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Teaching Guide: Teaching In The Margins - Commenting On Student Writing

One of the most common complaints from teachers across campus is that student writing is so weak that reading and responding to papers becomes an overwhelming task. This resource is designed to make responding to student writing more feasible. The resource includes not only suggestions distilled from the best published advice on responding to student writing but also suggestions from CSU faculty who assign and comment on writing in classes of all sizes and in all disciplines. Moreover, it's a resource that you can contribute to by sharing your writing assignments, commenting strategies, rubrics, and advice. Please contact Kate Kiefer ( with any suggestion for or addition to this resource.

"Myths and Realities" addresses common misunderstandings about responding to student writing, so it's a good starting point for everyone. The next several sections give more general advice, so readers can browse through these sections in any order. The final section of the resource lists source materials by discipline; although there are typically dozens of articles in every discipline that consider writing and ways to integrate writing into disciplinary courses, relatively few take up issues of commenting on student work. The citations in these sections include at least some material about evaluating student writing. Despite the disciplinary labels, many of the listed articles give advice pertinent for any teacher integrating writing into any course.

Myths and Realities

Commenting on student writing is time-consuming and often frustrating. Some of my worst moments as a teacher happened when I gave back student papers, watched students flip to the grade, and then saw students drop the papers into the wastebasket on the way out of the classroom. One of the grim realities of teaching through our writing assignments is that we cannot guarantee that students will take the time to learn from our comments about their writing. But we need to try to maximize our effectiveness as teachers responding to writing so that we have the best chance to engage students' attention on our commentary. Dispelling some myths about "grading" papers seems like the best place to begin boosting teacher effectiveness.


Myth #1 - "Grading" papers means marking all the grammatical errors. Although some students can sometimes learn to identify their own grammatical errors when teachers exhaustively mark those errors, most students don't learn to edit through teacher marking. Moreover, fixing grammatical errors is often the least important element of what students need to learn to become better writers. Marking errors can be exhausting, and given the payback, it just isn't worth the time. Instead of marking all errors, experts in responding to student writing suggest these guidelines:

"But, but, but..."

"Preparing clean papers is a key element in helping students," you say. "I'm failing my students and they'll fail in the future if I don't help them fix the flaws in their writing."

Experts agree with you. But if you mark the errors, students still don't necessarily learn to fix them. Instead, help students understand the importance of careful editing and then put the burden for that work squarely on the student.


Myth #2 - Teachers need to be experts in writing to comment helpfully on papers.

Actually, teachers are experts in their disciplinary fields. You know the disciplinary content and you read disciplinary material all the time. Just because you are an experienced reader in your field, you have more expertise than students do. Moreover, most of you have written in your fields, and that constitutes another level of expertise. Although writing experts can offer advice to help with student writing, you are ultimately much more familiar with the conventions of your disciplines than outsiders can ever be.

If your writing assignments ask students to take on disciplinary content, then you can be comfortable reading as a disciplinary expert. If your writing assignments ask students to take on more general issues or tasks, then your expertise derives from being a highly educated general reader. The key is to think about your expertise as a reader and to respond from that perspective. Every piece of writing should engage its reader. One doesn't need to be an expert in writing to know that a piece of writing is or isn't engaging.

"But, but, but..."

"I know I'd feel more confident in responding to student writing if I knew more about writing."

Granted. So how about a quick refresher of some key principles that might help you feel more confident about the "big picture" of student writing.

Insight from a Colleague

Brian Ott, Speech Communications

In his graduate seminars, Brian assigns a single long essay (media criticism) due four weeks before the end of the term. At that point, students bring three copies to class. Brian takes one copy and two peer reviewers take the other copies. Students have one week to complete their peer review (as does Brian) to return commentary to the writer. Specifically, each reviewer

  1. summarizes the paper's argument,
  2. notes the most compelling elements of the text,
  3. notes what needs to be strengthened, and
  4. completes a line-by-line edit for grammatical errors.

As he notes, "The best reviews identify weaknesses and suggest how to fix them with at least one strategy." All reviewers write about two pages of overview commentary to help the writer stay focused on the most important points to revise. Students then sort through the editorial reviews to decide what to revise, and they submit a final revision in the last week of the term. At that point, Brian focuses his comments on where to send the paper for presentation or publication with a few suggestions for revision.

His philosophy of commenting emphasizes that students need to make choices as authors. He believes that talking about writing as a process rather than an outcome is most useful for students. He also works hard to get students to see writing as critical thinking that evolves, and, as such, writing is revised multiple times.

He also notes that students see the value of reviewing because it helps them strengthen their own writing.


Myth #3 - Commenting on papers has to take hours of my time.

Commenting on student papers does take time, but it doesn't need to take hours. Start by thinking about how much time you have. If you could spend only 15 minutes on each paper, what would be the most important features to respond to? How the paper is organized? How much detail the writer includes? Whether the writer supports a clear argumentative claim? Design the assignment to focus on what you want to spend your time on. Tell students exactly what you'll be looking for. Then comment only on those elements.

If you have only five minutes per paper, think about a shorter final product and a rubric. Even generic responses with a bit of individualized feedback can help students grow as writers.

When Not to Respond

Sometimes teachers limit the opportunities they might give students to write simply because they don't have time to respond to every piece of writing. But please remember that sometimes the writing itself - simply having students think through an idea on paper - is the whole point of the activity. These writing-to-learn activities are geared toward students' needs - to articulate concepts they've just read or heard about, to critique a point of view, to clarify their thinking, to challenge an idea.

I've described a range of writing-to-learn activities elsewhere, but let me just note a few here:

Each of these two-minute writing opportunities can help students learn. Teachers don't need to write responses to these kinds of writing.

That's not to say that you might not want to read this writing. Skimming through a set of responses to "what most confused you in today's class?" could help you plan the next class session. You might even want to refer to students' writing as you clarify or elaborate on points in a subsequent class. But you don't always have to spend time responding to every piece of writing students turn in.

Designing Writing Assignments

Good (or at least readable) student writing starts with a good assignment. Walking into class and announcing that a 10-page research paper is due at the final class won't get you good student writing. Any time you spend preparing a good writing assignment will save you time when you start to respond to the final products.

Start by thinking about your goals for the assignment. What do you want students to learn by doing the task? Will they engage an idea you've raised, explore a connection between the theoretical and practical, report on field research, summarize professional readings on the topic? Or is your goal to determine how much students have learned about the concepts you've presented in lectures? Or perhaps you have one of many other possible goals in mind. Be as specific as you can be about what you want this writing task to do for you and for your students as the first step in your process. (To see more about examining goals as the starting point for designing writing assignments, see

Specifically, think in more detail about these issues:

Then you'll be ready to let the assignment context and goals determine what you comment on.

Set a Workable Context for Students' Writing

A school assignment that doesn't have a specific context set for it will look like school writing: it's written to the teacher (captive audience) to demonstrate that students can string together some appropriate evidence or analysis to make a point. Depending on where students are in the curriculum, you might still get what looks essentially like a high-schooler's five-paragraph essay. Students have practiced this kind of writing for 12 years before they appear in our college classrooms, and they've been successful with their strategies for generalized academic writing. After all, they wouldn't be in college if they couldn't produce this kind of writing with at least some proficiency.

But most of us aren't satisfied with a "high school" approach to writing. We're trying to get students to deepen their analysis, refine their critical thinking, and, in many cases, begin to think as a specialist in a particular discipline asking and answering certain kinds of questions appropriate to the disciplinary context.

If you keep in mind that writing is always situated in a context - that is, written for a particular audience with a particular goal or purpose and appropriate content - then you'll more likely think about particular audiences, levels of language, and even genre expectations for that context. Perhaps as you imagine your writing assignments, you might think about a specific publication context or venue. If you can show students that publication, they'll get a much fuller picture of the expectations readers have within that context, and they'll begin to adapt their writing for that context. But if you don't set up a specific context, students will either guess or fall back on the generalized academic context they've become so comfortable with.

How can you set a workable context for students?

