Evaluation of Student Writing Research Paper Starter

Evaluation of Student Writing

(Research Starters)

Evaluation of student writing can be "the single-most difficult task required of teachers, yet it may be the most important part of a teacher's job insofar as helping individual students" (Julian, 1999, p. 56). Evaluation "designates the judgments [teachers] make about students and their progress toward achieving learning outcomes on the basis of assessment information" (Williams, 2003, p. 297). When applied to writing, these judgments include evaluation of the completion of learning outcomes in writing. White (2004) suggests that evaluating writing is "a natural outgrowth of the process theories of composition teaching that have dominated the field for the last generation" (p. 110). Evaluating writing can result from informal assessments and formal assessments.

Keywords Assessment; Evaluation; Formal Assessment; Global Errors; Grades; Informal Assessment; Pre-established Standards; Reflection-in-Action; Surface-level Errors


The evaluation of student writing can be "the single-most difficult task required of teachers, yet it may be the most important part of a teacher's job insofar as helping individual students" (Julian, 1999, p. 56). While assessment refers to "a collection of data, or information that can enlighten the teacher and the learner, as well as drive instruction," evaluation is the product of assessment (Burke, 1999, p. 168). After gathering the data, teachers must take assessment a step further and "evaluate the product of their efforts and the progress of their students" (p. 169). Teachers then grade by "reducing different information on student performance down to a letter or score" (p. 169).

Evaluation is defined as "the judgments [teachers] make about students and their progress toward achieving learning outcomes on the basis of assessment information" (Williams, 2003, p. 297). When applied to writing, the judgments that teachers make can be based on standards that are commonly applied to writing instruction. They may make comparisons with their students' papers and these pre-established standards of what good writing is or they may compare one student's writing with another student's writing (Williams, 2003). Atwell (1998) states that "whatever system (a teacher) uses has to take into account the range of abilities that come when anyone writes or reads" (p. 313). White (2004) suggests that evaluating writing is "a natural outgrowth of the process theories of composition teaching that have dominated the field for the last generation" (p. 110).

Informal Assessments

Evaluating writing can result from informal assessments (which include authentic assessments) and formal assessments. Informal assessments used in evaluating writing include:

• Teacher observation,

• Teacher comments,

• Contract grading,

• Checklists,

• Rubrics,

• Self- or peer-evaluation,

• Writing conferences,

• Portfolio assessments and

• Holistic scoring.

Teacher Observation

Teachers can evaluate writing through teacher observation. Through careful recordkeeping, teachers can evaluate writing by reviewing patterns of writing behaviors over time. These records may include anecdotal records and folders of work samples (Graves, 1983; Newkirk & Atwell, 1988; Dyson & Freedman, 2003). Through careful evaluation, teachers understand ways that students work through the writing process and they adjust instruction based on their evaluation.

Teacher Comments

Commenting on papers is an informal evaluation of writing. Through comments, teachers can advance students' writing abilities. According to White (1999), the overriding goal of commenting on papers is for "students to see what works best and least well in the draft so that revision can take place" (p. 123). Comments can come in the form of marginal or terminal comments. Marginal comments are made in the margin and can be comments about content or mechanics. Terminal comments are final comments issued at the end of a paper that direct students in how to improve their drafts or their next papers (Connors & Glenn, 1999).

Contract Grading

Contract grading is a contract between the student and the teacher about what tasks the student will complete. Contracts "spell out exactly what proficiency level a student must reach and the amount of work which will show that level in order to receive a specific letter grade for the terms" (Julian, 1999, p 58). Contracts allow students to enter into a dialogue about evaluation and learn to commit to a process in which they are actively involved.


Checklists are written descriptive categories that include checkboxes and clearly organize what students need to do in completion of their writing tasks (Burke, 1999). Students can evaluate their own writing processes by comparing the categories in the checklists with their own progress.


Rubrics are tools that "explain what students need to do, what they will be graded on, and how they will be evaluated" (Burke, 1999, p. 174). In rubrics, teachers prepare a matrix in which the criteria and standards are listed. The matrix typically features four to six criteria that may include both higher and lower level criteria. Higher level criteria include criteria for content, logic, presentation, description and depth. Lower level criteria include formatting, organization, and mechanics (Mabry, 1999). Teachers evaluate the tabulation of the rubric and work with students to improve their writing, based on rubric results.


Self-evaluation occurs when students use rubrics or some other assessment tool (such as checklists) to evaluate their own writing. Through self-evaluation students pay closer attention to the standards and apply them to their own writing efforts. They also begin to internalize the habits important to good writing by evaluating their own process and progress (Burke, 1999). As Beavens (1977) mentions, students who self-reflect move beyond the notion that they are writing to please the teacher.

