Writing as a Process, or, Now I have to Grade all this!

When I summarized my research paper in the survey experience last semester, a very nice twitter discussion developed about how to give students feedback on long, research-based papers.  I thought I would use my space this month to discuss how I approach guiding and grading such assignments.

The biggest revelation I had as an undergraduate was the fact that writing was a process.  I can distinctly recall sitting in the writing center at my institution looking at the third draft of a paper and thinking, “Wow, THIS is good.  Finally.”

I try to teach writing as a process in my classes without imposing a particular way of writing on the students.  I don’t require drafts, but I do require a number of in-class activities including a topic workshop and a thesis workshop.  In these workshops students talk through how they came to their topic/thesis, whether it is viable, and how they might structure their papers.  While they work, I have one-on-one discussions with students and can (usually) nip bad topics and theses in the bud.

Again, I don’t require drafts.  I make it clear, however, that drafting a paper will benefit them by dangling a carrot.  If they send me a full draft I will give them feedback and the letter grade their paper would receive if this was the final version.  I also agree to read as many drafts as they want to send or to look over thesis statements or outlines as they work through a drafting process.  They know that if they wait until the last day I accept drafts that I won’t have as many comments for them.  I’m only one woman after all!

I have several reasons for offering them a letter grade:

  1. Students tend to be tone deaf about comments. They can’t tell which changes are significant or how egregious it is not to have a historical thesis.  When I send them an email that says their paper is a low C because it does not have a clear thesis, lacks evidence and has citation issues, they both have a better sense of my expectations and can see what aspects of their paper need the most attention.
  2. I want to reward good revisions. When I grade final drafts, I pull up my draft comments and compare their final product to their draft.  I never give a lower grade than the draft received but sometimes students really nail their revisions.  That is rewarded in their final grade and I make that clear throughout the semester.
  3. I want them to make a draft. Grade conscious students see this draft as a chance to get the grade they want.  We all win.
  4. I want them to come to my office hours. After they get my feedback, most students come to talk through how to revise their papers.  THIS is when I want to see them! It isn’t always very useful for them to come before they have written a draft of the paper—and it certainly isn’t helpful for THIS paper if they come after the final draft is due.  If I can catch them in this sweet spot then we have a concrete draft to look at and some pressure to make good revisions.

I’ve been using this method for 4 years now and I consistently have about 60% of students who send me SOMETHING and about 35-45% of students who send me a full draft.  I could require a draft and I would have more grading, but I’m not sure more students would have a meaningful writing experience.  Some students send me 3, 4, or even 5 drafts.  I won’t lie, that is pretty tedious on my end and wouldn’t be possible if I had more than the 30-60 students I have in this class.

Overall, I really enjoy this system even though at the end of every semester I swear I’ll never do it again because it is time consuming and sometimes frustrating.  My three year old told me last semester, “MOM, those big kids don’t need you at night! I do!” But, those big kids need someone to spend time helping them understand how argument, structure, and evidence work together. And they need someone to help them understand that their writing won’t be great the first, second, or even third time.

How do you deal with drafts and long writing assignments? Do you require drafts? Have you stopped marking up papers? Do you have a less time consuming way of helping students draft!?

2 thoughts on “Writing as a Process, or, Now I have to Grade all this!

  1. Great post Tara.

    When I was teaching a total of 200 students per semester (without a TA), I accepted full draft submissions, but only if students brought me a paper copy during office hours (of which I kept 12 per week). I too struggled to balance the opportunity to help students with time limitations, and that was the compromise I made.

    During writing-intensive seminars I have taken to giving students one piece of highly detailed critical feedback and asked them to work on that one specific skill for their next paper (tightness of argument, clear organization, relevant evidence, overuse of passive voice, etc). The simplicity of tackling one issue at a time has helped cure the vertigo that some experience after receiving a thoroughly marked up paper, and it has enabled me to more clearly track their progress.

    • I love the idea of tackling one issue at a time, Ben! I rarely mark up papers for grammar–I don’t think students pay much attention. But, I’m totally guilty of trying to get them to think about their thesis, structure, and use of evidence in one draft and it DOES get overwhelming for both of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *