I vividly remember looking at the B+ on the top of my essay and seeing the A on the top of my friend Kristen’s. I flipped through the five pages of the essay, searching for teacher comments.There were none, no explanation for why I had received a B+.
I promptly made an appointment with the teacher. At our meeting, he flipped through the paper and pointed out one sentence.
“I don’t like this sentence,” he said as he handed the paper back to me.
“I got a B+ because of one sentence?” I asked incredulously, expecting him to either further explain or raise my grade.
Instead, he shrugged his shoulders.
I left the meeting unsure why Kristen had earned a higher grade than I and unsure about how to improve my writing for a better grade.
As a teacher and tutor, that experience has guided my own feedback on student papers.
The best method I have found for giving clear, fair feedback is to use rubrics. Rubrics make clear which writing strategies a writer has mastered and those that need improvement.
Here is an example:
Family Legend Rubric
|Organization||Strong lead that develops readers’ interest, a developed middle that builds tension; and a satisfying ending that provides closure.||Either a strong lead, a developed middle or a satisfying ending but not all three. Maybe the middle drags on too long or the ending is a bit abrupt.||Organization is rough but workable. Story may get off topic once or twice.||Story is aimless or disorganized. It lacks direction.||
|Paragraphs||Beginnings of all paragraphs indented and capture the reader’s interest.||Beginnings of all paragraphs indented, have one topic/paragraph.||Several problems with paragraphs.||Use of incorrect paragraph format.|
|The Legend||Story gives details about one exciting, funny, sad or unusual historical event and uses hyperbole to create the legend quality.||Tell about one specific historical event in detail but not much exaggeration for legend quality.||Focus on more than one historical event, none of which have enough detail to give the story a clear focus.||Story has no focus and is probably confusing to a reader.|
|The narrative arc||Narrative includes a hook, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.||Narrative includes at least hook, rising action, climax, and resolution.||Narrative includes some elements of the narrative arc.||Narrative is missing the elements of a narrative arc.|
|Conventions||Use of first person form, and correct sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and spelling.||Mechanics are good. Errors may be from taking risks, trying to say things in new or unusual ways.||Frequent errors which are distracting but do not interfere with meaning are made.||Numerous problems with grammar, spelling, etc. make the story hard to read.|
The above rubric gives descriptions for a writing project that has exemplified the expectations of the assignment, and descriptions for assignments that have missed some expectations. What makes this rubric effective is that it ties directly to the lessons that are part of the instruction for writing a family legend: lessons about a hook, the narrative arc, and essential elements of a legend as well as general expectations for mastery of written English conventions.
To create a grading rubric, follow these steps:
1. Decide on four or five specific writing strategies the writer should have mastered.
2. Write descriptions of the “perfect” assignment for each writing strategy.
3. Write descriptions for assignments which meet some expectations but not all.
4. Share with writer so he/she is aware of the expectations.
It is easy to find grading rubrics on-line, but it is best to create one which ties directly to the assignment and the focus of the instructional content leading up to the final draft of the writing project.
In a perfect world, a student or learner will be able to continue to work on a project until it is perfect. I am currently revising, again, an essay I have been working on for 18 months. It’s still not good enough so I keep improving the piece. But, sometimes a writing project needs a grade and serves as a lesson for future writing assignments.
Using grading rubrics to provide clear, specific feedback allows a learner to recognize those parts of the assignment she was successful on, and those areas needing improvement.
When teaching students how to write, clear feedback will motivate students, not leave them wondering why they received an arbitrary grade.