Ten Tips for Evaluating Student Writing
We spend A LOT of time evaluating papers, and Toby Fulwiler's ten tips are designed to help us evaluate student work, effectively and efficiently. Taken from "The Argument for Writing Across the Curriculum" (Writing Across the Disciplines. Young and Fulwiler, eds. Dartsmouth NH: Boynton / Cook, 1986), his advice deals with a full range of issues andis designed to facilitate effective response to student writing in a process-oriented setting.
1. Respond to the content first, not the mechanics, of each paper you read. Too often we become a bit jaded or tired as readers of student writing and spend more time looking for errors than ideas. In the process we can become absolutely fixated on sentence- and word-level problems and never read thepaper for its larger intention. While I'm not counseling that we ignore sentence inconsistencies, I am reminding us to let the writer know that we have considered--for good or ill--the integrity of that intention. Otherwise, we treat this act of communication as a mechanical exercise--and surely, if we have made a careful, thoughtful assignment, we don't want to do that.
2. Respond positively andpersonally where possible. Again, no absolutes here, but I believe that writers begin to care about their writing when they see that we care about it. Caring is the necessary first step to actually writing better. A corollary of that is that it's difficult to work on a piece--revising it and editing it--when nothing encouraging has been said about it. Most acts of student writing are mixtures ofmore and less good work; be sure to comment as much on the "more" as you do the "less." I address my comment to students by name, as I would in a letter, and I sign my comments with my name--a dimension of personal interaction that improves our communication with each other.
3. Revise early drafts; edit later drafts; grade final drafts. When you put a grade on a draft, you have treated it as afinished product, as if the learning process is already and altogether over (Martin, 1976). If you are asking your students to put their writing through several draft stages, keep in mind that the motivation to revise a D- paper is low. Better, I think, to point out where the paper is strong as well as weak conceptually and ask for a rewrite, grade aside. Once a draft is conceptually together, withgood internal logic and evidence, then we can turn attention to matters of voice, tone, and style which are really acts of editing on the sentence level. When you and the student pronounce this act of writing/learning finished, that's the time to grade it.
4. Comment critically on one item at a time. It's easy to overwhelm students who have written a weak or uncertain paper with all sorts ofnegative comments and a plethora of suggestions about what to do next. While the intention behind such active criticism is well-intentioned--certainly better than giving the paper a rote F--such teacher commentary may not accomplish its purpose. Once you see that a paper has multiple problems, it may be a good idea to single out one or two conceptual or organizational problems for comment, suggestingthat the other problems will be dealt with on subsequent drafts. This way the student has a clearer idea of what to do next; it may surprise you both how many smaller problems will be cleared up in that initial act of revision, so that you may never need to spend time on this at all. And use pencil--it's more forgiving on both of you.
5. Be specific when you comment on problems. I remember beingcoached by a fine writing teacher to avoid all those funny symbols on the front covers of handbooks (frag., comma splice, etc.); he argued that students were only more confused by them and that not all teachers used the same symbols anyhow. He suggested instead just using one comment, "Awk," for everything. But his solution, while it worked for him because he had frequent personal conferences,...