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Teaching Guide: Evaluating Writing Assignments

To learn more about how to maximize the feedback you give your students without putting an undue burden on your time, click on items in the list below:

Focus your commenting energy

No matter how much you want to improve student writing, remember that students can only take in so much information about a paper at one time. Particularly because writing is such an egocentric activity, writers tend to feel overloaded quickly by excessively detailed feedback about their writing.

Moreover, because most writing can be considered work in progress (because students will continue to think about the content and presentation of their papers even if they don't actively revise), commenting exhaustively on every feature of a draft is counter-productive. Too many comments can make student writers feel as if the teacher is taking control of the paper and cutting off productive avenues for revision.

Focusing your energy when commenting achieves two main goals:

Typically, we recommend that teachers comment discursively on the one or two most important features of a paper, determined either by your criteria for the assignment or by the seriousness of the effect on a reader of a given paper.

Handling grammar

If you assign write-to-learn tasks, you won't want to mark any grammatical flaws because the writing is designed to be impromptu and informal. If you assign more polished pieces, especially those that adhere to disciplinary conventions, then we suggest putting the burden of proofreading squarely where it belongs--on the writer.

You don't need to be an expert in grammar to assign and respond effectively to writing assignments. Click on the list below to read some points to consider as you design your assignments and grading criteria:

Don't edit writing to learn

Editing write-to-learn (WTL) responses is counterproductive. This kind of writing must be informal for students to reap the benefits of thinking through ideas and questioning what they understand and what confuses them. Moreover, most WTL activities are impromptu. By asking students to summarize a key point in the three minutes at the end of class, you get students to focus on ideas. They don't need to edit for spelling and sentence punctuation, and if you mark those errors on their WTL writing, students shift their focus from ideas to form. In other words, marking errors on WTL pieces distracts students from the main goal--learning.

Make students responsible for polishing their papers

Formal papers do need to be edited, but not necessarily by the teacher. The most efficient way to make sure students edit for as many grammatical and stylistic flaws as they can find is to base a large portion of the grade on how easy the paper is to read. If you get a badly edited piece, you can just hand it back and tell the student you'll grade it when the errors are gone. Or you can take 20-30% off the content grade. Students get the message very quickly and turn in remarkably clean writing.

If a student continues to have problems editing a paper, you can suggest visiting the Writing Center to get some one-on-one help with a writing consultant.

Think of yourself first as a reader

Some teachers think that basing 20-30% of the grade on grammatical and stylistic matters is unfair unless they mark all the flaws. We approach this issue from the perspective of readers. If you review a textbook and find editing mistakes, you don't label each one and send the text back to the publisher. No, you just stop reading and don't adopt the textbook. Readers who are not teachers just don't keep reading is a text that is too confusing or if errors are too distracting. Readers who are teachers are perfectly justified in simply noting with an X in the margin where a sentence gets too confusing or where mistaken punctuation leads the reader astray. Students are resourceful (they can get help from our on-campus Writing Center office or our Writing Center Web site) and will figure out the problem once a reader points out where the text stumbles. That's really all it takes.

Use peer editing

Perhaps the most helpful tool in getting clean, readable papers from students is the peer editing session. Most students are better editors of someone else's paper than proofreaders of their own, so having students exchange papers and look for flaws helps them find many more glitches than they'll find on their own.

View More about Student Peer Review

A time-saving short-cut

If you feel compelled to mark grammatical and stylistic flaws, work out a shorthand for yourself and give students a handout explaining your marks. Most teachers can get by with one symbol for a sentence that gets derailed or confused, another for faulty punctuation of all sorts, and a third for inaccurate words (spelling or meaning). Save your time and energy for commenting on substance rather than form.

Sample policies on grading grammar versus content

Outdoor Resources 1XX (excerpts)

 (Although we don't recommend assigning points for errors (because then you have to mark and count them all), this teacher was clear about expectations.)


Your paper should contain from 1,500 to 2,000 words, or about five to seven pages. The paper must be typewritten, double spaced, and bound. Neatness is essential.

A Check List of Points to Consider:

I. Mechanics

Neatness. Is your report clean, neatly organized, with a look of professional pride about it?