Insight from a Colleague

Judy Hannah from Geosciences notes that not all the writing assignments she gives mimic professional writing in her field. Rather, she uses a range of assignments to give students practice with necessary skills:

She's careful to spell out the key criteria for each kind of writing assignment on the assignment sheet so that students can see precisely what to concentrate on.

Think About Alternative Formats

Not every paper, even all the possible papers that draw on source material, looks like a "research" paper. Even research papers in different disciplines look quite different. So don't restrict your thinking to a paper that starts with a claim or statement of focus and then proceeds to draw on source material to develop that focus.

Would a management report be the most realistic way for students to present the information they've collected? If you want students to develop an argument, might an extended editorial for a major newspaper work as an alternative format? Perhaps field notes might best be turned into an article for a mainstream magazine. Brochures, pamphlets, newsletters all provide different formats that students can use to present their ideas. If changing the format will help students take your assignment context more seriously, then the alternative format is essential. Across campus, instructors have used posters, management proposals, design proposals, letters, articles, and even lab reports to help students engage with the specific context (and audience) for an assignment.

Insight from a Colleague

Alicia Cook in Human Development offers students a significant professional challenge in the capstone course for the major. Students respond to an RFP from the city, county or state for a support-services initiative. Her major criterion: a well-written proposal could be implemented today if funding came through. She directs students to write the proposals as if they will be sent to the funding agency, and she reads and responds as a reviewer for that funding agency. In her experience, students continue to revise these proposals even after she gives them final feedback. And the combination of the professional context and group work raises "the bar of standards" for preparing the proposals. The assignment was developed collaboratively in the department, so all faculty know what students need to be able to do in the capstone course.

In addition to the group-generated proposal, students write a 2-4 page individual reflection on their writing and learning after they submit the proposal.

Build Evaluative Criteria Into The Assignment Itself

As you pull together your goals for the course and the papers you visualize students writing, you need to think specifically about what you want to spend your commenting time on. If you know students will struggle getting enough details into the format you've specified, then put "details" high on your list of evaluative criteria. If you expect that organization will present problems, then emphasize organization. Or focus. Or audience appeal. Or whatever skills you want to spend your time giving students feedback on. You'll know, based on your curriculum within the course and within the sequence of courses, what students need to master at each point in their learning process. Focus on those elements in your assignment and let students know exactly what you'll be spending time on. Students will work especially hard on those features of their papers, and the final products will demonstrate just what students can do with focus, organization or detail. Both you and the student will win because the student will get to work on and learn from working on what counts most in this assignment. And you'll win because you won't be distracted as you channel your energies into evaluating the specific features you set up.

Building Evaluative Criteria Into Assignments: Questions to Consider

Here are some questions you can use to help you think strategically about major components of most writing assignments to decide which ones to emphasize in your assignment.







Insight from a Colleague

Bob Hoffert in Philosophy explains that he sets up his assignment so that students can easily follow through to meet his main criteria. He asks that students set up a thesis statement that does three things:

When students follow the assignment closely, they are easily able to follow through with the analysis Bob is looking for in the papers and thus they fulfill his key criteria.

Bob goes on to note, though, that "students are unpracticed." They need to grow through repeated practice with the same kind of writing to be able to achieve the level of analysis he hopes to see in their writing.

Commenting in the Margins and at the End of the Paper

Although you may not have time to write very many comments, even a few specific comments in the margins (about what the student does particularly well or where the student needs to concentrate on specific strategies for the next paper) will make your end comments more helpful for students. Read the following sections for additional pointers to make margin and end comments more useful for students but less burdensome for you.

If, however, you think you might have more than a few minutes per paper to give feedback to students, then other strategies are likely to be more helpful. The following sections set out advice from a variety of composition teachers about both their process of commenting and their focus in commenting on student writing.

Finally, if you collect drafts to spend more of your commenting time before the paper is in its final form, consider the advice in these sections:

Strategies For Commenting In The Margins Of Student Papers

Insight from a Colleague

Carl Burgchardt in Speech Communications speaks eloquently of his goals as he comments in the margins of students' papers. He attempts, he says, "to emulate a dialogue..., to show an intelligent mind engaged with the text." He tries to frame comments as questions to reinforce that dialogue.

He also notes that based on long experience he has found that he gets the best results with students when he spends his time discussing the assignment and what it calls for. He helps students define the task and strategies for tackling it. And he often provides students with a sample paper and critique to show them how to read his dialogue in the margins and to benefit from seeing what other students have done.

He notes finally that he always asks himself if he's written anything on the paper that he wouldn't want to have the student's mom read. His margin notes are clearer and more helpful when he keeps that rule of thumb in mind.

Strategies For Commenting At The End Of Student Papers

Insight from a Colleague

Manfred J. Ennsle, History

Fred prefers the book review to the standard term paper because it helps students stay more focused and lets them engage a "classic" text on history more fully than a term paper does. Moreover, because the review must include both synopsis and critique, he's able to reward content and critical thinking in his commentary on the papers. He writes both marginal notations and end comments with a focus on "positive achievements."

In Brief

I recently reviewed an article for a colleague at Colorado School of Mines, and our advice may sound redundant but it reinforces certain points that I think will help as you think about teaching in the margins. The specific advice offered to geoscientists includes these five key points about commenting.

  1. As a rule of thumb, include a summary comment with no more than two or three strengths and two or three areas for improvement.
  2. Focus on global issues, not minutia.
  3. Marginal comments should be brief, few, and should substantiate the summary comment.
  4. Communicate your expectations and stick to them.
  5. Use rubrics to save time and increase assignment efficiency.

Jon A. Leydens and Paul Santi, "Optimizing Faculty Use of Writing as a Learning Tool in Geoscience Education," The Journal of Geoscience Education.

Insight from a Colleague

SueEllen Campbell in the English Department takes a different approach to commenting on student work. In her view, the key to successful student writing and teacherly commentary is to set up the questions or tasks to engage students with the material. Even more important, she thinks of the writing as a semester-long assignment and so shapes her commentary to go along with the practice students get along the way. She comments much more on papers at the beginning of the term, but even then she limits herself to commenting on only one or two criteria. She adds more criteria for subsequent papers and she explains clearly to students her "sliding scale of standards." She often uses symbols as shortcuts when commenting on papers, and then she explains the symbols and expands her explanations with student samples in class.

More Suggestions from Experienced Teachers of Composition

When I shift my perspective from commenting as assessment to commenting as teaching, I find that my comments are more helpful for students and the whole process seems more worthwhile. As another teacher put it: "Consider all "final papers" actually another draft. It has changed my perspective on comments, giving them more positive points to go on instead of 'final judgments.'" Other experienced writing teachers add their insights in the sections below.

Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Begin

Concentrate on Key Strategies for End Comments

  1. Move from questions to more directive comments as you progress through the semester.
  2. Follow a directive comment with suggestions.
  3. Note resources where students can get more help.
  4. Refer to specific pages in a writing guide if you assign one for the class.
  5. Think ahead to the next paper and note key issues that the student can focus on.
  6. Trust your instincts as a reader and don't be afraid to give a reader response.
  7. Don't use end comments only to justify a grade.

Strategies For Making Your Time Feel Productive

Insight from a Colleague

Bob Hoffert, Professor in the Philosophy Department, notes that "one of the things we must consider is that writing on papers or exams is not primarily a matter of assessment but one of the integral components of teaching. If I want to teach an appreciation of philosophy [in my freshman-level course], writing is one of the most important things I do. Grading isn't a joy. But it is easier to take on because I see it as a way of teaching, making me more self-conscious about setting up the assignment and commenting on their papers."

Insights Into The Commenting Process

  1. Read all the papers through once without marking at all to get a sense of how everyone did on the assignment.
  2. Slap sticky notes on each paper after you read it for the first time indicating your gut feelings on the grade and why you'd give it that grade (B--good focus, unity, coherence; some problems in development, but not major. D--serious problems in focus, unity, coherence, etc.)
  3. Plan your schedule so you read and final grade no more than 5-6 in a row.
  4. Read each essay through another time without marking--have a sheet handy with Strengths/Weaknesses columns.
  5. Write end notes based on strengths/weaknesses, then go back and indicate in margins parts that are strong and parts that are weak.
  6. Grade a handful, take one or two graded essays and bury them in the huge pile of not-yet-graded as a delightful surprise/reward for later.

