your subject-verb agreement throughout”). There’s no point in making tons of corrections to the student’s writing if they’re not going to revise and hand it in again, anyway. Students do not read our corrections and then say “OK, next time I’ll remember not to split my infinitive.” We all know that unless they have an immediate incentive to revise, students won’t do it. So let’s give them that incentive. Grade the papers they hand in fairly but honestly; don’t give a C paper a B. The students will be motivated to revise and improve.

These are two relatively easy ways to help us mark less and allow our students to have some autonomy over their education. It’s not easy – the urge to fix that comma splice is sometimes uncontrollable, especially when students hand in a garbled first draft as their paper! But when we step back and realize that our students have the ability to be good writers who often need a few big pieces of advice, rather than many small ones, to bring their writing to the next level, we help both them and ourselves.

Grading as Coaching, or, How to Spend Less Time Marking Papers

Recently, I sent a draft of some writing to my adviser with the comment, “the writing still needs some work, but please look at the overall points and let me know if you think I’m going in the right direction.”

Isn’t this precisely what all writers want? And doesn’t that include undergraduate students too?

When students hand in a draft, in a sense they are saying this exact same phrase to us as instructors: “here is some writing that I proofread [hopefully!] but it’s still marred by the limited time constraints of the assignment. I hope that the overall points are good and I’m going in the right direction.” Yet, we approach these papers with a copy editor’s eye and red pen, marking up every dangling modifier, incorrect word usage, subject/verb disagreement, or incorrect use of idiomatic English. In a sense, we are doing the opposite of what we hope anyone assessing our own work would do, even though we know from experience that copy editing is the final, not first, stage of professional writing.

We forget that we are not referees, but rather, coaches for our student writers. In her well-known essay on the “overgraded paper,” Muriel Harris writes

like student writers without a thesis or consistent perspective, the teacher who overgrades leaps from suggestion to correction to criticism, from being an editor to a coach to a reader. In noting many things, the instructor emphasizes nothing, and many students…retreat (92).

We fall victim to Harris’s well-placed critique of trying to do too much. And we do it with such good intent (“I want my students to be better writers! I’m trying to help them!) that we are blind to the ways it can be damaging.

The best technique is to mark less. Instead of reading the paper with red pen ready at the draw, try reading the paper with your hands empty. Resist the urge to correct that misplaced comma, or that use of “effect” when they should have written “affect.” After reading it, go back through and find the three or four places where the student author needs to clarify, expand, refine, offer another example, analyze or re-state. Be explicit about exactly what you want in your comments (ironically, simply writing the word “unclear” in the margin is, itself, unclear). After all, these are the things we most want to see improved, and that lead the student not only to write better but to learn the course content more comprehensively.

And all those pesky grammatical mistakes? Save those for a later draft, when the
“big picture” ideas are clearer. Or if you’re only doing one draft, mention them in an endnote: “you have problems with subject/verb agreement throughout,” or “I’ve placed a checkmark in the margin of lines with writing errors.” It turns out that once your students accomplish the higher-order thoughts and cognitive processes, their writing also naturally improves.

This way the student will focus on those higher-order issues you highlighted. I’ve given back papers with 20 or more markings on a page, and only one of them was something that would have seriously improved the content, rather than the execution, of the paper. Nancy Sommers notes that this kind of grading

encourage[s] the student to see the text as a fixed piece, frozen in time, that just needs some editing (151).

On the subsequent draft, my student of course obliged and addressed every marking I had made, except one, the hardest one. If that had been the only marking on the page, she would have been forced to consider the problem I posed, and possibly taken her paper to the next level.

For more, see our workshop on effective grading strategies from December, 2013.


Harris, Muriel. “The Overgraded Paper: Another Case of More is Less.” In How to Handle the Paper Load,  ed. Gene Stanford, 91-94. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33, no. 2 (May 1982): 148-156.

Writing to Learn

As the fall semester of 2013 draws to a close, it is useful to reflect on what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. We the Writing Across the Curriculum fellows have led three main faculty workshops since September: Effective Assignment Design, Peer Review, and Effective Grading. Despite the three varied topics of these workshops, they share a common thread, which is the WAC philosophy of “writing to learn,” and in addition, their content overlaps nicely.

In order to highlight WAC principles, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the effective grading strategies that Jake Cohen and I discussed in our workshop on Tuesday, December 12 (the last of the semester). We went over some techniques to improve student writing and work, most of which also incidentally result in reduced grading time, which is always welcome, especially at this end-of-semester crunch grading time. To view our workshop slides, please click here, and check out the handout. (You can also visit this page to download documents from all of our workshops.) We discussed minimal marking, supportive responding when writing comments on student papers, rubrics, and planning assignments ahead of time to make grading more efficient. This last category is closely related to the two previous workshops from this semester: assignment design, clearly, and also peer review, in that having students assess each others’ work can save time, and greatly improve student writing.

This assignment design category is also the “one particular aspect” that I choose to elaborate on for this post. Among the several techniques we suggested for planning ahead to make assignments more “gradable,” one sticks out as being particularly WAC-esque: the uncollected writing assignment. The value of this notion, which is generally under-utilized by faculty in all departments, is two-fold: It is easy to see how uncollected assignments decrease the overall amount of time we spend grading work, of course, but why assign them at all? The answer lies in the foundation of WAC philosophy, which is that people learn by doing—and more specifically, by writing. So, what kind of uncollected writing do we recommend you assign, how do you enforce such assignments without collecting them, and, finally, how do students “learn by writing”?

One of the best illustrations of this concept is provided eloquently by Toby Fulwiler in “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”: “Writing the thought on paper objectifie[s] the thought in the world
 [which] even happens when I write out a grocery list—when I write down ‘eggs’ I quickly see that I also need ‘bacon.’ And so on” (127). This concept works well for professors across the curricula: Think about assigning a five-minute, in-class free-write asking students to describe course content covered in the past month/week/hour, by way of ensuring that they can articulate it well for whatever type of exam they have coming up, and by way of allowing them to discover holes in their understanding of what you have covered so far. If you are concerned that they won’t oblige the assignment without the potential for reward, then you can choose, for example, to select three at random to read aloud in class, or to be posted on your Blackboard/OpenLab page that same evening.

We hope that those who incorporate this technique will ultimately find that the grading process of the final papers you assign will be ameliorated, in that the students have now had a chance to “practice” or “train” for the final writing process, something akin to athletes who could never run a marathon without similar training, without you having been required to grade an intermediary draft. Ideally, as students come across “holes” in their own comprehension of your course content, they may come to you with more questions, or make better use of your office hours. I know that they will arrive at a deeper understanding of your course material in the same way that I have done regarding WAC philosophy, in the process of writing out this blog post.

Happy Holidays!