Evaluating Writing Assignments

Teachers often worry about the advantages and disadvantages of providing students with a rubric for writing assignments. After all, providing a checklist rubric can result in students who write to fulfill only the barest minimum and who think of writing only in a quantitative sense. On the other hand, providing no rubric at all often confuses students as they seek to identify problem areas and revise their work.

At the Writing Center, we encourage faculty to find a balance somewhere between rubrics that are too prescriptive and rubrics that are too vague or non existent. Below are some tips for crafting heuristic rubrics which will, in turn, help you evaluate student writing:

  • Identify higher order concerns that students should think about as they write and revise their texts. Examples include: assignment adherence, critical thinking skills, rhetoric and tone, macro- and micro-organization, clarity and style, source incorporation and citation, etc.
    • While grammar, mechanics and syntax are important, we encourage faculty to focus on patterns of grammatical, mechanical and syntactical error rather than penalizing students for each and every individual infraction. Ask yourself: Does this particular error occur so often as to diminish the writer’s overall rhetoric? Does this particular error impair meaning making in this context?
  • Provide avenues of inquiry by which students can explore those higher order concerns in a way that encourages qualitative reflection and dialogue between student, teacher and text. For example: “To what extent does the writer clearly state his or her thesis?” and “How does the writer organize his or her paper and how effective is that organization?”.
    • When constructing heuristic questions for the rubric, we encourage faculty to avoid questions that can be answered simply “yes or no” or without any real dialogue. As such, avoid questions that start with “can,” “do,” “does,” “is,” “has,” etc.
    • Conversely, we encourage faculty to deploy questions that facilitate and even require conversation and elaboration in order to answer. Consider questions that start with “how,” “to what extent,” “why might,” etc.
  • Clarify the grade values of the assignment by clearly stating the total value of the assignment and the individual value of each higher order consideration. Consider if each higher order concern will be equally weighted in assessment for this particular assignment or if certain concerns will be of greater or lesser importance in this case.

We believe that the key to creating effective writing assessments rests with pre-writing and process. Plan the rubric carefully, workshop the rubric and revise the rubric. The Writing Center staff is happy to help faculty, instructors, adjuncts and graduate assistants across every discipline and in all courses effectively brainstorm, construct and revise their writing assessment tools.