Time-Saving Tips

Commenting on Drafts Rather Than Final Products

Commenting happens on drafts as well as on final products. The best commenting takes account of where students are in their drafting/revising process and is an opportunity to actively continue the teaching process. A combination of notes both in the margins and at the end of students' papers gives students both big-picture feedback about what works well in the paper and specific pointers about where to concentrate their attention as they proceed with the next draft or the next assignment.

Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Begin

What is your purpose in providing comments at this stage in the drafting process? How can you use this opportunity to help writers further understand the goals of the assignment?

Which rhetorical concerns are most important to emphasize with the writer at this stage (audience, publication context, visual layout)? Should the writer be considering audience, purpose, credibility or working toward a stronger sense of style? Consider how your comments might inspire focused revision.

How can your comments be constructed to offer both support for the current draft and suggestions for revision? How many comments will the writer be able to address before the next deadline?

Insight from a Colleague

In her commenting on the student writing project, Alicia Cook in Human Development focuses as much as possible on ways to help students continue developing skills for lifelong learning. Structure and sequence is key. She meets with groups as they begin to develop their proposal, and she spends more time on drafts than on final projects. She also notes that helping students see themselves as professionals and assigning relevant writing tasks (for their professional activities in the future) helps students make this leap from student to professional. As she puts it, "When students see the relevance of writing, it takes on a life of its own."

Rubrics for Commenting and Grading

Although rubrics cannot substitute completely for individualized commentary in the margins and at the end of papers, they can save enough time to allow teachers who might not otherwise assign writing to do so. And simply by writing more, students do improve over time. (Like any other physical and cognitive skill, practice with writing does improve performance over time.) So if a rubric will allow you to have students write, then by all means use a rubric.

You'll find, however, that a carefully designed rubric will give you much more payback for time invested than a rubric that isn't as detailed or as clearly articulated. The following sections define the key components of rubrics and collect advice from various sources about the best ways to develop effective rubrics.

What Makes an Effective Rubric?

The most effective rubrics lay out three kinds of information for students:

  1. the key evaluative criteria, defined as concretely as possible,
  2. an evaluative range for each criterion so that students can see where they succeeded (or not) for each criterion, and
  3. weightings for each criterion.

Rubrics typically are set up as tables with criteria running down the left side of the table and the evaluative scale running across the table. Teachers sometimes leave the right-most block on each line of the grid for handwritten comments or for a "score" for the criterion.

Many teachers also choose to write a very brief individual comment below the grid as a summation of the key points for students to attend to or to praise students for success on the assignment. We include several examples of typical rubrics in the following sections.

Rubric for Conducting an Experiment in the Lab

(From Stevens, D. D., & Levi, A. J. (2005). Introduction to Rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback and promote student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing; pp. 96-97.)

Task description: Conduct the assigned lab using the procedures and methods described below. Turn in your laboratory report at the beginning of the next class period.

  Exemplary Competent Needs Work

All materials needed are present and entered on the lab report. The materials are appropriate for the procedure. The student is not wasteful of the materials.

All materials needed are present, but not all are entered on the lab report, or some materials are absent and must be obtained during the procedure. The materials are appropriate for the procedure.

All materials needed are not present and are not entered on the lab report. The materials are not all appropriate for the procedure or there are some major omissions.


The procedure is well designed and allows control of all variables selected. All stages of the procedure are entered on the lab report.

The procedure could be more efficiently designed, but it allows control of all variables selected. Most stages of the procedure are entered on the lab report.

The procedure does not allow control of all variables selected. Many stages of the procedure are not entered on the lab report.

Courtesy and safety

While conducting the procedure, the student is tidy, respectful of others, mindful of safety, and leaves the area clean.

While conducting the procedure, the student is mostly tidy, sometimes respectful of others, sometimes mindful of safety, and leaves the area clean only after being reminded.

While conducting the procedure, the student is untidy, not respectful of others, not mindful of safety, and leaves the area messy even after being reminded.


Research question and hypothesis are stated clearly, and the relationship between the two is clear. The variables are selected.

Research question and hypothesis are stated, but one or both are not as clear as they might be, or the relationship between the two is unclear. The variables are selected.

Research question and hypothesis are not stated clearly, and the relationship between the two is unclear or absent. The variables are not selected.

Data collection

Raw data, including units, are recorded in a way that is appropriate and clear. The title of the data table is included.

Raw data, including units, are recorded although not as clearly or appropriately as they might be. The title of the data table is included.

Raw data, including units, are not recorded in a way that is appropriate and clear. The title of the data table is not included.

Data analysis

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that best facilitate understanding and interpretation. Error analysis is included.

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that can be understood and interpreted, although not as clearly as they might be. Error analysis is included.

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that are very unclear. Error analysis is not included.

Evaluation of experiment

The results are fully interpreted and compared with literature values. The limitations and weaknesses are discussed and suggestions are made as to how to limit or eliminate them.

The results are interpreted and compared with literature values, but not as fully as they might be. The limitations and weaknesses are discussed, but few or no suggestions are made as to how to limit or eliminate them.

The results are not interpreted in a logical way or compared with literature values. The limitations and weaknesses are not discussed, nor are suggestions made as to how to limit or eliminate them.

Grading Rubric for Metamorphosis Paper

From Stevens, D.D., & Levi, A.J. (2005). Introcution to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time and Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing; pp. 70-71.

Task description: Write a research paper about a person, institution, or movement that has created or sought to create significant change.

High mastery
Average mastery
Low mastery
  • An inviting introduction draws the reader in, a satisfying conclusion leaves the reader with a sense of closure and resolution.
  • The paper has a recognizable introduction and conclusion, but the introduction may not create a strong sense of anticipation or the conclusion may not tie the paper into a coherent whole.
  • There is no real lead-in to set up what follows and no real conclusion to wrap things up.
  • There is a clear thesis.
  • There is a thesis, but it is ambiguous or unfocused.
  • There is no clear thesis.
  • Transitions are thoughtful and clearly show how ideas connect.
  • Transitions often work well, but some leave connections between ideas fuzzy.
  • Connections between ideas are often confusing or missing.
  • Uses an appropriate variety of sources, which are well integrated and support the author’s points.
  • Sources generally support the author’s points, but more or a greater variety need to be cited.
  • Citations are infrequent or often seem to fail to support the author’s points.
  • Quotations, paraphrases and summaries are used and cited appropriately.
  • Quotations, paraphrases, and summaries generally work but occasionally interfere with the flow of the writing, seem irrelevant, or are incorrectly cited.
  • Quotations, paraphrases, and summaries tend to break the flow of the piece, become monotonous, don’t seem to fit or are not cited.
  • Uses the proper format (APA, MLA, etc.)
  • Uses the proper format but there are occasional errors.
  • Frequent errors in format or incorrect format used.
  • Sequencing is logical and effective.
  • Sequencing shows some logic, but it is not under complete control and may be so predictable that the reader finds it distracting.
  • Sequencing seems illogical, disjointed, or forced.
  • Punctuation is accurate, even creative, and guides the reader effectively through the text.
  • End punctuation is correct, but internal punctuation is sometimes missing or wrong.
  • Punctuation is often missing or incorrect, including terminal punctuation.
  • Grammar and usage contribute to the clarity; conventions, if manipulated for stylistic effect, work.
  • There are problems with grammar or usage, but they are not serious enough to distort meaning.
  • Errors in grammar or usage are frequent enough to become distracting and interfere with meaning.
  • Voice and style are appropriate for the type of paper assigned.
  • Voice and style don’t quite fit with the type of paper assigned.
  • Voice and style are not appropriate for the type of paper assigned.
  • Paragraphs are well-focused and coherent.
  • Paragraphs occasionally lack focus or coherence.
  • Paragraphs generally lack focus or coherence.
Critical Thinking    
  • The paper displays insight and originality of thought.
  • There are some original ideas, but many seem obvious or elementary.
  • There are few original ideas; most seem obvious or elementary.
  • There is sound and logical analysis that reveals clear understanding of the relevant issues.
  • Analysis is generally sound, but there are lapses in logic or understanding.
  • Analysis is superficial or illogical; the author seems to struggle to understand the relevant issues.
  • There is an appropriate balance of factual reporting, interpretation and analysis, and personal opinion.
  • The balance between factual reporting, interpretation and analysis, and personal opinion seems skewed.
  • There is a clear imbalance between factual reporting, interpretation and analysis, and personal opinion.
  • The author goes beyond the obvious in constructing interpretation of the facts.
  • Paper shows understanding of relevant issues but lacks depth.
  • Author appears to misunderstand or omit key issues.
  • Telling and accurate details are used to reinforce the author’s arguments.
  • Generally accurate details are included but the reader is left with questions—more information is needed to fill in the blanks.
  • There are few details or most details seem irrelevant.
  • The paper is convincing and satisfying.
  • The paper leaves the reader vaguely skeptical and unsatisfied.
  • The paper leaves the reader unconvinced.
  • The paper addresses a topic within the context of promoting personal, social/cultural/political, or paradigmatic change.
  • The paper addresses a topic within the context of promoting personal, social/cultural/political, or paradigmatic change.
  • The paper needs to be substantially more closely related to promoting personal, social/cultural/political, or paradigmatic change.
  • The paper is complete and leaves no important aspect of the topic not addressed.
  • The paper is substantially complete, but more than one important aspect of the topic is not addressed.
  • The paper is clearly incomplete with many important aspects of the topic left out.
  • The author has a good grasp of what is known, what is generally accepted, and what is yet to be discovered.
  • The author has a good grasp of the relevant information but fails to distinguish between what is known, what is generally accepted, and what is yet to be discovered.
  • The author has a poor grasp of the relevant information.
  • Appropriate significance is assigned to the information presented and irrelevant information is rarely included.
  • The paper often uses information in a way inappropriate to its significance or includes much irrelevant information.
  • The paper frequently uses information inappropriately or uses irrelevant information.
  • Connections between the topic of the paper and related topics are made that enhance understanding.
  • Few connections are made to related topics.
  • No connections are made to related topics to help clarify the information presented.
  • Specialized terminology, if used, is used correctly and precisely.
  • Specialized terminology is sometimes incorrectly or imprecisely used.
  • Specialized terminology is frequently misused.
  • The author seems to be writing from personal knowledge or experience.
  • The author seems to be writing from knowledge or experience but has difficulty going from general observations to specifics.
  • The work seems to be a simple restatement of the assignment or a simple, overly broad answer to a question with little evidence of expertise on the part of the author.

