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Responding to Student Writing


Be clear with students about how you will grade their papers.  Most teachers break grades down into categories: A, B, C, etc., so consider including your students in a discussion about what is considered an “A” paper versus a “B” paper, and so on.  A discussion about grade ranges helps students understand the differences between the grades and what you expect from them.

Discussing what constitutes “good writing” in your discipline is also strongly recommended.  Ask students to identify successful examples from their own (or published) work.  Consider handing out sample student papers (with permission from former students) or fabricated examples.

Using Rubrics

Offering students a handout defining your grading criteria can be very useful, especially since the desirable features of a written text for one discipline can vary greatly from those for another discipline—something well known to faculty but not necessarily to students.  You may even want to involve students in the process of defining the rubric for a particular assignment.

Rubrics not only streamline your grading process and guide you to be fair and clear as you grade, but they also make it easier for students to understand how they might improve for their next assignment.

Handling the Paper Load

Grading papers can be the most cumbersome and difficult part of teaching writing-intensive classes.

Take a look at this list of “myths” about paper grading —the realities may help you shorten your grading time and, at the same time, give students the feedback they really need.

There is no simple solution to make the task of grading less daunting, but the following steps from Case Western Reserve University might help:

  • Set a timer for 15-20 minutes per paper.
  • Skim the paper to determine your priorities for commenting.
  • Focus your comments on two or three important points.  Often, students have a hard time picking out the important criticisms from lengthy commentaries.  Instead, identify a few key concerns, and give students specific guidance on how to improve in these areas for the next essay.
  • Be sure to let students know what they are doing well.
  • Use student conferences to your advantage.  Meeting with students in a “rough draft” conference helps students know what they need to do to improve, so they usually turn in better final drafts as a result (and that reduces your grading time!).  Also, some instructors find that meeting with students for 15-20 minutes in a “post-paper” conference is more effective than writing extended comments.
  • Ask students to do a self-evaluation with their paper.  If a student admits to having an incomplete thesis, you can acknowledge that point and move on, rather than spending your time explaining a problem the student already knows about.

Providing & Facilitating Feedback Online

Many teachers who respond to student writing digitally find it simple and efficient and that students benefit from the clarity and directness of online feedback.

Robin Neal’s tutorial explains how he use of VBA macros to make grading essays more efficient, though it acknowledges the pros and cons of relying on this method (i.e., comments that are more legible but possibly too specific for every instance).

Instructors also have options for providing engaging feedback through audio/video responses — without requiring additional technology.

Conducting Peer Review online can be a challenge, but the process can be beneficial to helping students develop as writers. Brown University’s Sheridan Center explains some of these benefits and offers tips for developing online peer assessment practices, like modeling feedback and establishing clear criteria. Moreover, translating peer review practices online may even come with some advantages, such as improved accessibility and record-keeping, as  Stanford’s guide to “Facilitating Digital Peer Review” notes. To conduct online peer review, instructors may utilize Canvas’s peer-review option (built into its Assignment features) or even use Zoom’s Breakout Groups to better imitate face-to-face peer review sessions.

Individual conferences with students are always valuable, especially when teaching online. The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a guide to navigating conferences with students and even provides a short model timeline for implementing them. For online conferences, OIT offers extensive support for Zoom software. Zoom’s screen-sharing and Waiting Room functions enable instructors to curate their office hours and student conferences so as to best provide feedback to students throughout the writing process.


Additional resources coming soon!


Other Useful Links with Information About Grading Papers