Grading is often a stressful and time consuming process for new teachers. The process can be daunting and filled with questions and uncertainty. And as a GTA, teaching is also coupled with the process of one’s own academic life as a PhD student. This leaves little time to spend hours upon hours on grading and feedback. I have developed some useful grading and feedback rules after my years of teaching. I hope these will benefit you and your grading process as well.
1. Respond to the content first, not the mechanics, of each paper you read. Too often we become a bit jaded or tired as readers of student writing and spend more time looking for errors than ideas. In the process we can become absolutely fixated on sentence- and word-level problems and never read the paper for its larger intention. While I’m not counseling that we ignore sentence inconsistencies, I am reminding us to let the writer know that we have considered–for good or ill–the integrity of that intention. Otherwise, we treat this act of communication as a mechanical exercise–and surely, if we have made a careful, thoughtful assignment, we don’t want to do that.
2. Respond positively and personally where possible. Again, no absolutes here, but I believe that writers begin to care about their writing when they see that we care about it. Caring is the necessary first step to actually writing better. A corollary of that is that it’s difficult to work on a piece–revising it and editing it–when nothing encouraging has been said about it. Most acts of student writing are mixtures of more and less good work; be sure to comment as much on the “more” as you do the “less.” I address my comment to students by name, as I would in a letter, and I sign my comments with my name–a dimension of personal interaction that improves our communication with each other.
3. Revise early drafts; edit later drafts; grade final drafts. When you put a grade on a draft, you have treated it as a finished product, as if the learning process is already and altogether over. If you are asking your students to put their writing through several draft stages, keep in mind that the motivation to revise a D- paper is low. Better, I think, to point out where the paper is strong as well as weak conceptually and ask for a rewrite, grade aside. Once a draft is conceptually together, with good internal logic and evidence, then we can turn attention to matters of voice, tone, and style which are really acts of editing on the sentence level. When you and the student pronounce this act of writing/learning finished, that’s the time to grade it.
4. Comment critically on one item at a time. It’s easy to overwhelm students who have written a weak or uncertain paper with all sorts of negative comments and a plethora of suggestions about what to do next. While the intention behind such active criticism is well-intentioned–certainly better than giving the paper a rote F–such teacher commentary may not accomplish its purpose. Once you see that a paper has multiple problems, it may be a good idea to single out one or two conceptual or organizational problems for comment, suggesting that the other problems will be dealt with on subsequent drafts. Think of the MAIN concepts/theories that you are asking your student to discuss and write about and FOCUS upon those areas when commenting. This way the student has a clearer idea of what to do next; it may surprise you both how many smaller problems will be cleared up in that initial act of revision, so that you may never need to spend time on this at all. And use pencil–it’s more forgiving on both of you.
5. Be specific when you comment on problems. Avoid all those funny symbols such as “Awk” since novice writers will be confused by these forms of feedback. Point out exactly what you object to but without necessarily correcting it yourself; that way the writer has something concrete to go on when he or she turns attention to revision.
6. Edit a page or two, not the whole paper. Too often colleagues report going over an entire error-filled student paper with the best critical eye, suggesting changes in language everywhere, but in the process doing most of the work which should done by the writer. And too often at the end of a term we’ve all seen piles of papers meticulously edited by the teachers and never even picked up by the students. What a waste of professional time and energy! To solve both problems at once, show the student what constructions or stylistic problems bother you on the first page or two and how to fix these, then ask the student to edit by example the rest of his or her work. That saves all of us time and places the editing responsibility where it rightfully belongs. IF you see the same issue recurring within multiple papers, you can bet that the entire class is having issues. Rather than comment upon 50+ papers, bring up the issue in class.
7. Learning to critique is a part of learning to write. Include peer evaluation where you can in your class. In addition to receiving help with one’s own paper in a writing group, one learns what to look for and how to respond in order to help others with their papers. Learning how to be critical is part of learning how to write yourself. We all know how much easier it is to see problems in someone else’s writing; what that suggests, of course, is that we have a critical distance here that we don’t have from our own work. But the process needs to start somewhere. When I first introduce peer criticism into a class, I do it with students, myself, and provide directions for what to look for. As I said before, the first time they do it will not usually be successful, but subsequent meetings will get better quickly.
8. Discuss samples of good and bad writing with your class. I use the same technique here as for making assignments. I project papers that are well-written as well as those with problems and talk them over with my class. They see, often as quickly as I, what works and what doesn’t, but especially they see by example what they have done well or poorly in their own work. Here again you’re bringing the students into the evaluation process, trusting them to have voices and make reasonable judgments. Another good idea, suggested to me first by a history teacher: before handing papers back–and I always do this now–read out loud from several papers you consider good and explain why you like them. Students seem to find this both unusual and highly enjoyable: taking time to introduce the students’ expression of a relevant idea to the class.
9. What is said includes how it is said: Don’t split grades. I never find agreement at a workshop on this one, but I believe it is important to quit separating ideas from the language in which they’re expressed. For one thing, when something is known or understood well, the chances are that the writer will express it well; conversely, a lot of poor writing (wordy, rambling, evasive, digressive, disorganized, over-generalized) results from inadequate knowledge and poor understanding. For another thing, such grade-splitting reinforces the notion that English teachers are rightfully concerned with “mere expression” and the other folks with “true content.” Politically, across the university, that’s a troublesome belief; conceptually, for me, it’s unacceptable. One grade: how good a job is it?
10. Understand that good writing depends on audience and purpose. At writing workshops, we all spend some time exploring what kind of language may be appropriate for a given situation or audience. The academy seems to sanction a distanced, objective, neutral voice as that which best conveys fact and truth; however, most human beings enjoy reading a more lively, personal writing that shows a clear authorial voice–which voice is fully capable of conveying some pretty hefty ideas. The consensus which emerges from most workshop groups is that style is a matter of what is appropriate rather than what is correct. So we need to show students that different voices will work for different purposes, that a memo demand one style and letters another; that the same goes for book reviews, term papers, and professional reports. The trick is, of course, to be good in all modes to all audiences.
Jule Wallis is a full time lecturer and Director of the Writing Center. She teaches ENG1020, 3010, and 6010. Her area of study is Rhetoric and Composition with an emphasis on Writing Center Theory, Affect Theory, and Popular Culture.