Scoring Rubric for Projects, Consulting-Style Reports, and Reports on Technical Topics

(From Jon A. Leydens and Paul Santi, "Optimizing Faculty Use of Writing as a Learning Tool in Geoscience Education," [in press] The Journal of Geoscience Education.)


1 - Exemplary

2 - Proficient

3 - Apprentice

4 - Novice

Format / layout / organization

Report tells a very clear, coherent story with excellent transitions

Report is clear and tells a coherent story, strong throughout

Report has some gaps in story, some weak sections

Report is poorly organized, missing key sections

Writing mechanics

Report is virtually error-free, and contains few if any reader distractions

Report is logical and easy to read, and may contain a few errors causing minimal reader distraction

Report is generally clear, but distracting errors and flow make it difficult to follow at times

Report contains many distracting mistakes, making it generally difficult to follow

Persuasive writing

Every idea or conclusion is logically supported by relevant facts, and includes judgment of the reliability of data

Every idea or conclusion is logically supported by relevant facts

Relates ideas and conclusions to facts or concepts taught as fact

Opinion and fact not clearly separated.  Basis for opinions is unclear at times.

Figures / Tables

All figures and tables are easy to understand, and are clearly linked to the text.

Story can be told almost entirely through figures.

All figures and tables can be understood with information given and are linked to text.  One or more need improvement.
May need more figures to tell the story.

Figures and/or tables are hard to understand, are not all linked to text.  Several need improvement.

Several more figures are needed to tell story.

Figures are hard to understand, and are not adequate to advance the story.

Tables are not useable as presented.


All sources identified and referenced appropriately.  Evidence of careful and thorough research for outside information.

All sources identified and referenced appropriately.  Includes mostly readily available works.

All sources identified.  Only readily-available works included.  Some weaknesses in referencing, such as missing publisher information.

Sources not identified, not sufficiently thorough, not referenced properly, or not used.

Typical Grade (average):





The Differences between Rubrics for Holistic Scoring and for Analytic Response

Depending on your goals as you evaluate papers, you'll want to consider whether to assign a "holistic score" to a paper or to analyze specific elements of students writing to give more detailed response.

In brief, holistic scoring gives students a single, overall assessment score for the paper as a whole. Analytic scoring provides students with at least a rating score for each criterion, though often the rubric for analytic scoring offers teachers enough room to provide some feedback on each criterion.

Holistic Scoring in More Detail

As previously noted, holistic scoring gives students a single, overall assessment score for the paper as a whole. Although the scoring rubric for holistic scoring will lay out specific criteria just as the rubric for analytic scoring does, readers do not assign a score for each criterion in holistic scoring. Rather, as they read, they balance strengths and weaknesses among the various criteria to arrive at an overall assessment of success or effectiveness of a paper. The CSU composition placement exam (administered from 1977-2004 and then replaced by the Composition Challenge Exam for a smaller number of students) relied for many years on a 9-point scale for overall assessment. Although the composition program now uses a 6-point scale, the rubric functions in much the same way. Notice that the four key criteria are defined most concretely for "upper-range" papers. Deficits from the most effective demonstration of the criteria characterize the "mid-range" and "lower-range" papers.

A reader writes nothing on the paper itself and assigns the holistic score after reading the paper carefully and completely. A second reader, who does not see the first score, independently reads and assigns a second holistic score. If the two scores differ by more than 2 points, then a third reader scores the paper as well. Inter-rater reliability (the percentage of papers given the same score or differing by one point) should fall between .85 and .90 for sound holistic scoring. Readers who read the same kinds of papers regularly (including students in a large class) can easily be trained to reach acceptable inter-rater reliability scores.

AP exams and the SAT II writing test both use holistic scoring to assess student writing skills.

CSU Composition Exam Grading Guide

9-8: The upper-range responses satisfy the following criteria:

  1. Summary The summary should identify and distinguish between Sulloway's birth order thesis and Devlin's disagreement with Sulloway. It should note some of the reasons why Devlin disagrees with Sulloway, e.g. unscientific, illogical, subjective, and/or not very useful.
  2. Focus of agreement and/or disagreement Agreement/disagreement may be complete or partial, but the writer must establish, explain, and maintain the focus of agreement/disagreement with Devlin's argument.
  3. Support for agreement and/or disagreement Support should provide an analysis of Devlin's argument and/or relevant and concrete examples from the writer's experience or general knowledge.
  4. Style and coherence These papers demonstrate clear style, overall organization, consecutiveness of thought, and often a strong, effective voice. They contain few errors in usage, grammar, or mechanics.

7: This score should be used for papers which fulfill the basic requirements for the 9 8 grade but have less development, support, or analysis.

6-5: Middle-range papers omit or are deficient in one of the four criteria:

  1. Summary Summary absent, inaccurate, incomplete, or implicit.
  2. Focus of agreement/disagreement What the writer is agreeing/disagreeing with is not clear, is not well-maintained, or is not related to Devlin's main argument.
  3. Support Writer only asserts or counter asserts; writer's examples are highly generalized or not distinguishable from examples given in the article; the writer's analysis of Devlin's argument may be specious, irrelevant, inaccurate, or thin.
  4. Style and coherence These papers are loosely organized or contain noticeable errors in usage, grammar, or mechanics. They may have a strong but inappropriate voice.

4: This grade should be used for papers which fulfill the basic requirement for the 6 5 grade but are slightly weaker. Essays that do not respond to the prompt but are otherwise satisfactory typically receive a 4.

3: Lower range papers are deficient in two or more of the criteria--typically, they have no summary and no support. Often these papers are preachy, cliched, or platitudinous OR they have noticeable organization/coherence problems.

