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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Assigning and Grading Writing

Posted by on Friday, May 3, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P.,

My students had to write a couple of papers this semester.  I just graded the last round of papers and they were very disappointing – at the end of the semester, even.  Some of them lacked a clear thesis, others were poorly organized and many were poorly argued.  What can I do next semester so that my future students’ papers aren’t like these?

Journalisticly Jumbled

Dear Jumbled,

This seems to be a common problem for professors.   The good news is that there are some simple ways to address the problem.  Oftentimes, students, especially first years, have not written college style papers before and do not know the general structure and expectations.  The issue is likely not that they can’t do the work, but that they have never been shown how.  There are several things to consider here:

  • Clear Writing Prompt: Be sure you give clear directions on what your expectations are for the paper.  What type of argument do you want? Is it a compare-contrast, a lit review, a close-reading, a research paper?  All of these are different paper types and your students may not know what each of them entails especially if the student comes from a different discipline.  Provide clear, concise instructions on what type of analysis or argumentation you expect.  Remember, part of the goal of assigning papers is to give the students the opportunity to analyze material in the manner done in your field and it is necessary to teach them how to produce written work that reflects that analysis.
  • Be Clear about Sources: Do you want them to use outside sources, i.e., do research? If so, be sure to tell them what sources are viable in your type of paper.  For example, I have come across countless students who do not know the difference between Google and JSTOR.  Tell them why particular sources are better than others and how to evaluate them.  Or, do you want them to use only in-class material and their own analysis of that material? The reference librarians at the library are also eager to help students (and are underutilized).
  • Teaching the Writing Process:  You might consider having the students turn in drafts, especially for longer term papers.  This would allow you to head off any issues before the final draft.  You could have students give peer feedback as well.  Studies have shown that if their peers are their audience, students cannot assume that the reader will “fill in the gaps” in their argument and they therefore strive for greater clarity.  Having portions due at different times (thesis, outline, first draft, revision, etc.) helps the students learn the normal process of writing an academic paper, requires revision (a commonly neglected, but often essential, step), and will undoubtedly improve the quality of the work they turned in.
  • Use a Rubric:  Sometimes students write well as it relates to grammar, spelling, and vocabulary, and use these skills to mask shallow interpretations, argumentation or research.  Others may have atrocious grammar but great ideas.   You need to determine what qualities are most important to you and made them clear to your students.   I’ve also heard students complain that they “lost points” because they didn’t proofread.   Make it clear to them how grammar can affect clarity and what percentage of the grade will reflect that.  Using a rubric will help you convey what types of things you’re looking for to you students while also giving you a template to aid in your grading process.   You can find several sample rubrics hereor you could ask your colleagues to see their rubrics.
  • Give Feedback:  Be sure to give feedback to your students about their work.  I suggest not marking every single error.  This monopolizes your time, will likely make you lose focus on the paper’s content, and demoralizes your students.  Find the most pressing errors and address them.  You might mark them with the same type of mark and then address the point in a few sentences at the end of the paper.  Also remember that when you give feedback to note what they have done well so to encourage them to continue that behavior.  While this seems like a lot of work on your part, it will pay off in the long run.

Many students have never been taught the basic structure of most academic papers.  While research papers vary by disciple, most share central concerns.  However, the simplified five-paragraph essay they learned to write in high school, often neglects vital parts of a college-level academic paper.  Here are few tips you can share with them to get them started:

  • Introduction: Your introduction must accomplish two things: introduce your topic and make clear your stance.  As you write your thesis statement, think about what argument you intend to make with the evidence you have.  Your introduction will define the scope of your paper and point your reader toward your overall point.
  • Topic Sentences:  Each paragraph in the body of your paper should have a clear topic sentence.  The topic sentence will clearly and succinctly relate the point of its paragraph to the thesis statement.  The other sentences in the paragraph will give evidence to support the topic sentence.
  • Organization: Outlining your paper will help you see the flow and organization of your argument.  Think about how your main points relate to one another so that your paper does not feel disjointed.   Remember that you do not want to lose your reader.  Use clear transitions and a logical progression of thought so that your overall argument makes sense.
  • Conclusion:  In your conclusion be sure to remind the reader of your stance/thesis and your primary arguments.  Some people use the conclusion as the opportunity to address opposing arguments; most conclusions are largely summary.  You could use the conclusion to urge some sort of response or to point to larger issues, but do not introduce new material.  The primary function of the conclusion is to remind the reader of your argument and how you substantiated it.
  • Argument:  As you write, evaluate your own argument.  Do not merely ignore arguments or research that contradicts or weakens your own argument.   Address these opposing views, but show why/how they are either insufficient, neglect certain aspects of the problem that your argument address, or how your argument negates them.  As you do this, avoid caricature or falsifying their argument; treat them fairly or you will weaken your own argument.
  • Research:  If you are writing a research paper, make sure you know what qualifies as a viable source for that field.  Most academic research papers do not accept sources like Wikipedia or Google.  If you are uncertain what sources you can use, talk to your professor and/or a research librarian.  Be sure youincorporate your sources into your augment and do not merely let them “speak for themselves.”
  • Voice & Tone:  Verify with your professor what type of language he or she expects.  While some professors allow for more informal language, many do not.  In general, academic papers use formal language (i.e., no slang).  However, avoid the common mistake of using overly complex sentences and “fancy” vocabulary.  If you do not know what a word means, do not use it.  Your sentences should be clear and concise; they should not be wordy or convoluted.
  • Editing/Revision:  Finally, be sure you leave enough time in your schedule to revise your paper.  One’s argument often changes as one writes and/or one’s ideas become more focused.  Be sure you go back and rewrite your introduction to reflect any changes you have made along the way.  You should also reread your paper to make sure your ideas flow together well and rearrange as necessary.  A reverse outline is particularly helpful (outline your paper as it now appears to determine whether or not it needs to be rearranged).
  • Another Set of Eyes:  Whether it be having a friend read through your paper or going to the Writing Studio, it is important to have someone else read through you paper to verify its coherence and cohesion.  The Writing Studio offers free one-hour appointments and is open every day except Saturday with locations on main campus (Calhoun Hall) and the Commons.  You can sign up online. They offer constructive feedback on your organization and argumentation and are helpful at any stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to revision).

Finally, have fun! Writing papers can help you think through your own ideas and see how they connect to the things other people have said.  To alleviate some of the stress of the process, be sure to allow yourself enough time to write.  While we all have pulled an all-nighter, this is rarely conducive to quality work and typically increases the stress of writing.

The Vanderbilt Writing Studio offers appointments for students and provides several useful handouts online. Additionally, the Center for Teaching is able to consult with you an aspect of grading or teaching writing – just call us to schedule an appointment.

You can do it!

Professor P



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