Assessing Student Writing

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Assessing Student Writing

Assessment is the gathering of information about student learning. It can be used for formative purposes−−to adjust instruction−−or summative purposes: to render a judgment about the quality of student work. It is a key instructional activity, and teachers engage in it every day in a variety of informal and formal ways.

Assessment of student writing is a process. Assessment of student writing and performance in the class should occur at many different stages throughout the course and could come in many different forms. At various points in the assessment process, teachers usually take on different roles such as motivator, collaborator, critic, evaluator, etc., (see Brooke Horvath for more on these roles) and give different types of response.

One of the major purposes of writing assessment is to provide feedback to students. We know that feedback is crucial to writing development. The 2004 Harvard Study of Writing concluded, “Feedback emerged as the hero and the anti-hero of our study−powerful enough to convince students that they could or couldn’t do the work in a given field, to push them toward or away from selecting their majors, and contributed, more than any other single factor, to students’ sense of academic belonging or alienation” (

Source: Horvath, Brooke K. “The Components of Written Response: A Practical Synthesis of Current Views.” Rhetoric Review 2 (January 1985): 136−56. Rpt. in C Corbett, Edward P. J., Nancy Myers, and Gary Tate. The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook . 4th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.

Suggestions for Assessing Student Writing

Be sure to know what you want students to be able to do and why. Good assessment practices start with a pedagogically sound assignment description and learning goals for the writing task at hand. The type of feedback given on any task should depend on the learning goals you have for students and the purpose of the assignment. Think early on about why you want students to complete a given writing project (see guide to writing strong assignments page). What do you want them to know? What do you want students to be able to do? Why? How will you know when they have reached these goals? What methods of assessment will allow you to see that students have accomplished these goals (portfolio assessment assigning multiple drafts, rubric, etc)? What will distinguish the strongest projects from the weakest?

Plan and implement activities that support students in meeting the learning goals. How will you support students in meeting these goals? What writing activities will you allow time for? How can you help students meet these learning goals?

Begin giving feedback early in the writing process. Give multiple types of feedback early in the writing process. For example, talking with students about ideas, write written responses on drafts, have students respond to their peers’ drafts in process, etc. These are all ways for students to receive feedback while they are still in the process of revising.

Structure opportunities for feedback at various points in the writing process. Students should also have opportunities to receive feedback on their writing at various stages in the writing process. This does not mean that teachers need to respond to every draft of a writing project. Structuring time for peer response and group workshops can be a very effective way for students to receive feedback from other writers in the class and for them to begin to learn to revise and edit their own writing.

Be open with students about your expectations and the purposes of the assignments. Students respond better to writing projects when they understand why the project is important and what they can learn through the process of completing it. Be explicit about your goals for them as writers and why those goals are important to their learning. Additionally, talk with students about methods of assessment. Some teachers have students help collaboratively design rubrics for the grading of writing. Whatever methods of assessment you choose, be sure to let students in on how they will be evaluated.

Do not burden students with excessive feedback. Our instinct as teachers, especially when we are really interested in students´ writing is to offer as many comments and suggestions as we can. However, providing too much feedback can leave students feeling daunted and uncertain where to start in terms of revision. Try to choose one or two things to focus on when responding to a draft. Offer students concrete possibilities or strategies for revision.

Allow students to maintain control over their paper. Instead of acting as an editor, suggest options or open-ended alternatives the student can choose for their revision path. Help students learn to assess their own writing and the advice they get about it.

Purposes of Responding We provide different kinds of response at different moments. But we might also fall into a kind of “default” mode, working to get through the papers without making a conscious choice about how and why we want to respond to a given assignment. So it might be helpful to identify the two major kinds of response we provide:

  • Formative Response: response that aims primarily to help students develop their writing. Might focus on confidence-building, on engaging the student in a conversation about her ideas or writing choices so as to help student to see herself as a successful and promising writer. Might focus on helping student develop a particular writing project, from one draft to next. Or, might suggest to student some general skills she could focus on developing over the course of a semester.
  • Evaluative Response: response that focuses on evaluation of how well a student has done. Might be related to a grade. Might be used primarily on a final product or portfolio. Tends to emphasize whether or not student has met the criteria operative for specific assignment and to explain that judgment.

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Measuring outcomes

Unless you have a clear way of measuring outcomes, all the work on assessment task design is wasted. Ways of getting clean data are discussed in the guide to assessment in general. For writing in particular, however, there are some conventional approaches which fall into two broad categories.

  • covers the requirements of the task
  • (Academic) presents a clear overview of main trends, differences or stages
  • (General Training) presents a clear purpose, with the tone consistent and appropriate
  • clearly presents and highlights key features/bullet points but could be more fully extended
  • logically organises information and ideas; there is clear progression throughout
  • uses a range of cohesive devices appropriately although there may be some under-/over-use
  • uses a sufficient range of vocabulary to allow some flexibility and precision
  • uses less common lexical items with some awareness of style and collocation
  • may produce occasional errors in word choice, spelling and/or word formation
  • uses a variety of complex structures
  • produces frequent error-free sentences
  • has good control of grammar and punctuation but may make a few errors

Taking a ready-made set of criteria from a public examination body like this can be very helpful. They are written by experts and have been trialled and re-trialled numerous times. However, you are probably not setting an examination, you are constructing an achievement test of some kind so the criteria categories and what they contain may only be marginally relevant to you (unless, of course, you are preparing learners actually to take the IELTS examination).
Other sets of criteria from sources with different concerns may include, for example, communicative quality, effect on the reader, argumentation, appropriacy and so on.
Each of the category areas can, of course, be weighted (by, for example, doubling the scores for some areas or multiplying by another factor) to reflect what you and the learners see as the most important skills.
The categories you need will be determined by the aims of your teaching programme and no set of off-the-peg criteria will suit all purposes.