2: Papers with serious, repeated errors in usage, grammar or mechanics OR papers with significant focus or coherence problems that seriously disrupt communication must be given a 2.

1: This grade should be given to those papers which have overwhelming problems.

Sample With No Individual Comment




Needs Work

Data analysis

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that best facilitate understanding and interpretation. Error analysis is included.

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that can be understood and interpreted, although not as clearly as they might be. Error analysis is included.

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that are very unclear. Error analysis is not included.

Sample With Individual Comment




Needs Work


Data analysis

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that best facilitate understanding and interpretation. Error analysis is included.

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that can be understood and interpreted, although not as clearly as they might be. Error analysis is included.

Data are presented in ways (charts, tables, graphs) that are very unclear. Error analysis is not included.

The chart on p. 2 helps readers see the relative percentages, but the table on p. 4 is confusing and difficult to read.

Critiquing a Sample Rubric

Take a look at the sample rubric borrowed from From "Optimizing Faculty Use of Writing as a Learning Tool in Geoscience Education" by Jon A. Leydens and Paul Santi, in press at The Journal of Geoscience Education.

Its most successful feature is the careful distinction in the evaluative range running across the table for each criterion. A student receiving this rubric with his or her paper would be able to tell pretty quickly which criteria needed more attention or where the student can best spend time on a subsequent paper. What the rubric could do still more clearly is define the criteria themselves more fully. As teachers move from task to task, they may, in fact, want to assess how students demonstrate their understanding of concepts. But a quick update of the rubric for a specific writing assignment could help students see whether the assignment calls for demonstrating understanding of new concepts, linking new concepts with material already covered, extending classwork into independent work, and so on.

Teachers can provide this fuller definition of the key criteria in a more detailed sheet with the assignment itself, or they can cover that material in the classroom. But students will get more out of the feedback on the rubric if teachers remember to give students concrete definitions of key criteria.


1 - Exemplary

2 - Proficient

3 - Apprentice

4 - Novice

of facts

Touches on every
important fact related to the topic

Covers the critical facts related to the topic

Covers a majority of facts related to the topic

Contains only some of the obvious facts

Demonstrated understanding

Original wording,
analogies, or examples.  Applies taught concepts to answer the question.

Steps beyond simple recall and attempts to interpret ideas to better answer the question

Recalls appropriate concepts or examples to address question

Apparent misconception(s) or knowledge gap(s)

Linking of

Carefully evaluates
multiple topics that apply to the question,
and synthesizes them into a coherent answer

Incorporates multiple concepts to answer the question and demonstrates judgment in applying concepts

Answers the question using several concepts or topics

Answers the question using a single concept or topic


Every idea or conclusion is logically supported by relevant facts.  Includes judgment of data reliability.

Every idea or conclusion is logically supported by relevant facts

Relates ideas and conclusions to facts or concepts taught as fact

Opinion and fact not clearly separated.  Basis for opinions is unclear at times.






One additional element might also help students. In this rubric, all four criteria seem to be weighted equally. When that's the case, you don't need to provide the weightings. But if you want to shift the emphasis among criteria as you give subsequent assignments or if you simply want to give more weight to a particular criterion, you should reflect that assessment practice on the rubric itself.

A Process For Designing A Helpful Rubric

Perhaps the single most important element of designing a rubric is to ask yourself what you want to emphasize as you read and respond to the writing assignment. This question is key to developing a good writing assignment in the first place, and it's also key to constructing a useful rubric. If at all possible, create the rubric as part of your work developing the writing assignment per se. Students appreciate seeing the rubric early on as a way to focus on key components of the assignment, and you'll be sure that you emphasize the same points as you present the assignment to your students and as you evaluate papers.

In brief, here are workable steps to develop an effective scoring rubric.

List Key Elements To Assess

Start by listing the key elements you feel are most important to respond to in this assignment. (Don't use a generic rubric because you'll feel compelled to include someone else's criteria.) Eventually, these elements will become the criteria you'll list in the left-hand boxes of your table. But think carefully about these elements. Do you really need to include all of them in your assessment of this piece of writing? Might some be combined? Might some be pulled apart so that you can give students more detailed response? Don't rush through this part of the process because the more time you spend on this step and the next two, the more useful the rubric will be overall.

Refine Your List After You Define The Criteria As Concretely As Possible

Take each criterion and define just what you mean. Although you'll see many sample rubrics with abstract or general terms in the criteria column, the best rubrics draw on shared knowledge about key features of writing. If you've talked with students in class about what you mean by "demonstrated understanding," then you may not need to define the term in your rubric. But if you can help students by providing a gist of what you mean by a concept, use your rubric to do so. You'll also find that by defining terms, you'll clarify in your own mind what's most important to comment on.

For example, sometimes teachers think that "organization" is a key criterion. But what they mean is not whether students use appropriate headings (adequate for their understanding of organization) but how well students help readers move through the paper as a whole, and that movement might be helped by headings in addition to transitions, repetition of key terms, forecast maps, and other devices that create coherence for readers.

Thus, defining criteria can help you refine your overall list of criteria and can help make assessment of papers easier and faster.

Set Out Your Evaluative Range For Each Criterion

Sometimes, you'll want to set the standard of excellence very high, for instance in an upper-division course with students who have had lots of practice with disciplinary writing skills. In other instances, you'll want to give students some slack. Defining the range of performance allows you to moderate your expectations for each criterion and for each assignment.

Particularly for those teachers who give multiple opportunities for students to practice a particular kind of paper (say in a laboratory course with multiple lab reports), setting the standards at a relatively low level at the beginning of the course will allow students to experience some success. But this teacher will want to raise the standards as the sequence of assignments progresses so that students are achieving at the highest levels by the end of the term. When you adjust your evaluative range, be sure to tell students that you're raising the bar.

As you define the evaluative range, more detail is more helpful for students than not. You'll save time in the long-run if you define what a superior, good, and average paper looks like on this criterion before you even begin assessing papers.

Check The Weightings Of Your Criteria

In one of my courses, revising a draft to take account of a specified audience is among the most important skills I want students to practice and learn. So my evaluation criteria stress audience awareness and accommodation as vitally important. A student could write a clear, readable academic paper that might receive an A in another course, but because the paper must address a non-academic audience in my class, it would receive no better than a C. If you have similar criteria that count for most of the overall assessment of your assignments, then be sure you alert students to the final weightings of criteria.

Some teachers prefer to note the weight of criteria on the assignment sheet; others only note the weightings on the rubric. Where you tell students about the relative importance of criteria is not as important as telling students what your weightings are. Providing that information on both the assignment sheet and the rubric will almost certainly help students.

Decide If You Want To Give Feedback On Each Criterion Or Only A Summative Comment

Although it seems like such a small point, planning ahead on this item saves headaches down the road. I've seen teachers' rubrics that fill the page leaving only the tiniest possible margins. When the teacher wanted to write additional comments, she had to use the back of the sheet. Then students couldn't always link the specific comment with the criterion the teacher was commenting on.

In the interests of clarity and lower blood pressure, decide if you want to leave extra space for handwritten notes (or computer generated notes if you prefer to print each rubric individually for students in your class). If the extra space will only make you feel guilty for not writing comments, then fill your page with just enough space for an "emergency" comment to a student who needs special help. If you give yourself only a small column to write comments in, you may find that you can focus your comments on only the most important ones to give to students.

Final advice: if you decide to write comments, be sure they don't repeat what you have noted elsewhere on your rubric. You've developed the rubric so carefully to save time, so don't lose that advantage by repeating yourself on individual student responses.

Make Clear Where The Overall Grade Appears On Your Final Rubric Sheet

For those teachers who write a summative comment below the grid on a rubric sheet, the overall grade pretty naturally falls into this space on the page. But for teachers who don't plan to write such comments, be sure you have a clearly identified space where students can see not only how they scored on each criterion but on the paper as a whole.

