Monday, March 14, 2011

My Grading Philosophy

My youngest sister is currently taking English 2010 at the University of Utah and I'm feeling quite frustrated with her instructor these days. She received a B+ on her first graded paper (I would have given it an A-). I figured he was just a tougher grader than I was, so I promised her I would help her to get her second graded essay up to a higher standard. As she was preparing to submit her second essay (which was an Analysis/Synthesis paper), I made her re-read the two essays she was responding to several times until I felt satisfied that she had fully comprehended their arguments. I also made her substantially re-write her rough draft nearly five times until I felt satisfied she had created a solid paper. I would estimate that I conferenced with her for approximately 7 hours helping her to improve her paper.

The results? Although I thought the paper was a solid A, she received a B. According to her instructor, she got a B because her thesis statement was "unclear," she misused commas a few times, she needed to discuss the first essay's analogy in more depth, and he felt she needed to discuss the essays "against each other" in the same paragraph (rather than in two separate paragraphs). He probably has a good point about some of those criticisms, but I hardly feel that those minor foibles justified a B grade. When my sister shared her instructor's comments with me, my inner mother hen started to cluck loudly that his grading style was arbitrary and unfair. In my opinion, her comprehension of the two essays was superb, she made good points about how the two essays differed in their approach on the topic, and the argument she made in response to the essays was intriguing and well-reasoned. I respect that her instructor and I might have different grading criteria, but it's difficult to tell since he never clearly articulated what that criteria was.

And so this incident has inspired me to articulate my own grading system and philosophy. Fundamentally, I feel that the grade he assigned her was unfair because 1) he didn't provide a grading rubric to his students, 2) he didn't provide clear instruction or examples of what he considered "good" writing to be and 3) he didn't allow for a rough draft option. (He did have a peer-reviewed rough draft option, but not an instructor-reviewed one, which is crucial to fairness.) In my opinion, these are three very important elements that must be in place in order for a student to feel empowered and to continually improve as a writer. Allow me to explain why.

1. The Importance of Grading Rubrics

Grading papers has the potential to be unfair because it is such a subjective process. But a grading rubric can help to create a more objective standard of measurement that you can use to assess your students' writing more consistently. If you don't have a clear grading rubric in place, then you are probably only grading your students based on your gut reaction to their paper alone. It's inappropriate to grade students based on your gut feelings because this reaction has the tendency to be arbitrary. While I feel that there is an element of the student's grade that should be influenced by your initial impression of the paper (more on that later), it is generally a very unreliable evaluation method because it can be easily influenced by your own biases (such as your personal feelings toward the student, whether or not the paper aligns with your personal political beliefs, or even just the mood you were in while you were grading). Furthermore, it's difficult to defend a grade that came from your gut reaction when a student presses you for more specific information about how he or she could improve the paper.

By contrast, if you can provide your students with a grading rubric, it not only makes your expectations for the assignment clear, but it ensures that you will grade your students consistently and fairly. Rubrics help to make your grading more objective because it forces you to weigh your students' papers against a set criteria rather than some indefineable, subjective gut reaction.

Here's an example of the basic grading rubric that I used for the Summary/Strong Response paper:
  1. Mechanics and Formatting (minus up to 20 points maximum)

    1. Length (4-6 pages)

    2. Page numbering

    3. 12 pt Times New Roman font

    4. Standard margins

    5. Double spacing/spacing between paragraphs

  2. The Thesis Statement (20 points)

    1. How it is phrased

    2. Correlation between thesis statement and what is discussed in the body of paper

  3. Topic Sentences and Paragraphs (40 points)

    1. Overall quality of the topic sentences

    2. Overall quality of the paragraph development

  4. Discussion of the Ideas in the Text (30 points)

    1. Summary of the text

    2. Quality of response to key ideas and central meaning of the text

    3. Concrete examples from the text

  5. Use of Quotes (30 points)

    1. Use of attributive tags, follow-up discussion

    2. Quoting mechanics

    3. Balance between quotes from the text and the writer's own prose

  6. Overall Quality of the Argument (30 points)

    1. Overall quality of the student's level of critical thinking

    2. General quality of the argument

I then provide a 5 page point-by-point breakdown of each element which clarifies exactly what I mean for each of these different point elements. For example, here is the grade breakdown for grading element 4a (the initial summary of the text, worth 10 points of their final grade):

The summary of the text in the introduction to the paper was above average. The writer had an excellent grasp of the argument presented in the original text. The summary cut right to the core of the main ideas of the text. It was neutral and unbiased. The summary also provided the perfect context for the rest of the writer's argument.
The paper provided a summary of the text it responded to in the introduction to the paper. The summary only included the main ideas of the original text and left out the details. The summary was fair and balanced.
The paper provided a summary of the text it responded to. The summary perhaps got a little bogged down in the details of the text. The summary could have perhaps framed the rest of the argument a little better. The summary could have perhaps framed the rest of the argument a little better. The summary may have been somewhat biased or may have slightly misrepresented the original argument. The summary may not have been in the introduction of the paper.
The paper provided a summary of the text it responded to but it may have been too long-winded or awkwardly stated. It may have had little relevance to the paper and may have been obviously biased. The summary may have been missing from the paper or difficult to find.

