Friday, June 14, 2013

Sharing Writing Assessment Offers Opportunities to Improve Teaching

Managing student writing from instruction to feedback to revision is one of the most time intensive aspects of teaching. Typically this instruction is left to English teachers though all classes are expected to be engaging students in writing. The teachers who do assign written work, sometimes express frustration about the quality of the writing and wonder why the work they are receiving is sub par. At our school, we decided to delve into the challenge of improving student writing from a multi-curricular angle. Using an online submission process and assessment tool,, we created a course especially for assignments that would be graded by a team of teachers we dubbed The Writing Board.

The Board was comprised of five tenth grade teachers: two history, one science, two English. Our mission was to share one writing assignment from our classes, discuss grading rubrics, and share the load of assessing the writing. As an English Department, our goal was to begin the process of establishing common criteria for quality writing. Besides establishing standards for formatting such as MLA headings, margins, fonts, and source information, we also hoped the experiment would allow us opportunity to discuss and assess mechanics, organization, and structure in writing. We wanted to model this not only for students, but also to begin the process of establishing standards for all academic writing on campus. Based on discussions with other departments and with students, we found that sometimes students put forth less effort in the quality of their writing when they were writing for classes other than English class. In English classes, some students felt comfortable revealing themselves as unpolished writers for a course they were used to not doing as well in.

These facts came clear as students wondered which teacher would be assigned to grade their essays, a random process, and sometimes expressed that they hoped theirs would not face an English teacher, someone they felt might hold them to a higher standard in writing. For Writing Board assignments, the grader was not revealed to the student, though many were able to assess identities based on depth and perspective offered in feedback. If students had questions about how papers were assessed, the ultimate power of re-assessment was always left to the assigning teacher.

The results of our year of experimenting were mixed. Definitely one benefit was an immediate alleviation of grading burden for the teacher whose work was up on the board. Though even that aspect of the process was problematic for some. We tried to be mindful of not overburdening the other teachers, so every effort was made to give other teachers a manageable load, typically not more than six papers. For teachers who taught several sections of the same class, that fact sometimes meant the hosting teacher was left with as many as thirty papers to grade. Still, that number was far less than what the assigning teacher would have had to grade otherwise.

We found that timeliness became a factor too. We wanted to be mindful that each outside teacher would still have her full load of teaching in her own classes, so we gave two-three weeks for papers to be graded. This long period of time from turn-in to return meant that sometimes the returned papers became stale. While most English teachers will admit that grading a full load of papers takes an incredible amount of time, depending on others meant waiting for a process to be completed without any real sense of when that would be. In one instance, one teacher on the board was unable to complete her six papers and they languished, finally having to be picked up by the original assigning teacher after a long lapse in time. This time delay meant that offering students timely feedback or possibility for revision became very challenging.

We also discovered that establishing very specific rubric was critical. Having a clear rubric meant that other teachers would understand grading criteria very clearly. While the hope is that over time some of the basic expectations of quality student writing will become ingrained into all subjects, initially we found that defining those expectations in an itemized rubric left no room for uncertainty. One teacher expressed frustration at how grading each section of the paper diminished her ability to offer a wholistic impression of the writing, however. She preferred to grade the essay in its entirety rather than restrict herself to a piecemeal assessment of each aspect of the writing. For students, being able to see how a grade broke down into component parts was helpful.

Another challenge of the Board was determining what was most important about each assignment. While English teachers felt quality of written expression to be top on the list, the science teacher in the group felt that the Board was unable to assess accuracy of scientific information for her data-specific assignment. This teacher's rubric, in fact, (one of the first we assessed for the board) was focused entirely on representation of data instead of writing. While the data was central to her teaching goals, as a Writing Board, we did not find the rubric helpful for writing instruction, our central objective in creating the board. From our perspective, more attention to the mechanics of the writing, presentation of facts, and layout of the assignment were more in keeping with what we felt prepared to assess.

At the end of the year, we had some great opportunities to reflect both as the full Writing Board and later as English teachers. We came to a few conclusions that we will implement next year.

1. Writing should be assessed for both content and mechanics. These grades should be separate. This fact will allow for teachers such as our science teacher to maintain the integrity of fact representation while still holding students accountable for the writing.

2. We need to meet more frequently and be more timely with returning papers. While few full time teachers ever feel they have time to spare during the school year, communication is vital. We are hoping to have a group grading activity to set the bar for each assignment before teachers go their separate ways to assess the work. We think we'll be able to do this fairly painlessly through a lunch period or two at the start of each assignment. Ideally, we would like to meet at the end of each assignment as well to share notes about common problems in the content or mechanics of each piece to give the assigning teacher clear feedback about instruction that needs to occur as follow up for the students.

3. Students definitely need time to revise and revisit their work. In response to this fact, we decided that we will use the Writing Board next year as the foundation of research projects in 9th and 10th grade. The English Department divided up research paper tasks into four quarter chunks that will correspond with a completed, revised, polished piece of research to be submitted at year's end. Students will have the opportunity to conduct research in a topic that corresponds to a course they are taking. Topic approval for each course will be left up to subject area teachers.

4. Assignments for the Board will be shorter (grade an intro, grade a body paragraph, offer a revised section)and more manageable to grade and return in a timely manner.

5. We will include our school librarian in the process and invite her to present research skills and citation responsibilities so that we maintain consistency in expectations for all papers in this regard. The assignment will also give our librarian several opportunities for research instruction, something she's set as a goal for her own teaching engagement with students. We will also use her to give instruction about using images responsibly in one's writing. In our desire to drive forth the point that writing is formal presenting, we will require that students proffer a polished and visually appealing final paper. This goal will include the use of at least one image embedded into the writing or as part of the title page.

Though some teachers felt the experiment was not successful, the information we gathered, the experience of collaborating on student writing, and the opportunity to reflect meaningfully and specifically about our work with students and with each other was invaluable. We will continue with our efforts to improve student writing through this shared experiment. As we modify expectations both for ourselves and for our students, we model the ever-important process of learning, adapting, and coming back for more.

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