Experienced Teacher Offer These Reminders

Setting up an assignment and rubric:

  1. Think about possible audiences for the assigned paper. And then show students what you mean by that audience because students won't know what a good paper looks like.
  2. Think about what would help students succeed with the task and give some suggestions for specific writing strategies-for example, a backwards outline to check transitions between chunks of the text.
  3. Students appreciate as much clarity as possible in the assignment itself.
  4. Use both the assignment and rubric to set up your hierarchy of concerns.
  5. Also use both the assignment and rubric to state your criteria for the assignment clearly.
  6. If you assign a sequence of assignments during the semester, note when your criteria get more complex or when you set higher standards.
  7. Be sure to provide definitions of key criteria either on the assignment sheet or rubric (or on both).
  8. Provide samples, if possible, on a class web page.

Insight from a Colleague

Mona Schatz of Social Work uses a rubric based on Bloom's taxonomy "pretty religiously" because it helps her avoid her biases. Keeping the rubric in mind as she designs her assignments helps her move from objectives in the assignment to criteria on the rubric. And, she notes, she writes on both the papers and the rubrics. She uses the margins of the papers to note points students miss or to help students further explore a line of thinking. She writes her summary comment on the rubric sheet so that she can consider both the depth and breadth of their work.

Helping Students Understand the Importance of Careful Editing

One of the most common responses to the question, "Why did you give me a paper so full of mistakes?" is this: "You're the teacher; you HAVE to read the paper." Sadly, students often see teachers as a captive audience who will just put up with whatever text flows from the keyboard or pen.

Most students can edit their papers, and they often believe that editing doesn't matter so they don't take the time to do it. Or they wait too long to finish a paper and don't have time to edit. Sometimes the biggest part of the problem is getting students' attention focused on editing. Teachers who don't want to be distracted by proofreading errors or relatively simple editorial glitches report that the number of errors diminishes quickly when 10-20% of a final grade is based on editing.

But if you don't like carrying such a big stick, then a couple of other strategies might help you get cleaner papers with few editing and proofreading problems:

Set up a Professional Audience for the Writing Assignment

Even though they might be dismissive of you because you're a teacher, students rarely are so flippant about giving shoddy work to potential employers. Most students have heard the horror stories (urban legend or not) about the person highly qualified for a job whose letter of application went into the wastebasket because of a typo.

If you raise the stakes for writers by setting a professional context for their writing - submission to a journal, a stakeholder audience, or a potential employer - then students are much more likely to care about the final product. So try building in an audience other than the teacher for your writing assignments.

Explain the Relationship between Editing and Credibility

Most students don't think about the connection between how they put a final paper together and the impact the "look" of the paper has on a reader. The ubiquity of word processors has exacerbated the problem, moreover, because students can easily fool themselves into believing that because a document is nicely printed, they've done the job of presenting a paper.

Simply reminding students that readers need to trust writers can help you make a strong case for careful editing. Ask about their own experiences as readers. If they read a college newspaper that has at least one typo in every article, do they feel confident about the credibility of the writers? Even if they haven't made a conscious judgment about credibility, students will note that college newspapers aren't as professional as big-city newspapers. Part of that judgment comes from subconscious awareness of errors repeatedly showing up in articles.

Readers who see proofreading and editing errors in papers react in exactly the same ways. These readers are more likely to dismiss the professionalism of the writers, and they are even more likely to question data, evidence, and sources in an error-ridden paper.

Professionals and publishers don't edit simply because they want to give readers clear and easy-to-read texts but because they know that edited work keeps intact the writers' credibility as reliable and professional.

Explain the Relationship between Editing and Reading Ease

Drawing on students' reading experience also helps them understand how easily they can lose readers' attention. Ask how many of them have skipped over an article when the first paragraph or two didn't seem interesting? How many have skipped a newspaper or magazine item completely because the headline or title didn't appeal to them? Readers take only a few seconds to make up their minds to read newspaper and magazine articles. But once the reader is started, only a few errors can change the reader's mind about finishing an article.

Reading ease is one of the key features that keeps readers going through a text. If sentences are hard to read, readers often get bored. If errors confuse readers, some will stop reading rather than work to figure out the meaning behind the garbled sentences.

So if students want to communicate with their readers - all the way through a text - then students need to be sure to give readers a text that doesn't distract or confuse. And that means editing carefully and proofreading for correctness.

Helping Students Learn How to Fix Their Own Errors

As students rely more and more on the features built into word processing programs now, they look less closely for editing and proofreading errors. Sadly, many students see the elements flagged by their word processing programs and don't recognize the problem, so they ignore the flag. You can help students become better at final preparation of their papers just by pointing out that those flags are worth attending to.

Even more important, students often don't spend time editing and proofreading because they don't understand where these processes fit into the overall process of drafting and revising a paper. They sometimes edit too early - before a draft is even complete - and then assume that all their editing is finished. Or they sometimes leave themselves no time for editing and hand in the paper hot off the printer.

Here are some simple strategies to help encourage students to take editing more seriously:

Editing and Proofreading Strategies

Proofreading is a process separate from revising. Proofreading is the very last step writers go through to be sure that the text is presentable. Proofreading generally involves minor changes in spelling and punctuation, but it can also include more extensive editing.

Editing Strategies

It's easiest to approach editing as a multi-step process that starts with paragraphs or sentences in clusters and moves to smaller elements of the text (e.g., commas and apostrophes). If you know you have trouble with some levels of language, plan to leave enough time to edit on that level more than once before you turn the paper in.

Proofreading Strategies

Proofreading is the very last step in preparing a final draft. Just because it's the last step, though, don't assume that it will go quickly. Sometimes you'll need two or more additional "passes" through a paper to be sure you've found all the remaining typographical errors, misplaced pieces of punctuation, or inaccurate words.

A Proofreading Checklist

  1. Proofread a paper several times, never just once while the paper is on the screen or just after you finish typing or writing.
  1. Proofread one sentence at a time, from the end of the paper to the beginning. Look especially for sentence punctuation and any errors you know you often make. By looking at each sentence-because it will be out of context-you'll see more of the punctuation errors and missing words than you will catch by reading from the beginning to the end of the paper.
  1. Proofread once more, looking for problems you know of in your writing. Always make one special reading just for your common flaws and errors.
  1. Read the paper aloud. Sometimes, because you have to read more slowly to read aloud, you'll "hear" problems that you otherwise miss as you read the paper silently. Pay special attention to the sound of words (check for endings) and of sentences (check for sentence fragments and for choppy sentences that should be combined).
  1. Proofread slowly, reading each word from right to left and from bottom to top on the page; in other words, read backwards so that you catch spelling or typing errors. Or read the entire paper from the end to the beginning. By looking at each word-because it will be out of context-you'll see more of the spelling errors than you will catch with your current proofreading process.

If You're Determined To Mark Errors, Try This Approach

  1. Write out your hierarchy of errors. You can base your hierarchy on pet peeves or you can use one that ranks errors by how disruptive they are for readers.
  1. On the first paper you assign, mark only the error at the top of the list. Circle the error where it first appears. Provide an explanation in the margin. (Some teachers write explanations and store them as separate word processing files. They then print out only those explanations pertinent to a given paper.) When the error appears again in the paper, circle it again but don't provide any additional explanation.
  1. On the second paper you assign, put an X in the margin where the error that you explained on paper 1 appears in the second paper. Then move to the next error or two in your ordered list. Circle and explain those errors.

Depending on how many papers you assign, you can work well down your hierarchy of error.

Why adopt this approach rather than the "mark everything" approach? Two reasons:

  1. Marking everything takes too much time and is more likely to confuse than help the student. You'll get more and more upset as the errors continue. Students are more likely than not to dismiss your marks because you've now fixed the paper so they don't have to.
  1. When you indicate that an error occurs but you don't show the student where exactly they've stumbled, the student will look more closely at the sentence. Only when students take the time to analyze the problem are they likely to learn to correct it. Eventually, especially if you require that students edit for themselves (either as a follow-up exercise or on the next paper), students will learn to look for the errors identified this way before they turn papers in.

For students with multiple errors, one-on-one instruction tends to work much better than large-group instruction.

Which Errors Confuse Readers Most?

