If you’re like me, you let stacks of student papers sit for a while before you can bring yourself to respond to them. Once I get into reading and responding to them, it goes well, but there’s just something about diving into the first paper on the stack that is tremendously foreboding. There have been times I’ve put off responding so long, it’s almost embarrassing.
I know I’m not alone in this.
In past blog posts, I’ve written about the trouble with trying to grade writing objectively and the importance of humility for grading. I’ve also discussed how much we should count effort in student writing (if at all), and I’ve also given advice on managing the grind of responding to student papers. In this post, I suggest something that has truly improved my experience as a reader of student writing. Really.
Creating a Rubric
I use a grading rubric for most writing assignment. This is nothing new, not at all original, and it’s not the thing I’ve done that’s made such a difference. But it’s helpful for telegraphing to students what I’m looking for when I evaluate their work and it helps me translate the grade I’ve given into specific feedback on student writing. In a word, a rubric demystifies the grade I’ve given. If you’d like a primer (or review) on using rubrics to respond to student writing, you could do no better than studying Heidi Andrade’s work. Start with her piece on “Understanding Rubrics.”
Sometimes I give students a rubric. Sometimes–especially for long assignments–I create a rubric with students. This increases students’ buy-in, and they often come up with unexpected and useful criteria for the rubric.
The criteria I list on a rubric for a final paper in a course are often fairly standard: Effective Use of Rhetorical Devices, Coherent and Organized, Well Reasoned, Follows Expected Conventions, Makes Effective Use of Outside Sources, etc. But there was one criteria I happened on that made a huge difference.
The Magic Criterion
Once I was reading a stack of papers, and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish these papers were more interesting!” Then it hit me: Students will work on what’s listed on a rubric. In my next paper assignment, I added this to the rubric: “Is Interesting to Read.”
That criterion changed everything. Suddenly students were adding more creativity and originality to their papers. They were adding humor or compelling emotional statements, photos, comics, memes, and other creative touches. The students added dialog, quoted from more interesting sources. They discovered that Word has templates that make a paper a more compelling-looking document.
This change didn’t occur simply by adding that criterion. We also talked as a group, and I gave students time to talk in small groups, about what makes papers interesting for readers and what are the available means for interest (to paraphrase Aristotle).
I’ve Got a New Attitude
I almost never give papers now without “Is Interesting to Read” as a criterion for evaluation. And, I cannot tell you how much more I look forward to diving in to student papers. (Not that I don’t still put them off. Hey, I’m a work in progress!) I’m so curious to see what they’ve come up with. The students also seem to enjoy that process more, and they seem to have more fun with it. They also seem to appreciate that being able to genuinely interest a reader is a real-world skill they can use in the future. All these are positives.
Of course, reader interest is highly subjective, even idiosyncratic. So if objectivity is your goal, that could prove a problem. (Of course, objectivity should NOT be your goal.) And, there are standardized exams for which creativity is explicitly discouraged. So, unfortunately, you should teach your students when interest is warranted (everywhere except standardized exams, perhaps). But your goal should be to educate students to be ready for real-world writing situations, for authentic situations. And in those cases, interesting readers (or listeners) is a tremendously important skill.
Try it out, and please share your experiences below. I’d love to hear about them! I’m interested. Really.