Using this rubric, I have a one-page sheet that has a breakdown of the points I assigned for each of the different grading criteria. That way, my students can compare the score I gave them to my rubric and see exactly what elements of their paper I thought were weak and which were strong.

The main advantage of grading rubrics is that they help you as an instructor to get clear and specific about what you consider to be important for that particular essay. It allows you to assign heavier values to the more important aspects of a student's essay (such as the quality of their argument) and keeps you from over-emphasizing less important aspects of an essay (such as grammar). They also help you to clearly communicate your definition of good writing to your students.

To be fair, I do find my initial impression of the student's essay to be helpful in some ways. First of all, my gut reaction is reflected in the score I give them for element #6 (the overall quality of the argument). Secondly, my gut reaction helps me to judge how accurate my grading rubric is. I compare their final score with the grade I would have given them based on my gut reaction to see if my rubric is accurate. If my students are collectively getting higher or lower grades than I think they deserve, I make notations to myself about modifications I need to make to the grading rubric for the next semester. With trial and error, my grading rubric eventually begins to take the shape of an objective standard of measurement.

2. The Importance of Providing Instruction and Examples

Another benefit of having a grading rubric is that it also helps me to create an outline for my day-to-day class instruction. It would be unfair of me to grade my students on a particular element of writing when I haven't given them specific instruction about it. So, I make sure that I give instruction about each of the different elements that I will eventually grade them on.

For example, for grading element 4a (initial summary of the text), I spend a full day discussing how to write summaries (see my lesson plan about summary writing for reference). At the end of the lesson, I make sure I provide several examples of both good and poor summaries. We discuss together as a class why the samples are effective or ineffective. Then, I end the day's instruction by talking about how the things we discussed in class will affect their final grade for the Summary/Strong Response paper. We go over the grading rubric for element 4a and I make sure they clearly understand what is expected of them.

I also think that it's very important to provide a sample paper for students to use as a model along with an explanation of why I think that paper is effective. One of the things that I like about the Allyn and Bacon text is how they have a meta-commentary off to the side of their sample papers that explains the effective elements of the paper (sort of like a play-by-play analysis). I find that method to be quite helpful to my students in explaining my expectations and in demonstrating the different "moves" that an academic writer makes in a Summary/Strong Response paper.

My sister's instructor never provided her with a sample paper. When he first gave her the assignment, she texted me asking if I had any sample Analysis/Synthesis papers and email it to her if I could so that she could get a feel for the genre. It makes it much easier for students to understand your expectations when you provide them with a good sample paper. Otherwise, it turns into a game of Take-a-Wild-Guess-What-Your-Teacher-Wants, which is not fair to students.

3. The Importance of Allowing for a Rough Draft Option

Lastly, I feel that it is very important to provide your students with a rough draft option. Although I give them detailed grading rubrics, clear in-class instruction and sample papers, some students turn in papers that are way off in left field in terms of my expectations. Maybe it's the student's fault for not paying enough attention, but I ultimately feel that it is unrealistic to expect all students to get it right the first time. It's therefore reasonable to give students a second-chance to try to improve their paper once they have a better sense of my expectations. Furthermore, I think that students learn a great deal about how to be a better writer when they make revisions with guided feedback. It helps them to apply the principles we discussed in class when they have a better idea of how the grading elements apply to their paper specifically.

The only drawback of having a rough draft option is that it means more grading (ick!). The way that I've resolved this issue is to make the rough draft mandatory, but the final draft optional. If students are happy with the grade they received on their rough draft (low as it may be), they are welcome to keep that score if they so choose. Or they are welcome to make revisions based on my comments and feedback. I find that only 30-40% of my students opt to turn in a final draft, which helps reduce my grading load.


I think that these three elements (grading rubrics, clear in-class instruction accompanied by examples, and a rough draft option) are essential to writing instruction. They help to minimize potential grading subjectivity and they provide students with the tools they need to become better writers. When a student feels he or she is being graded based on an ineffable, arbitrary standard of measurement, they can easily become demotivated and discouraged about their ability to improve as a writer. For that matter, subjective grading systems only reward students who were already talented, experienced writers to begin with and do nothing to help the novice writer to find specific, practical ways they can improve their writing. I can't imagine a system that would be more unfair than one in which you are assigned a grade based on some teacher's vague impression of you, without any clear instruction on what was expected of you or without a second chance to make changes to your writing once you have a better idea of where you could improve.

I just wish there were some way I could communicate that to my sister's instructor.

1 comment:

Linds :) said...

First off, thank you for putting this up... It made my day :) Second, I completely agree with everything that you said. Half of the time I never understand what the assignment actually is, especially in the case of a synthesis. I tried to write it and realized that he never had explained what a synthesis was. His assignment samples don't help me out one bit. They tend to just confuse me more but I am the kind of student he needs a lot of different examples, not just one mediocre one. He didn't specify the way he wanted the essay formatted so how was I to know that he wanted me to analyze them against each other? It bugs me SOO bad that he doesn't give us the rubric until after. Am I supposed to read your mind as to what you are grading on? Seriously. Maybe I'll come down to UVU and have you as my professor cause obviously I'm learning more from you than my other professor.