Think about your own reading experiences. When you have to stop reading to go back over an incomplete or badly structured sentence, you lose momentum. Likewise, when you have to re-read sentences to track pronoun references or subject-verb agreement, you can lose the thread of the text as a whole. Thus, sentence structure errors tend to be at the top of most hierarchies of confusing errors. These problems are closely followed by faulty pronoun reference and subject-verb disagreements.

Those errors that are less and less noticeable usually fall at the bottom of the hierarchy. For many readers, these errors don't even slow down readers. Sometimes, surprising errors fall into this category. As we have become more and more accustomed to following a singular noun with a gender neutral pronoun (the student....they), many readers skip right over the pronoun agreement error that would have stopped readers in their track 60 years ago. Similarly, as more and more publications lose track of correct use of apostrophes to mark possession, most readers don't even notice missing apostrophes.

In creating your own hierarchy of errors, you should probably tell students your ranking criteria - potential to confuse readers, strict grammatical correctness, ease of reading, and so on.

Refresher: An Overview of the Rhetorical Context

Although "rhetoric" gets a bad rap in the popular media, the term actually refers to the means of persuasion one speaker or writer uses in communicating with others. Based on a tradition of over 3000 years of thinking and study, rhetoric includes more than just persuasive speaking or writing. Some teachers argue that all speaking and writing is persuasive because we always try to get listeners or readers to adopt our point of view to understand our message. But even if we don't take such an extreme view of communication, we can imagine that all speaking and writing takes place in a communicative situation that we can call the rhetorical context.

The Rhetorical Context -- Starting Points

Almost all our speaking or writing takes place between two or more people. Yes, sometimes people talk to themselves, and sometimes people write in journals they never want anyone else to read. But these instances are rare compared with the number of interpersonal communications involving language. When we focus on interpersonal communication, then we can begin to ask questions about what characterizes writing. (For simplicity, I'm going to talk about only writing from this point on.)

The Writer

Obviously, someone has to do the writing - the writer. Every writer brings a great deal of knowledge to every writing situation. We know how to form letters (with a pen/pencil or with the right key on the keyboard); we know how to shape grammatical sentences; we know about the topic we want to write about. Every writer also brings less obvious knowledge to the writing situation. We know when certain words might be offensive so we shouldn't use those in certain kinds of writing; we know from our own reading experiences that readers expect certain kinds of arrangements of material on the page; we know that e mail differs radically from a formal academic paper. In other words, as writers, we know a great deal about the language itself that we will use to construct the specific sentences, paragraphs, and text overall, and we tacitly know about formality (called register), types of formats (called genres), and cultural conventions for writing. But this latter kind of tacit knowledge can be slippery because we may not be aware of how much we know, and thus we may not think that knowledge is as important as the school-emphasized knowledge from writing classes.

The Reader

What else characterizes writing? Someone has to read it - the reader. Most of us as writers assume that the reader is just like we are, and that's a reasonable starting point for understanding readers. But most successful writers engage in more detailed analysis of readers: what they bring to reading and how writers can get and keep them engaged. As a starting point, though, it's safe to assume that the average reader knows how to construct meaning from a text, whether the text is handwritten or typed in any one of a hundred fonts. We can also assume for the moment that the reader picks up the piece of writing with good will, that is, the reader is willing to read and be engaged by the text.

The Topic or Subject

Clearly, a third element of writing is the topic or subject. Again, this element seems straightforward. We must have something to write about. In practice, though, what we say or write depends not only on what we know about the topic, but also what we assume the reader knows about the topic. Let me give you a brief example. If I write a brief e mail to an old friend about a hike we've planned, I can be cryptic because we've hiked together before. My message might be as short as "meet at trailhead at 7:30; my sandwiches, your drinks." But if I'm inviting someone new to the area to go hiking with me for the first time, I'll have to be much more specific: "I'll pick you up at 7:00. This trail is often muddy near the lake, but the fishing should be good so I'll bring an extra pole for you. Bring a lunch and plenty of water; I'll bring two rain ponchos." Because I can't assume that this newcomer has acquired fishing and hiking equipment, and may not even know about not drinking from streams and lakes, I have to be more explicit about the supplies we need to carry with us.

The Writing Triangle

These three elements are the most obvious parts of any writing situation, and when a writer communicates about a topic to a reader, the writer creates a message. You may have seen these elements in this relationship expressed as a communication triangle.

Communication Triangle

But the picture needs to be much more complex with an overlay of additional elements. We also need to indicate how these elements interact with a larger context.

Expanding the Initial Triangle

Why do you read? Sometimes people read because they're compelled to, especially by teachers or students. Sometimes people read to be entertained. Many people read to be informed about a topic, and some people read to understand current controversies. Other people read to understand a writer's emotional reaction to an experience; sometimes people read to spark reflections about their own experiences. Because reading requires an active construction of meaning, it's simply impossible to read without a goal. And because reading is purposeful or goal-oriented, then the purpose that readers bring to the reading is a key overlay on their participation in the communication triangle.


Similarly, writers don't write simply to fill time (that's called doodling). Writers also have goals or purposes when they write. Like the purposes readers bring to a text, writers write to inform, entertain, persuade, reflect, explore new ideas, release emotions, etc.

The most effective messages arise when the writer's goal matches the reader's goal as precisely as possible. In other words, when I write to explain the rhetorical context and you read to understand the rhetorical context, then those matching goals help me communicate with you. My text could still be flawed, and your understanding of my text could be flawed, but at least we're working toward paired goals that make the message most likely to be communicated. Readers and writers get into trouble when they work at cross-purposes, say when a writer tries to inform but the reader is looking for emotional self-reflection.

Revisiting the Graphic

Let's revisit the graphic of the communication triangle to make it more complex. Imagine that the writer's purpose adds a layer over the top of the original triangle, and that the reader's purpose adds another layer:


But let's not forget that these elements also interact. As a writer, if I know why you're reading, that affects why I write (my purpose), and it should also help shape what I include or cut from the text. In other words, what I know about my purpose and the reader's purpose affects my topic choices. Anything else I know about a target reader also affects what I include in a text. Similarly, what readers know about a writer can affect how they construct meaning from the writer's texts. So each of the elements in our graphic so far interact to affect the message that finally becomes the finished text.

Putting the More Complex Figure in Context

We still aren't finished, though, because these interactions don't take place in a vacuum. Writing also happens in a cultural and historical context at the very least. For instance, if I wrote about rhetoric 150 years ago, I would write much longer sentences and denser paragraphs because my readers would expect those. If we were living in 1850, I would, in effect, offend you with these short sentences and paragraphs. The historical conventions for text change dramatically over time.

So do cultural conventions. If we were reading and writing in 1850, we would be mostly upper- and middle-class city dwellers. Even in 1850, folks low on the socioeconomic scale were much less likely to be literate. Because candles were expensive and rural dwellers were much too busy to read, most publications were targeted to city dwellers. Moreover, as a woman, I wouldn't be taken seriously as a writer on this topic, so I probably couldn't publish anything on rhetoric unless I assumed a man's name. And women readers would be scarce-the brave or rebellious ones who subscribed to a lending library that might have secured a book on rhetoric for male readers who were assumed to be more interested in these ideas.

More on Context

It's easiest to see how historical and cultural context affects texts by using a specific example. Let's say you want to write an editorial on censorship in your local school district, but you live in a very small rural town that has a shrinking farm population. Most of the subscribers to the local paper and school board members are in their 50's and 60's because younger people have left the town for greater economic opportunity. What do you know about your readers? Unless they are extraordinary for other reasons, most of them finished high school 35 or more years ago when the curriculum was very different in its emphasis. Many of them may believe that older, traditional approaches to education were more effective than current approaches. (After all, they turned out just fine.)

Your readers may well believe that what was good enough for them in school--including a very limited number of carefully selected books to read--is good enough for teenagers now. If you were to argue that "classics" don't help teenagers deal with the problems they face today and that schools need to stop censoring books that tackle difficult problems, you'd need to be careful about the kinds of evidence you used to back up your position. If you include references to popular song lyrics or certain television programs in your editorial, these readers might not recognize the references or might even be offended by them. So the context of daily life with its moral values, political and economic judgments and geographic/historical/generational issues also plays an important role in shaping an effective message for specific readers.

