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Tips for Teaching and Assessing Writing

On becoming a more effective teacher by turning your attention to writing.

January 21, 2018
 
 

Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Iowa where he teaches in the Department of Rhetoric. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien.

Regardless of your discipline, there’s a good chance that at some point you will be responsible for teaching or grading writing in some shape or form. Whether they are lab reports, annotated bibliographies, or essays about the application of generally accepted accounting principles to a novel, writing assignments play a major role in many disciplines, particularly with the emergence of initiatives such as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID).

Unfortunately, most graduate students receive little or no formal training in teaching and grading writing and some have limited training even in writing for their own disciplines. This can make teaching and grading writing a daunting task, but this should not deter you from making writing a significant part of your class as it is an excellent tool for teaching and learning within your classroom. Additionally, the growing need for skilled writing instructors both inside and outside the university means that experience helping students to master the written conventions of your discipline can also help you on the job market. A 2004 report from the National Commission on Writing even estimated that American corporations spend as much as $3.1 billion annually on writing training for their employees.

Though nothing can replace coursework and training on composition pedagogy (which I highly recommend if you can squeeze it in – nothing trains you to write better than learning how to teach it), there are a few strategies that you can use for making teaching and grading writing assignments a little more effective and a little less stressful, no matter your discipline:

Focused Criteria: Writing is one of the most cognitively complex tasks that we ask of our students. It involves everything from remembering and applying rules of grammar to planning and laying out an argument to remembering and utilizing source information. You can help your students tackle these challenges by giving them focused, concrete criteria that they will be graded on. In other words, narrow your assignment and grading to a discrete list of tasks and don’t sweat the small stuff like comma splices if punctuation isn’t your focus. Let them know when they err on other things, but don’t make this a major part of the assignment. This focus allows both your students and you to focus on the areas that are most important for their success in your class and will simplify your grading process immensely.

Prioritize Feedback: Along similar lines, don’t go overboard with responding to student writing. My first semester of teaching, I spent an insane amount of time responding to student papers – marking every typo and providing extensive notes on every element of their paper. It was overwhelming for me and probably for my students as well. I was fortunate enough to have an experienced instructor recommend focusing on providing detailed feedback about three or four of the most important things that a student can do to improve. This gives students something actionable to focus on in their next writing assignment (where you or another instructor can focus on other things) and prevents both you and them from drowning in a sea of red ink.

Refer to Resources: One of the other biggest mistakes that I made early in my teaching was devoting an inordinate amount of time to explaining grammatical rules in the margins of the papers that I was grading. Then it occurred to me that I could simply refer students to resources like the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) when I noticed that they were consistently struggling with something like verb tense or articles. This is even more effective if, like me, you have switched to commenting on papers through your university’s LMS. Not only does directing students to existing resources save me a ton of time, it also allows students to get far better explanations (often with associated examples and exercises) and gets them accessing and utilizing resources that can help them throughout their career. In line with my previous tip about prioritizing feedback, I’d recommend only doing this for patterns of mistakes that you’re seeing, rather than for every typo or error.

Examples: There’s nothing worse for you or a student than finding out that they put a ton of time and energy into an assignment and totally missed what the assignment was looking for. The best way to avoid this is to provide multiple examples of writing that meet the criteria for your assignment. This provides students with a sense of what successful completion of that assignment might look like, but also ensures that they see a range of possible approaches so they don’t all turn in assignments that rigidly mimic a single example.

Check In: I am amazed every semester by how different my students are. I’ll prepare an elaborate lesson plan to address something my last class struggled with only to discover my current class has it down cold. Every class and every individual comes to each assignment with different skills and background knowledge and one strategy for meeting them wherever they are at in their learning process is to use classroom assessment techniques to check in on their progress and address issues early in the writing process (i.e. before 10:00 p.m. on the night before an assignment is due). The “muddiest point,” where you have students write the part of the assignment that they are most confused about or are most struggling with is a great way to get a sense of where your students are at and how best to spend class time getting them to where they need to be. A more technologically advanced form of this can be done with live surveys such as PollEverywhere or classroom feedback apps such as ClassPulse.

Draft and Redraft: Along with checking in on how students feel about their assignment progress, it’s very helpful to actually read their writing prior to the final due date. This can mean reading and responding to full drafts of student papers, responding to key elements or chunks such as their thesis, or proofing a single entry in a larger annotated bibliography. Though it may seem counterintuitive, reading student drafts tends to save time in the long run because it allows you to make early interventions that can range from minor suggestions to recommending they focus on a different topic. Ultimately, responding to student drafts, even small sections of them, helps to ensure that both you and they are on the same page, improving the quality of their writing and decreasing both of your stress levels.

Do you have any tips for making teaching or responding to student writing easier or less stressful?

[Image by Flikr user Nathan Oakley and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.]

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