A Better Alternative To Grading Student Writing

by Terry Heick

This is a quick post that just occurred to me while writing about–well, writing about writing.

I was brainstorming ways to use technology to help students improve their writing and realized that over and over again, I was thinking about the process of writing and how crucial it is to quality of whatever the writer is left with at the end.

Great writing starts at the beginning, whether with an idea or need or purpose of social context or spark of inspiration. Whatever it is that ’causes’ the writing to begin–what’s wrought there at the beginning is kind of like a lump of clay. Without that clay, not much could happen and the quality of that clay matters; its texture and purity and consistency and overall makeup have a lot to say about what it’s able to produce. In large part, what you’re able to create with that clay depends on the quality and quantity of that clay.

See also It’s Time To Think Differently About Writing In The Classroom

But even more important than the clay is what you do with it. It’s a process of shaping and reshaping. It’s a matter of vision and perseverance as much as it is inspiration and talent. The quality of the events and of the sequence of events after that initial lump of clay is wrought matters more than the quality of the class itself.

Because writing is procedural and mechanical, skills and strategies and habits and tricks and so on are all hugely important. Writing is often seen as a matter of inspiration and talent and love and fiction and storytelling and big words and style, but the truth is that those iconic ‘things’ are a product of the skills and strategies and habits and tricks–and the mindset they’re applied with.

The Purpose Of The Writing Process

Put another way, the writing process itself is everything. It doesn’t have to be used the same way every time and that’s another conversation for another day and I only mention it briefly because the worst thing you can do is read this post and then go shove the ‘diligence of the writing process’ down the throats of would-be writers/students who only need to believe that they can write and have the opportunity to do so with expert, quality, and timely feedback to guide them.

All this leads me to the title. Instead of grading the end result of that process (the finished process), grade the quality of that student’s use of the writing process–ideally based on their specific strengths and weaknesses and the purpose and audience of the writing assignment itself.

Because ultimately, the goal of teaching writing isn’t for students to have created a lot of quality writing in your classroom.

In fact, the goal of teaching writing isn’t even to be able to use the writing process. Rather, the overarching goal of teaching writing is to create in each student the tendency to write–the belief that writing is valuable and that they are capable of writing.

With that established, teachers of writing can then cultivate the habit of and tendency to use some form of the writing process that works for that student.

Then, in a perfect world, the student can be coached to create quality writing that accomplishes a clear goal with a clear audience and hopefully improves their life and the world around them somehow along the way.

Using The Writing Process

Using the writing process takes years of practice because producing great writing takes constant vision and refinement. It requires the writer to understand what they’re trying to say and then say it in a way that produces some effect on the world. Research, idea organization, paragraph structure, sentence instruction, diction, punctuation, rule-breaking, tone, literary devices–using these ideas to communicate complex ideas is hard work.

That’s why writing is less of an activity and more of a process not unlike the scientific process. While we might for professionals, it wouldn’t make much sense to grade children doing science by the accuracy of their data. Rather, their ability and tendency to use the scientific process to test theories and collect data would be far more important.

For amateurs in many fields, the process is far more important than the product.

If these goals (or those like them) are at least partly true, then a viable alternative to grading student writing is to grade if the student writes and how the student uses the writing process itself in a way that makes sense to them.

And in a way that shows ownership of that writing process that will endure long after they’ve left your classroom.


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