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Time-Saving Strategies for Evaluating Student Writing

Prepared by Dr. Rebecca Jackson
Department of English

Most teachers estimate that it takes them at least twenty to forty minutes to comment on an individual student paper, and those twenty to forty minutes times [the number of students in a class] adds up to an enormous amount of time.

~Nancy Sommers

Sommers identifies one of the key reasons many of us hesitate to integrate writing fully into our courses: time spent grading papers. But does evaluating student writing really have to be so tedious and time consuming? The answer is “No. It doesn’t!” Here’s an added bonus: more efficient methods for evaluating student writing are often the most effective. The following strategies are designed to reduce the amount of time you spend commenting on and evaluating student writing and increase the effectiveness of the commentary you do make:

Design effective assignments
  • Provide students with an assignment sheet.
  • Provide information about the writing task: what specific problem, question, or thesis do you want students to address.
  • Provide information about the audience: who is the audience for the writing? (Designating an audience less knowledgeable than the writer usually prompts him/her to speak with authority about the subject).
  • Provide information about the purpose the paper: is the writer trying to persuade the audience? inform them? demonstrate knowledge about a subject?
  • Provide information about relevant contextual considerations: if the assignment is designed to simulate a “real world” writing situation, what political, historical, cultural, social, and ideological contexts should the student be aware of?
  • Provide information about genre: should the student write a memo? a traditional academic essay? a proposal? a report? What conventions characterize this genre?
  • Provide information about appropriate format: how long should the paper be? what margins, font styles, font sizes, and documentation styles are acceptable?
  • Provide information about assignment stages and related due dates: what will students turn it at various points in the process—thesis statements, rough drafts, peer review, final copies? And when will these assignments be due?
  • Provide grading criteria for the assignment.
  • Provide examples of strong and weak papers.
Require students to submit work early in the process
  • Ask for question and thesis statement: what is the problem? What will they argue in response to the problem?
  • Ask for question, thesis, research completed, research to be completed.
Require peer reviews of all drafts
  • Ask readers to discuss their responses to the draft—what they liked, didn’t like, want to hear more about, were intrigued by, want to hear less about, didn’t understand, etc.
  • Ask readers to offer advice—what should the writer do about particular problems?
  • Ask writers to identify specific areas they would like readers to focus on.
Comment on drafts not final papers. Consider rewrites of final papers
  • Recognize that commentary on drafts motivates students to do something with your evaluation. As David Smit argues, “Only by responding to comments on early drafts and putting them into practice can students demonstrate what they have learned and internalized from the advice they have received.”
  • Make comments on “final” papers, but give students the option to revise. Bean prefers this process over the commentary on drafts process: commenting on “final” papers satisfies the students’ needs for a grade, yet prepares them for revision should they choose this option; “final” papers require less commentary time because they are more polished than drafts.
  • Avoid making directive comments or editing students’ papers; instead, ask questions that require students to figure out solutions to writing problems.

Praise students for what they have done well
  • Pointing out strengths is more effective than pointing out weaknesses. Hillocks notes the “great deal of evidence that teacher comments in and of themselves have no effect on student writing except when they are focused on how well the students have accomplished the main point of the assignment and provide further feedback on matters which have already been taught and reinforced.”
  • Paul Deiderich concluded from his own research on teacher commentary and student motivation that “noticing and praising whatever a student does well improves writing more than any kind or amount of correction of what he/she does badly, and that is especially important for the less able writers who need all the encouragement they can get.”

Focus comments on higher-order concerns—ideas, development, organization, focus

Limit comments on higher-order concerns to one, two, or three major changes you’d like to see during the revision stage

Avoid (or limit) marking grammatical and mechanical errors
  • Engage in “minimal marking.”
  • Identify patterns.
  • Mark grammatical and mechnical errors in one paragraph only.
  • Work on grammar in the context of the students’ own writing (studies show that grammar exercises have no effect on students’ abilities to detect and correct error in their own work).
Use “models feedback”
  • Do not comment on individual papers at all; instead, locate an “A” paper, duplicate or project it, and discuss its qualities.
  • Do not embarrass students by duplicating weak papers; instead, discuss “typical problems” in the weaker responses.
  • Bean observes that students often say they “learn more about writing from models feedback than from traditional comments.”
Use holistic grading scales
  • Establish criteria for A, B, C, D, F responses (or “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” “poor/unacceptable” responses).
  • Assign grades based on “all at once” assessment.
Use analytic scales
  • Establish criteria: general (applies to all papers) or primary trait (related to specific papers).
  • Designate point values for each criterion.
  • Assign grades based on total points.
Don’t comment on finished papers that will not be revised

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Additional Resources

Anson, Chris, John Schwiebert, and Michael M. Williamson. Writing Across the Curriculum: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood, 1993

Bean, John. Engaging Idceas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Duke, Charles and Rebecca Sanchez. AssessingWriting Across the Curriculum. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2001.

Conference on College Composition and Communication. Writing Assessment: A Position Statement. (

Daiker, Donald. “Learning to Praise.” Writing and Response: Theory, Practice and Research. Ed. Chris Anson. Urbana: NCTE: 1989.

Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.

Hillocks, George. Research on Written Composition. Urbana: NCTE, 1986.

Smith, David W. “Improving Student Writing.” Idea paper No. 25. Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development. Kansas State University.

Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing” CCCC 1986

White, Edward M. Assigning, Responding, Evaluating: A Writing Teacher’s Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

William, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error”

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