As an educator, I continually struggle with knowing how to best evaluate writing assignments. Do I use a rubric? If I do, is it too wordy to be valuable to the students? Will the students even read it, or just look at the letter grade? Do I merely write comments on the papers, or combine that with a rubric? How much time can I “afford” to give on feedback? How many times should we work on revisions, and how many drafts can a student create before we both get sick of the paper? Am I putting in more work than the actual student is in writing the piece? Likely these questions and more have confused your thinking as you work with student papers.
For me, evaluating student writing has been a continual push and pull between wanting a streamlined, objective way to evaluate writing (wondering why I didn’t become a math or science teacher frequently haunts my thoughts) while acknowledging the craft and artistry, the subjective aspect of writing. There may not be anything technically wrong with a piece of writing, but does that make it “effective”? This is what makes the arts and the humanities frustratingly wonderful and beautiful—and difficult to score because, until we have a better system, we must mark at least some student writing with grades. If we don’t, our administrators and parents will question what we are actually doing every day.
During the past two years, I have muddied the waters even more for myself by creating a semester long poetry unit that ends with a class sponsored poetry café complete with food, music, lanterns, and readings of student composed poetry. If evaluating essays is hard enough, poetry is even more challenging, because what is poetry anyway? (We talk about this consistently in class. “Mrs. Hess, can’t a poem be just one word?” “Well….”) So, what is a teacher to do?
After trying several different approaches, I have landed on something I am fairly happy with. It is not the panacea to heal all the harms of evaluating poetry in a classroom setting, but it does honor my expertise as the teacher, the students’ own perceptions of their quality of writing, and the impressions of third-party readers.
I began by announcing that each poem would be scored using three weighted elements: their score, my score, and a peer’s score. Of course I had students immediately wanting their score to be 98% of the grade and mine and the peer’s to be 1% each. I told them that my score had to be equal to or greater than any of the other two scores. It was fun to watch the students debate back and forth, from the grade-game-players trying to get the best deal with the least amount of work to the “I’m afraid my crazy classmate will tank my grade” students. In the end the students landed on 40% me, 40% them, and 20% a peer. I’m not sure this is a perfect ratio, but the point was more in the conversation about who should have the most say in evaluating the quality of something (the expert, the creator, or the audience) and not necessarily all about the end result.
After trying out our system, I found and filled a couple of holes. 1) The students really do need to use a bulleted rubric to show their reasoning. This helps the evaluation to be more objective. 2) I did have a few students inflating their own grades. To address this, I told the students that the grades given by a peer or by themselves had to be within 10% of mine. If any were outside of this margin, they would receive my score for that evaluator’s component. This helps keep students from inflating or tanking their own or another’s grade. I have been pleased to rarely need to resort to this.
In the end, I’m still not 100% satisfied with the system, but it works for now. I will continue to tweak the process, making it more relevant and reliable as an evaluation tool. Now that I’ve tried this with poetry, maybe I’m ready to apply it to more formal papers too.