Archive for the ‘grades’ Category

             The New York Times recently ran a series of articles on anosognosia and the troubling implications of the things we don’t even know enough to know we don’t know. The whole series was worth a read, but it seems to me to have a special relevance to the perennial question of how to get students to care more about their writing and to take more responsibility for improving their writing skills. 

             As faculty, we’re very much aware that the time and money students invest in a college education will do nothing for them if they leave college without the advanced literacy skills they need in order to put their degrees to work.  And we’ve done a  good job of communicating this to students.  If you ask students if writing will be important for their future success, most of them will say yes.  And often they’re able to back that up with pretty convincing reasons why.

             But in spite of the fact that we’ve succeeded in convincing students that writing matters, they still don’t write very well, and—even more frustratingly—many students still tend to approach writing assignments in a half-hearted way that suggests they don’t really care about improving their writing skills. 

             I’ve been thinking a lot about this bizarre and inexplicable slippage between what students believe (that being able to write well matters to their future success) and their apparent lack of interest in doing anything about it, and for a long time I’ve been completely at a loss to account for it.  If you know you need to be good at something in order to succeed, and if somebody offers to help you get better at it, wouldn’t you grab the opportunity?  And if not, why not?

             The answer, I think, is that you wouldn’t follow up on that opportunity if you didn’t know that you needed to improve.  You might believe very strongly in the importance of good writing, but if you think the writing skills you already have are good enough to get by with, then it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to let writing slide and save your energy for something else.  And that, I think, might be the key to unlocking student attitudes toward writing. 

             So here’s my question for you.  To what extent does your grading system allow students to misoverestimate (to paraphrase the education president) their writing competence?  Does an A on a writing assignment in your class mean that this student can congratulate himself or herself on being an outstanding writer?  Does a B mean that the student is genuinely performing at a level that you, in your heart of academic hearts, believe to represent better-than-merely-adequate academic work?  Does a C mean that you would be willing to put your seal of approval on that student’s ability to write?

             If you answered not always, not really, and not so much, then perhaps you would be willing to join me in my New Year’s resolution for 2010-2011: being honest with students about their writing. 

             I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been the queen of grade inflation when it comes to student writing.  I like my students, and I like how hard they work in class, and—in the past—I’ve fallen over and over again into the trap of confusing good classroom citizenship with academic achievement.  However, I’ve spent this entire year owning up to my addiction to rewarding good citizenship with good grades, and I’m finally beginning to make some progress toward giving grades that represent the quality of the written product and not merely the goodwill the student brought to the task.

            I still like my students, and I still like how hard they work, and now that I’ve started to break this addiction to grade inflation, I have the satisfaction of seeing, every single day and with every single assignment, how much more students can do if we hold them accountable for doing it. 

            Breaking the cycle of addiction to grade inflation is not easy.  It requires changing a lot of comfortable old habits and learning new ways to talk to students about their writing.  But it doesn’t have to be painful—not for us and not for our students.  And although students might sometimes miss the bad old days of getting good grades for mediocre work and mediocre grades for work that really doesn’t meet our standards for college writing, they’re smart enough to know that you can only get something for nothing if you pay for it.  And the price they’ll pay for getting grades instead of an education just doesn’t bear thinking of.


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As I’ve listened to faculty across the University talk about how they evaluate student writing, I’ve been increasingly interested in the many different ways we arrive at value judgments, particularly in the difference between analytical and holistic scoring guides.

Typically, an analytical scoring guide (or rubric) includes a list of features the finished product must include (e.g. “introduction that defines the problem” or “references to at least two articles from peer-reviewed journals”) and assigns a point value to each one. A paper’s grade is then determined by adding the points awarded to each feature. By contrast, a holistic scoring guide describes the target qualities of the finished product collectively, often in a form like this: “An A paper will . . .” “A B paper will . . .”

While analytical scoring is friendlier to number crunching, it can introduce some frustrations for faculty who see students technically fulfilling the requirements of the scoring guide but still not producing finished products that meet teachers’ overall quality goals. By contrast, holistic scoring supports overall quality goals but in a way that makes it difficult for faculty to design a grading system that responds directly to students use of specific writing skills.

