Focus on Pedagogy: Assessing Writing

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 14:39 -- Emily Johnson

This week continues our four-post series on pedagogy with an examination of how to assess ‘College Ready’ writing.


What Does ‘College Ready’ Writing Really Look Like?

The term ‘College Ready’ is used frequently, and it is often taken for granted that the audience knows what it means. However, we have seen that there are many different understandings of what ‘College Ready’ means.

Thus, it’s no surprise that when we field-tested the College Readiness Assignments (CRAs) at institutions across Texas in 2012-2013, one of the pieces of feedback we received from faculty was, “The CRAs are great, but I’m not sure what ‘College Ready’ writing really looks like.” We heard from many people that they were at a loss for a good way to assess writing from a readiness perspective.

Seeing the confusion and realizing the potential effect it could have on the usability and effectiveness of CRAs, we decided to conduct a small test to see how the field-test educators (mostly high school teachers) rated student writing samples compared to how higher education educators (at UT Austin) rated them. Using the 1-4 scale below, high school educators (HS) tended to rate student writing samples 0.59-0.96 points higher than higher education educators (HE), meaning that high school educators think students’ writing is overall more college ready than it is.

These data, along with the feedback from our field-testers, led us to significantly revise the CRA scoring guides to help educators understand what ‘College Ready’ work looks like. This way, we can demystify the process of assessing writing and take the guess work out of determining how ‘ready’ a student’s writing is.


How Scoring Guides Help

If you’ve ever attended a professional development session about CRAfT, then you know that one of the key ideas we hold about readiness is that it is not a binary. Students are not ‘ready’ or ‘not ready’; readiness is a multi-faceted continuum, and students can be more ready in some skill areas and less ready in others. As such, we created a Scoring Sheet that allows instructors to assess multiple skills throughout the assignment (not just a final product), offers a scale for determining readiness (not just ready/not), and provides descriptions of the listed skills.


By using the Scoring Sheet to assess student work, instructors may simply assess each skill according to the student’s proficiency (using the Scoring Guide descriptions as needed) using the scale provided. Remember, one of the wonderful parts of CRAs and Scoring Guides is that they’re designed to build skills and communicate to students which skills they need to work on. You’re not trying to sum up all of a student’s work with one stamp, but rather give the student a more detailed look at where they’re excelling and where they could improve. When you break down the grading/assessment process like this, it is much easier.


Specific Resources for Assessing Writing

Because writing is the area that faculty say is the most challenging for them to assess, we have included here (and added to the Resources page) four samples of student writing, gathered during our field test, and evaluated by college educators to point out their strengths, opportunities for improvement, and why they fit within a particular readiness category. Remember that readiness is multifaceted, so the designations here are just shorthand for illustrating the overall strength of the essay samples. The first two samples are based on the CRA Music: A Sign of the Times, and the second two are based on The Silken Tent: Metaphors in Life and Literature.

As you can see from these samples, it is possible – and critical – to assess a student’s idea presentation and analysis separately from their grammar and syntax.


An Important Note on Grammar

Grammar and sentence structure are an important part of a student’s education in learning to communicate effectively. In general, the more students are exposed to well written and complex texts, the more they will be able to incorporate those skills into their own writing.

While instructors who teach college-level courses will expect that their students are proficient in grammar, sentence structure, and the ability to construct an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion, it is rarely the case that college instructors fail students for grammatical and mechanical errors. That is to say, some number of points may be deducted from a student’s paper for these sorts of errors, but what most college instructors want to see is the student’s ability to analyze, take a position and support it with evidence, or engage with a text in interesting and novel ways.

One way to address grammar and mechanics when assessing papers is to let students know before papers are due that you will be checking for three to five specific issues in the paper, for instance, comma splices, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, and sentence fragments.

Taking this approach one step further, instructors can have students bring in “final rough drafts” (drafts that students believe they have done all they can to fix) for peer review. Ask students to switch papers with a neighbor and look for the issues you have informed them about in their classmate’s paper.  This accomplishes a number of things:

  1. It reduces the workload for the teacher!
  2. It allows students to see what their peers are thinking about.
  3. It helps in their own writing as they become more aware of how grammar errors can affect understanding.
  4. It gets students working with each other and toward a common goal.

Another way to give students practice editing is to give them a writing sample, like those linked above, and ask them to mark it. This is especially good practice because the instructor can prepare comments ahead of time, and students are not concerned with marking on a friend’s paper.

We hope you will take time to view each of the writing samples and think of ways to incorporate CRA Scoring Guides into assessments of your students’ writing. While you’re on the Resources page, we encourage you to check out the other CRA- and pedagogy-related PDFs, videos, and links freely available to you. Stay tuned for our next blog post on July 28, Adapting CRAs to Your Classroom, which will wrap up our series on specific pedagogical techniques.