Grading as Pedagogical Act: Three Methods for Assessing Writing That Work


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Lisa Hoeffner, Ph.D.

Lisa Hoeffner earned a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in rhetoric from the University of Houston. She teaches English and Integrated Reading and Writing at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. She is the author of two developmental education textbooks, Common Places: Integrated Reading and Writing (McGraw-Hill, 2015) and Common Ground (McGraw-Hill, forthcoming) and speaks nationally on issues related to developmental education reform.

Anyone who has taught writing knows the dread that attends grading a stack of essays. Research suggests that grading can be a pedagogical act—an act that teaches students how to improve their writing—if practitioners take care to use effective assessment methods. Three methods are particularly commendable.

 1. Start the course with assessment. Starting with a focus on assessment helps students internalize writing standards and use them as benchmarks for their own writing (Defeyter & McPartlin, 2007). Supplying students with a rubric is not enough. One way to have students understand assessment criteria is to challenge students to verbalize the qualities of good writing. This active construction of criteria puts students in the role of participants rather than passive recipients of a rubric. Once students have articulated the criteria, they can create rubrics. Orsmond, Merry, & Reiling (2002) suggest that students can better understand the assessment process by using rubrics to score sample papers, assist in peer editing, and facilitate self-assessment.

 2. Provide effective feedback. The most effective feedback in terms of seeing growth in students’ writing skills is formative feedback (Frey & Fisher, 2013). Nonetheless, many instructors provide mainly summative feedback, such as comments on a final draft. Good feedback is also timely, understandable, personalized, positive, and capable of providing a pathway for improvement (Li & De Luca, 2014). Effective feedback can be given in any number of ways. For example, in class, instructors can offer over-the-shoulder suggestions to students engaged in writing; outside of class, students can receive brief, formative feedback by texting their proposed thesis statements to their instructors. Instead of making writing assessment one onerous, summative task that happens after the product is submitted, instructors should rethink feedback so that the bulk of it occurs during the writing process. Instructors might expect to see greater improvements by using formative micro-feedback more frequently.

 3. Finally, provide a way for students to map improvement. Grading is not a pedagogical act when graders edit their students’ papers. This is especially true for developmental writers, for these students can rarely articulate why an edit was made. Even if students can identify the reason for an edit, they do not necessarily acquire the skills they need for improvement. A more successful way to mark papers is to assess via an ongoing dialogue between student and instructor so as to facilitate improvement on future writing assignments (Rust, O’ Donovan, & Price, 2005). One way to do this is to identify two to three recurrent errors to master before the next writing assignment. Students and instructors jointly keep a writing progress log on which goals are recorded and monitored. For instance, a student may be prompted to master paragraph development and subject/verb agreement before submitting the next paper. After grading the next paper, progress is recorded on the log and goals are revised. This kind of carry-through provides accountability and allows students to map improvements in a measurable and quantitative way.

By using pedagogical grading methods, the time spent on assessment can become a valuable part of the teaching and learning process.


Defeyter, M. A., & McPartlin, P. L. (2007). Helping students understand essay marking criteria and feedback. Psychology Teaching Review, 13(1), 23-33.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2013). A formative assessment system for writing improvement. English Journal, (1), 66.

Li, J., & De Luca, R. (2014). Review of assessment feedback. Studies in Higher Education, 39(2), 378-393.

Orsmond, P., Merry, S., & Reiling, K. (2002). The use of exemplars and formative feedback when using student derived marking criteria in peer and self-assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(4), 309-23.

Rust, C., O’Donovan, B., & Price, M. (2005). A social constructivist assessment process model: How the research literature shows us this could be best practice. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(3), 231-240.