Grade Less: Your Students Might Learn More
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Words of Wisdom

Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don't always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive.... Virtually every page is a cliffhanger--you've got to force them to turn it.

— Dr. Seuss

by Nancy Vazquez

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Fall 2004.

You'd like to assign more writing in your classes, but how on earth would you grade it all? According to many experienced writing teachers, the answer is simple: don't.

Or rather, don't grade all of it.

Many instructors whose courses depend on writing have concluded it's not necessary to grade every piece of written work students produce. In fact, students often learn more when their writing isn't graded. Assignments not meant to be graded, usually referred to as "low-stakes" writing, can include:

  • journals

  • responses to readings or class discussions

  • peer commentary on first drafts

  • mini essays or "micro-themes"

  • idea-generating techniques such as freewriting or brainstorming.

Low-stakes assignments can serve a variety of purposes.

First, they allow you to judge how well students understand course material; by asking your class to write answers to a few questions about a reading or compose a journal entry summarizing a lecture, you get a quick snapshot of the students' comprehension. Such writing can even be done in class. Low-stakes assignments also help you introduce students to forms of writing specific to your discipline.

Low-stakes assignments in a new genre provide a welcome chance for students to practice before having to demonstrate their ability for a grade. Students also are more likely to experiment with style and tone or explore unfamiliar content when there's no grade hanging over them.

This type of writing work gives you a general sense of a class's strengths and weaknesses as writers. Do the majority of your students know how to narrow a thesis statement or integrate quotations from their research into their own paragraphs? If not, you can spend class time reinforcing those concepts.

Finally, such assignments provide an opportunity for students to generate topics for longer, graded assignments. You might ask students to try idea-generating techniques, such as freewriting or brainstorming, to see which best suits them.

But if an assignment isn’t graded will students bother to do it? Maybe not, which is why some instructors award points for completion of such assignments, in lieu of, or as part of, a class participation grade. Instructors may also elect to comment very briefly—a question or two in the margins, for instance—to let students know their work is being reviewed.

Others ask students to swap papers with classmates—sometimes so they can offer comments, but sometimes simply to give students a chance to see the work of their classroom “colleagues.”

Can low-stakes writing be assigned in a W course?

“Absolutely,” says Dr. Valerie Balester, Executive Director of the University Writing Center and Chair of the W Course Advisory Committee. “According to the suggested guidelines for a 3-credit- hour W course, about 2000 words—or 8 pages—should be graded, finished writing. That should still provide plenty of opportunity for low-stakes work.”

“The established criteria,” Balester continues, “also require W course instructors to provide writing instruction. Low-stakes assignments—such as having students experiment with a new writing style or offer peer comments on one another’s first drafts—are great opportunities for hands-on writing instruction.

“Also, those kinds of assignments mesh perfectly with one of the key ideas behind the W courses—namely that writing improves with practice.”

For more information on low-stakes assignments, visit the University Writing Center’s website at http://uwc.tamu.edu. Under the Faculty/Teaching Writing & Speaking headings, you’ll find a section on low-stakes writing (and speaking).

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