Over the years, I’ve learned to use grading to prevent bad writing instead of using it to record the grievances dealt by bad writing. Ever since I started teaching, I have believed in writing as a process, especially with a big project such as a research essay. It took me years, however, to realize that I should stretch my grading energy and investment across that process, too. In the early years, I gave students a folder with a checklist, and I gave them points for finishing each step, but I thought my time for detailed grading came at the end, on the final essay product. I would pour energy into marking those final essays with margin notes and thought-provoking questions. I then spent too much time feeling frustrated and hurt that my students didn’t even seem to read those markings, let alone reflect upon them.
By choice, I teach writing to people who have yet to identify themselves as writers. Many of my students write because writing has been assigned. Therefore, my grading comments best serve students when they come during their process. Mentor teachers taught me this technique, and I think after spending the better part of two decades grading, I may be polishing a system that is working. I think I finally get that if students cannot use my feedback to improve their grade, they don’t spend much time processing it. It may sound silly, but it helps my own enthusiasm to know my grading feedback can be “part of the solution” instead of just a record of the problem.
Here’s a run-down of the assignments throughout the research essay process that I grade:
· a potential topic discussion thread, complete with a potential source
o At this point, students reply to each other’s ideas. I make comments if potential topics seem like a dead end, but mostly I just keep track that this assignment has been completed.
· a finalized proposed topic, complete with an initial source
o I provide individualized responses to each student, approving each topic.
o I grade this assignment closely; I mark MLA mistakes and provide directed guidance for correcting errors. I evaluate the quality of the sources, ensure that some balance is represented, and encourage students to look for additional information where necessary.
· an essay proposal, stating why people should care about the issue and what problems the student anticipates with the essay
o I read these and respond to students about the problems they identify. Mostly, this assignment asks questions that get students thinking more deeply about the essay they plan to write.
· a thesis statement
o I grade this assignment closely; many students write this thesis statement several times. I want to be sure each student has a strong argument in third person voice; sometimes students are slipping into writing a report instead of a persuasive argument, and I’m usually able to determine that problem (and fix it!) at this stage. Once students have actually written an entire report, they are much more reluctant to revise it!
· a loose outline, which identifies a specific audience, the opposing point of view, and main points
o I read these and respond to problems. Mostly, I make the grading equivalent of reassuring noises: “Looks interesting!” “I can tell you’re really starting to think here!” Yadda Yadda. This assignment falls in the category of activities that help students think.
· a rough draft and the peer review of another person’s draft
o I don’t line edit rough drafts. I scan each of them, looking for flagrant problems: the wrong voice, tragic MLA format, too few sources, lack of quotation integration…If I see a big problem, I write notes back to the student. Most often, I look at all the drafts and create a “Checklist before the Final Draft” document, identifying all the various problems I saw throughout the drafts, which I distribute and go over with students. Students provide each other feedback about arguments at this stage. (With various degrees of success…I’m still working on the perfect peer review process…)
· the final essay
o I use a grading chart at this point, including a personal note to students about their argument. Do I mark lines throughout the essay? Yes, sometimes. I’ll write a question in the body of the essay or circle problematic prose. But I really try to restrain myself and save my energy for writing a more detailed personal note at the end…Does all this effort improve students’ products as well as their process? I think so. To be completely honest, I think how well a student writes a research essay depends most upon how much research writing experience he or she has before the assignment, an element I don’t get to control. Mostly, I think investing more of my grading energy on the process (rather than saving it all for that final essay) helps students replicate the process in other classes, which is one of my goals—a teach a man to fish kind of thing. It also puts my energy more in parallel with students’ energy. They care about the essay before the end. Putting more detailed feedback into the process allows students to immediately apply my feedback, too. The entire effort has more momentum, more meaning. Here comes the stack now, so I’ll see how well it worked this time…