We’re at that point in the semester when students are hitting Maximum Anxiety about Grades. The corollary for instructors is Maximum Anxiety about Grading All The Things. Here’s a cure for both ills: sharing the responsibility for evaluation with students.
I’d argue there’s no better measure of whether students understand your assignments and course goals than giving them the meta-cognitive opportunity to evaluate their own work with the tools you use as an instructor. After all, our hope is that long after students leave our classrooms, they will still be able to evaluate and strengthen their own work. I’ll suggest two strategies I use to structure student self-evaluation in my classes, and I hope you’ll share your own strategies in the comments.
Strategy One: Cover Letters
In our chapter on effective peer review of drafts in From Inquiry to Academic Writing, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I recommend asking students to write cover letters for drafts of their papers for two reasons: It provides a chance for a writer to reflect on their perceptions of strengths and weaknesses of that particular draft, and it offers a conversation guide to others in their peer workshops. We offer this model for an early draft, which could be adapted for your purposes.
- What is your question (or assignment)?
- What is the issue motivating you to write?
- How have published writers addressed the issue you discuss?
- What is your working thesis?
- Who is your audience, and how do you want them to respond?
- What do you think is working best?
- What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time?
- What kind of feedback do you especially want today? (p. 355)
This line of questioning moves students from the disempowered position of “hoping to figure out what the instructor wants” to the empowered position of evaluating what they are achieving in their writing, with real readers in mind. Our experience is that these cover letters tell us as much about students as writers as the drafts themselves. Later drafts might call for cover letters shaped by general writing concerns of the course (integration of quotations, organization, addressing counterarguments, etc.). Polished drafts might call for exactly the kind of self-reflection that all thoughtful writers should consider:
- What is your unique perspective on your issue?
- To what extent do the words and phrases you use reflect on who you believe your readers are?
- Does your style of citation reflect accepted conventions for academic writing?
- What do you think is working best?
- What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time? (p. 363)
Additionally, I ask students to explain what they are trying that is new in a draft, as a reminder that as writers, we all ought to keep stretching. (I reward risk-taking — even if the results are less than stellar — provided students can name and evaluate the strategy.) Students are sometimes nervous that pointing out their own weaknesses will steer me to problems I might have missed on my own. However, I remind them that their ability to point out where they need to grow is a significant goal of the course.
Strategy Two: Using your rubric for self-grading and comments
Our second strategy is a simple one: Hand your grading rubrics to your students and give them the opportunity not just to evaluate and comment on their writing, but to grade it as well. If you have ever tried empowering students to grade themselves, you know there might be a few outliers who claim their work is stronger than it is, but by far the majority of students are either on target or low-ball their own grades. Once students have a chance to take ownership and weigh in on their work, the context is laid for you as the instructor to agree with them, or to point out strengths that they might have missed.
I don’t know a single instructor who looks forward to grading All The Things. Empowering students to share ownership in the evaluation process helps them approach their writing from a strengths perspective rather than a deficit one, which is more clearly linked to what we know — that learning to write is a process. Our institutions may require us to enter a column of grades at the end of a semester, but if we invite students to share in the evaluation conversation, they will see that the letter grade is a mere stand-in for the much richer process of learning to write.
Meme generated at imgflip.com, original drawing by Allie Brosh.