Similarly, certain companies have a corporate culture that shapes the writing within that context. Reports have to be formatted in certain ways, and certain expressions are well-known and accepted within this small community. Once you become immersed in such a corporate culture, it's easy to write within these constraints. But learning your way around a new culture as a writer can be painful at first because the cultural conventions can make you feel like a "newbie" or an outsider, and in some corporate cultures public ridicule goes along with violating the conventions.

More Complicated Triangle

So consider this more complicated version of our communication triangle:

Complex Context

These elements are inextricably linked for us as readers and writers. To improve writing, teachers who comment on these features of the rhetorical context can help students reshape their understanding of the communicative context.

Finding Resources in your Discipline -- Starting Points for Commenting on Student Writing

Although there are typically dozens of articles in every discipline that consider writing and ways to integrate writing into disciplinary courses, relatively few take up issues of commenting on student work. The citations in these sections include at least some material about evaluating student writing. Despite the disciplinary labels, many of the listed articles give advice pertinent for any teacher integrating writing for any discipline.

In each section I've noted key articles and the full-text database you can use to access any online materials.

Agricultural Sciences

Aaron, D. K. (1996). Writing across the curriculum: Putting theory into practice in animal science courses. Journal of Animal Science, 74: 2810-2827.

Haug, M. (1996). How to incorporate and evaluate writing skills in animal science and dairy science courses. Journal of Animal Science, 74: 2835-2842.


Donnelly, J. P. (1989). A term paper project in large survey courses. The History Teacher, 22(2), 117-124. (available in Jstor)

Fannin, J. A. (1978). Student reports: How to increase their use and effectiveness. The History Teacher, 11(3), 361-366.

Johnson, M. H., & Cooper, S. L. (1994). Developing a system for assessing written art criticism. Art Education, 47(5), 21-26. (available in Jstor)

Strenski, E. (1982). Lightening the burden of assigned writing: Guides for self and peer evaluation. The History Teacher, 16(1), 9-17 (available in Jstor)

Tobin, K. A. (2001). To think on paper: Using assignments in the World History survey. The History Teacher, 34(4), 497-508. (available in Jstor)


Cohen, A. J., & Spencer, J. (1993). Using writing across the curriculum in economics: Is taking the plunge worth it? The Journal of Economic Education, 24(3), 219-230. (available in Jstor)

Dahlquist, J. R. (1995). Writing assignments in finance: Development and evaluation. Financial Practice and Education (spring/summer), 107-112.

Goode, H, & Thomen, C. (2001). Implementing an outcomes-based approach to university essay writing. South African Journal of Higher Education, 15(3), 194-99

Hansen, W. L. (1993). Teaching a writing intensive course in economics. The Journal of Economic Education, 24(3), 213-218. (available in Jstor)

McElroy, J. L. (1997). The mentor demonstration model: Writing with students in the senior economics seminar. The Journal of Economic Education, 28(1), 31-35. (available in Jstor)

Palmini, D. J. (1996). Using rhetorical cases to teach writing skills and enhance economic learning. The Journal of Economic Education, 27(3), 205-216. (available in Jstor)

Plutsky, S., & Wilson, B. A. (2001). Writing across the curriculum in a college of business and economics. Business Communication Quarterly, 64(4), 26-41.

Walstad, W. B. (2001). Improving assessment in university economics. Journal of Economic Education, 32(3), 281-294. (available in Jstor)


Côté, V., & Custeau, G. (1992). An integrating pedagogical tool based on writing articles. ACM. Pp. 38-41.

Evans, M.D. (1995). Student and faculty guide to improved technical writing. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 121(2), 114-122.

Helfers, C., Duerden, S., Garland, J., & Evans, D.L. (1999). An effective peer revision method for engineering students in first-year English courses. Proceeding of the 29th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. Pp. 13a6: 7-11.

Hudgins, R.R. (1987). Tips on teaching report writing. Chemical Engineering Education, 21(3), 130-32.

Kuhn, M.R.; & Vaught-Alexander, K. (1994). Context for writing in engineering curriculum. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 120(4), 392-399.

Ladd, B.C. (2003). It's all writing: Experience using rewriting to learn in introductory computer science. Journal of Computing in Small Colleges, 18(5), 57-64.

Moskal, B., Miller, K., Smith-King, L.A. (2002). Grading essays in computer ethics: Rubrics considered helpful. Proceeding of SIGCSE '02. ACM: 101-105.

Taylor, H.G., & Paine, K.M. (1993). An inter-disciplinary approach to the development of writing skills in computer science students.


Cook, J. W., & Craig, C. (1991). Writing mathematics. ERIC: ED 352 269. Gopen, G.D., & Smith, D.A. (1990). What's an assignment like you doing in a course like this?: Writing to learn mathematics. The College Mathematics Journal, 21(1), 2-19. (available in Jstor)

Natural Resources

Beiersdorfer, R. E., & Haynes, J. (1991). An integrated approach to geologic writing for non-science majors based on study of a California river. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 196-198.

Coles, K. S. (1991). Journal assignments in an introductory geology course help the student and teacher. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 187-189.

Davis, L. E.; Corner, H. M.; Eves, R. L.; & Urbanczyk, K. M. (1991). Student abstract writing as a tool for writing across the curriculum in large introductory geology course. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 178-180.

Evans, J. E. (1991). Research-grant proposals as a class writing assignment in a graduate-level geology course. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 221-223.

Halsor, S. P., Faul-Halsor, C. L., & Heaman, P. B. (1991). Enhanced student learning through writing in a physical geology class. Journal of Geological Education, 39:181-184.

Mirsky, A. (1991). Writing assignments as a continuum in geoscience education. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 232-236.

Niemitz, J. W., & Potter, N. (1991). The scientific method and writing in introductory landscape-development laboratories. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 190-195.

Natural Sciences

McGovern, T. V., & Hogshead, D. L. (1990). Learning about writing, thinking about teaching. Teaching of Psychology, 17(1), 5-9.

Rodgers, M. L. (1995) How holistic scoring kept writing alive in chemistry. College Teaching 43(1), 19-22.

Tilstra, L. (2001). Using journal articles to teach writing skills for laboratory reports in general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 78(6), 762-764

Social Sciences

Bidwell, L.D.M. (1995). Helping students develop a sociological imagination through innovative writing assignments. Teaching Sociology, 23(4), 401-406. (available in Jstor)

Chisholm, D. (1990). Between Leibniz and Voltaire: Exams and grading in a less than perfect world. PS: Political Science and Politics, 23(4), 600-604. (available in Jstor)

Davis, D. J. (1987). Eight faculty members talk about student writing. College Teaching, 35(1), 31-35.

Edwards, M.E. (2002). Writing before students: A model for teaching sociological writing. Teaching Sociology, 30(2), 254-259. (available in Jstor)

Gardner, F.P., & Abraham, G.W. (1978). A grading procedure for student writing. Teaching Sociology, 6(1), 31-35. (available in Jstor)

Glenn, B. (1998). The golden rule of grading: Being fair. PS: Political Science and Politics, 31(4), 787-788. (available in Jstor)

Grauerholz, L. (1999). Creating and teaching writing-intensive courses. Teaching Sociology, 27(4), 310-323. (available in Jstor)

Reinertsen, P.S., & Wells, M.C. (1993). Dialogue journals and critical thinking. Teaching Sociology, 21(2), 182-186. (available in Jstor)

Rejali, D.M. (1995). Define your terms! Dictionaries, medievals, and thinking about concepts. PS: Political Science and Politics, 28(3), 515-520. (available in Jstor)

Stanford, K. (1992). Disarming the hunter: Improving administrative writing in the classroom. PS: Political Science and Politics, 25(4), 696-699. (available in Jstor)

Stoecker, R., Schmidbauer, M., Mullin, J., & Young, M. (1993). Integrating writing and the teaching assistant to enhance critical pedagogy. Teaching Sociology, 21(4), 332-340. (available in Jstor)

Zeiser, P.A. (1999). Teaching process and product: Crafting and responding to student writing assignments. PS: Political Science and Politics, 32(3), 593-595. (available in Jstor)