Peer Evaluation

Through peer evaluation, students listen to or review one another's writing (Burke, 1999). Zinn (1998) states that peer evaluation should be considered for every writing classroom. Beavens (1977) states that students enjoy working with their peers in a collaborative effort. They also learn "how to handle language better as a result of well-structured meaningful group assessment and interaction" (Zinn, 1998, p. 3)

Writing Conferences

Writing conferences occur when teachers evaluate writing by responding orally to student writing through individual conferences. They make suggestions to students about their writing while encouraging students to become more independent and more effective in discussing their writing and assessing their process (Newkirk, 1989; Zinn, 1998). Through conferencing, teachers help students evaluate one or two major concerns in their writing that can be "realistically addressed in a single conference" (Zinn, 1998, p. 4). Zinn (1998) asserts that an instructor must resist the impulse to deliver a lecture or force students to defend their writing process.


Portfolios are also a form of informal assessment used in evaluating writing. A portfolio is a folder or a binder containing examples of student work (White, 1999). Portfolios became another alternative to writing assessment in the mid-1980's, providing a more accurate picture of individual writers (Elbow, 1986; Elbow and Belanoff, 1986). They are considered an authentic form of evaluation, as they provide students with "real-life writing experience and require preparation that is natural and broad-based" (Zinn, 1998, p. 6). White (1999) suggests that the greatest advantage to using portfolios in evaluating writing is their inclusion of numerous examples of student writing, produced over time, under a variety of conditions. White (1999) states:

Unlike multiple choice tests, [portfolios] can show a student's actual writing performance. Unlike essay tests, portfolios can showcase several kinds of writing and rewriting, without time constraints and without test anxiety (p. 149).

The preparation and self-assessment of portfolios are "inherently meaningful and worthwhile as a record of work they have done and want to keep" (White, 1999, p. 150).

Portfolios include reflective pieces where students discuss their process of writing and their final products. Through reflective evaluation, students formulate concepts about what good writing is all about and how writing changes, depending upon audience and purpose (Murphy and Underwood, 2000). Students evaluate their own portfolio pieces, selecting pieces that they are most proud of and why they chose these pieces (Graves, 1983; Dyson and Freedman, 2003; Murphy and Underwood, 2000).

Atwell (1998) states that portfolios focus on the "big picture - who a student is becoming and who he or she might become - as a writer and reader" (p. 311). Through portfolios, students become aware of the practice of gathering evidence of themselves as writers, including self-reflective pieces. Estrem (2004) asserts that "portfolios give increasing power to students and to teachers if used in interesting and rich ways" (p. 127).

Holistic Scoring

Another form of informal evaluation is through holistic scoring. Oftentimes, holistic scoring results from large-scale assessment, as teachers evaluate a mass amount of papers. Holistic scoring practices were quite common in the early 1970's and 80's. Students write on assigned topics, under a timed period in a testing situation. Teachers discuss scoring procedures and work towards reliability by comparing scores (White, 1985; Dyson & Freedman, 2003).

Formal Assessment

Formal assessment used in the evaluation of writing includes such measures as:

• Multiple-choice tests,

• Tests/exams and

• Impromptu timed essays.

Multiple Choice Tests

Multiple choice tests have often been used to evaluate writing. According to Zinn (1998), multiple-choice tests are the least popular with composition specialists. Often these types of tests are used to measure understanding of use of grammar, as students are often asked to identify grammatical errors. These tests are considered highly consistent, although they only measure editing skills (Cooper & Odell, 1977).


Tests and exams are considered formal assessments and often include opportunities for students to write. Exams can be effective in evaluating writing in that they invite what Burke (1999) considers to be a "powerful and appropriate intellectual performance that is linked to standards" (p. 179). Teachers must consider what purpose the writing portion of a test or exam may serve and what exactly the test/exam is testing. Exams or tests may come at the end of a unit of study, at the end of a grading period or course, or after materials are presented that a teacher deems important enough for a student to learn.

Timed Essays

Use of impromptu timed essays is another form of formal assessment for evaluating writing. White (1995) asserts that 70 percent of English faculty use some form of timed impromptu essays because they see its inclusion in the evaluation process as a validation that, indeed, the student who is writing the essay is the one sitting in the desk. The problem of plagiarism can be eliminated by using these timed essays in class. Students also learn to structure short essays, a common feature in tests and exams.

No matter what evaluations are used to assess student writing, evaluation should be an integral part of teaching and learning about writing. Students should play a central role in negotiating criteria and setting goals so that students can become successful in getting their message across to the readers of their writing (Townsend and Fu, 1997; Hart, 1994; Turnbill, 1989). As Zinn (1998) points out, evaluation of writing is necessary to help students improve their writing. As noted, teachers have many avenues for evaluating writing, through both informal and formal...

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