One solution to this dilemma might be to choose analytical scoring for situations in which you are teaching new writing skills and want to be able to focus on students’ success in using those particular skills when you grade the assignment, and choose holistic scoring for situations in which students are meant to be demonstrating a collection of skills they should already have mastered.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that lower-level courses will always use analytical scoring and upper-level courses would always use holistic scoring, but it might mean that you would be more likely to use analytical scoring in evaluating assignments early in an instructional sequence (when you have just introduced a new concept or skill) and holistic scoring later when you want students to demonstrate mastery of that skill in a larger context of other writing skills they have already mastered.

I would be very interested in hearing more about your own experience using analytical or holistic scoring.

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If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to more clearly communicate to students your expectations for their writing, here’s a sample scoring guide that might help you get started.

The example below represents something close to a holistic scoring guide. It describes in broad, general terms the qualities that are expected to be present in a paper at each grade level, and assumes that a paper’s grade will be based on its overall merits, taking everything into consideration.

As you decide what to include in your own personal scoring guide, you might want to begin by making the distinction between a passing paper and a failing paper. What does a paper have to do/be/contain to earn the bare minimum passing grade? What qualities would cause a paper to earn a failing grade? Then decide what qualities you want students to strive for in doing the assignment, and make those the defining characteristics of the higher rankings in your scoring system.

As you decide what to include, remember that students will see your grading criteria as a direct reflection of your values for writing. In other words, if it’s in your scoring guide, students will assume it’s important. If it’s not, students will assume it doesn’t matter.

100-90 A
The A paper fulfills the assignment in a way that shows proficient understanding of both the content and the writing task. Development is appropriate in both breadth and depth. The main point is clearly articulated and is more than adequately supported by relevant, clearly-explained reasons and evidence. Outside sources, if any, are used effectively and with appropriate documentation. Sentences and paragraphs are well-developed and show the writer’s control of ideas, structure, and focus. The paper is stylistically and mechanically appropriate for most professional and academic contexts and contains few or no sentence-level flaws.

89-80 B
The B paper fulfills the assignment in a way that shows a competent understanding of both the content and the writing task. It is generally well developed. The main point is clear, and it is adequately supported by logically relevant, clearly explained reasons and evidence. Outside sources, if any, are used appropriately and documentation is correctly formatted. Sentences and paragraphs are well-developed and show the writer’s control of ideas, structure, and focus. The paper is stylistically and mechanically adequate for most professional and academic contexts. Sentence-level flaws, if present, are occasional rather than pervasive and are not noticeable enough to detract from the overall quality of the writer’s presentation

79-70 C
The C paper fulfills the requirements of the assignment in most ways, and shows an adequate understanding of the relevant content and the writing task. Development is sufficient to merit a passing grade, although it may not always reflect the depth or breadth the assignment seeks. The main point is evident, and it is adequately supported by appropriate reasons and evidence. Outside sources, if any, are used in an acceptable way and documented accurately. Sentences and paragraphs generally show the writer’s ability to control ideas, structure, and focus, although that control may sometimes slip. The paper is stylistically and mechanically acceptable for submission in a college-level course. Sentence-level flaws, if present, never interfere with the writer’s ability to communicate and are not significant or distracting enough to prevent the document from accomplishing its intended purpose in an acceptable way.

69-60 D
The D paper attempts the assignment but fails to meet its objectives in one or more of the following ways. It may show inadequate understanding of the content or the writing task, and/or it may show insufficient development. The main point may be unclear, confusing, or self-contradictory. Reasons and evidence may not adequately support the main point, or they may be logically flawed or inadequately explained. Outside sources may be ineffectively or documented in an unacceptable way. Sentences and paragraphs may be inadequately developed and/or may frequently fail to control ideas, structure, or focus. Sentence-level flaws may be pervasive and may sometimes interfere with the writer’s ability to communicate.

59 and below F
The F paper does something other than the assigned task or shows insufficient understanding of the material and/or the writing task. The main point may be missing or outside the parameters of the assignment. Reasons and evidence may be exceptionally weak, irrelevant, or incoherent. Material from outside sources may be used inappropriately or without documentation. Sentences and paragraphs may be undeveloped and/or may show little effort to control ideas, structure, or focus. The presence of many, pervasive errors or egregious stylistic improprieties may make the document unacceptable for submission in a college-level course.

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