Spelling. Two points will be deducted for each misspelled word.

Grammar and punctuation. Five points will be deducted for each sentence which uses improper grammar or punctuation.

Outline. Did you follow the course outline?

Form. Is your paper in the proper form?

Bibliography. Are the references properly cited?

Binding. Use a cover binding with a secure clasp.

II. Content. . . .

Use a grading sheet

Grading comment sheets or checksheets give teachers and students two advantages over free-form grading:

Resource: Sample grading sheets

Four sample grading sheets are provided:

Sample Grading Sheet

Composition 1xx Grading Sheet




I. Introductory paragraphs
A. Lead-in

B. Thesis (narrowed topic + clear stance)



II. Body paragraphs: (Effective transition, clear focus, development with details, clear transitional words) A. Body paragraph one

B. Body paragraph two

C. Body paragraph three

D. Body paragraph four

E. etc.




III. Conclusion



IV. Punctuation, grammar, style, spelling




Grade for essay: ___________

Revision Instructions:

Sample Report Evaluation


Sample Report Evaluation



Must have:




__title page


__table of contents










__bibliography (3 sources)


__information page (notes)


__glossary (at least 10 words)


__oral reading and presentation



__ total points




Title page:

Table of contents:






Information page:


Oral presentation:



Grade ____


Sample Evaluation of Written Report

Evaluation of Written Report



Possible Points








relevant & important topic

objectives defined & possible



scope suitably restricted








amount of information



accuracy of information



value of information



analysis of data adequate



interpretation logical






Organization & Expression:









arrangement of information






Format (Specified Style):



citations and references in



correct style



tables and legends



figures and legends












Grammar & Usage:












word usage












adherence to schedule



initiative & originality



other comments




Sample Science Project Checksheet

Science Project checksheet



1. Correct form (15)

Reference list (3)

Citation of sources(2)

Mechanics (order, table of contents, list of tables, list of figures, cover) (5)

Layout (5)

2. Composition skills (10)

Spelling (5)

Grammar (5)

3. Log book used to record experimental data, ideas, etc. (10)

4. Abstract (10)

5. Acknowledgments (5)

TOTAL GENERAL: _________


1. Summarized project well (30)

Problem and hypothesis easy to understand (5)

Experimental method clearly stated (10)

Results summarized in graphs/tables (10)

Conclusion presented (5)

2. Eye appeal (10)

Neat lettering (3)

Pleasing placement of parts (2)

Good use of color (3)

Sturdiness (2)

3. Creativity (10)



Resource: Sample grading criteria

General Grading Criteria: Composition 1xx



Consistently, clearly and effectively communicates it purpose to its audience in all areas of writing: Consistently clear focus, sufficient development, and coherent in terms of organization and style. The ideas are also well thought-out and worthwhile.


Strong in most areas, but intermittently deficient in one area of containing minor problems in more than one area. For instance, the essay may be strong in all areas but have some problems with audience contact, portions may lose focus or be underdeveloped, or there may be some distracting inconsistencies or errors in style (coherence).


The essay generally does the main job of the assignment--so it maintains its purpose. But it's either intermittently deficient in two categories or consistently deficient in one. For instance, there may be intermittent problems with both audience contact and development, or the whole essay may be consistently underdeveloped.


The essay is consistently deficient in two areas--for example, consistently unfocused and underdeveloped to the degree that the deficiencies undermine the purpose of the essay. An unfocused and underdeveloped essay, for instance, would not be able to convey its message to a reader in any significant way. The essay could also have enough serious problems in a combination of areas that the purpose is undermined. It could also miss a major portion of the assignment--like an essay which has no connection to the assigned topic.


This is an essay that either was not turned in, or is so deficient in so many areas that it might just as well not have been. Or, it could be an essay which completely misses the assignment altogether.

For more information on grading criteria, see "What makes a good assignment?"/Sample Grading Criteria for SP3xx.

Additional Resources

For a quick review of sentence structure and punctuation, check out the WAC site at NIU. Once you get to the site, click on "Archives," select "S" and click on the "Sentence structure and punctuation" link.