Writing Program Grading Practices

ISU Writing Program: Grading Practices

This post includes an overview of the different types of grading practices that are appropriate for instructors in the Writing Program.  There are also some specific policies regarding grading practices that are required for WP courses, and these can be found in the Program Policies  post.

Writing Course Activities

In general, the list of elements that most instructors grade over the course of the semester include the following (not all instructors use all of these materials, but most use some combination of them):

  • Units or Major Projects usually take from 2-5 weeks to complete and are often worth a significant portion of the total course grade. Major project usually have multiple components which may be graded separately or collectively.
  • Proof-of-Learning Documentation These documents, which analyze, observe and report on the learning that accompanies project (or “writing experiments”). Often the project itself (the text that is produced) and the proof-of-learning documentation are part of the same “project” grade. We encourage instructors to treat proof-of-learning documentation as a researched and cited genre – that is, students shouldn’t just be reflecting on or talking casually about their learning. Rather, this documentation should be (whenever possible) a formal (perhaps in the form of a report) document in which the student argues (and supports with sources from the actual work completed) that learning has happened and explicates clearly what that learning looked like as it happened.
  • Project Revisions are additional or separate grades that are assessed for a formal significant revision of a major project or unit production. Some instructors (although definitely not all) will offer a grade for drafts and then a separate grade for a revision. This can also be combined in some way as a “portfolio” grade (see below).
  • Project Components are smaller parts (“building blocks”) for the large project. They can be graded individually or as part of the project.
  • Daily Activities could be grades for specific work or could be part of a participation grade.
  • Homework can be graded as part of a specific project, but some instructors assess this work as a separate category.
  • Reading Responses or Reading Quizzes can serve as tests of homework completion, but if possible instructors should try to find other methods of motivating students to read, keeping quizzes to a minimum.
  • Other Quizzes may assess research skills or students ability to articulate concepts that a particular project has covered.
  • Participation may be used to grade for participation, which is based on attendance as well as the ability to participate in class discussions and activities–sometimes peer review is graded as part of participation, and sometimes it is graded separately.
  • Peer Review is critical to our writing program pedagogy. Through working with each others’ texts, students can learn to more accurately describe and evaluate their own written productions.
  • Portfolios are generally graded for the revision of several–or all–the major projects.  They can be added as a grade at the end of the semester or can replace grades for individual projects.  (More on that below.)
  • Student Conferences can occupy up to a week of class periods twice during the semester for individual student conferences–you can grade conferences as part of attendance, or build a conference grade into the overall grading system.

*Instructors can combine any of the above elements to establish grades.


General Notes on Grading Methods

There are many different systems of proportioning grades for different activities in the writing classroom. The following list is not exhaustive.  There are certainly variations you could consider that aren’t covered here. Instructors are not required to use any one particular system for establishing grades. However, program requirements and our learning outcomes are also critical to establishing appropriate grading practices.

Sample Grading Methods

  1. Grading By Individual Assignment

Individual project grading simply offers a separate grade for each project, sometimes a separate grade for the rough draft, as well as for other project activities.

Advantages: Some instructors work better with this “as-you-go” kind of grading, as do some students. It allows instructors to identify specific elements they want to weight differently.

Potential Problems:  Grading effectively in this way can require a great deal of record keeping, as all individual parts of the project (daily activities, rough drafts, etc.) must be graded and recorded separately.  Instructors who choose to do this must be able to stay very organized, and usually have to commit to spending some time on grading multiple times during each week. Falling behind in grading under such a system can cause all kind of problems, as students often can’t progress to the next activity without grades from the current work, and they can become fixated on grades and “what they’ve missed and how much its worth” kinds of anxieties. Additionally, this kind of separating out of each activity can encourage a “step-model” of the writing process, where each task is seen as a separate assignment rather than as part of a complete process. Another possible disadvantage to this kind of grading is that it can be difficult to balance the “grade writing not mastery” program goal using this method, because it tends to privilege the final product – or students perceive the final product as most important, even when the grading breakdown (mathematically) balances things out.

Variations: Obviously, there are multiple variations that include what gets graded and what each thing is worth. Also, many instructors often offer “points” for lots of different items, but combine all of the points into a final project or “project packet” grade.

NOTE:  Major project grades should never be based on a document that the instructor is seeing for the first time, as this can invite plagiarism and, perhaps more importantly, does not adequately model the complexity of the writing process. Instructors using this method must always make sure to privilege both the drafting process and the “documenting-learning” perspective that is important to our program.

Sample Grading Breakdown for Individual Projects

05%    Reading Responses

05%    Participation

10%    Quizzes (grammar and reading)

15%    Homework, Activities, & Peer Review
 (note how these items are all graded separately)

20%    Project One

05%   Rough Draft

10%   Final Draft

05%   Proof-of-Learning Documentation

20%   Project Two

05%   Rough Draft

10%   Final Draft

05%   Proof-of-Learning Documentation

25%   Project Three

05%   Rough Draft

15%   Final Draft

05%   Proof-of-Learning Documentation

NOTE: It can also be difficult in this kind of grading set up, to appropriately value the “proof-of-learning” documentation, without de-valuing the product. Students in this kind of setting can become frustrated, because they see the projects as the “main work,” but that work is only 50% of the grade.


  1. Grading by Project Packet

In this style of grading, each “project sequence” or “project cycle” is graded at one time with a single grade or award of points.  Students are expected to save all required materials from the project sequence (instructors can provide a project packet checklist for each project, and remind students to keep everything they do).  The grade is based on all the materials (including the rough draft and other materials) as well as on the final project.  Usually instructors provide a breakdown (see below) of how the packets are graded.

Advantages: It has some of the immediacy of the individual project grading, and some of the more holistic qualities of the portfolio. The instructor is able to see the work as complete effort, and judge where students have not participated or have been absent.  It also provides more immediate feedback to the student (since they get a significant grade in week 3 or 4, rather than waiting until week 7).
 In addition, this method seems to work well with our “documenting-learning” perspective, because a “writing experiment” and a formal, researched, documentation of learning can both be part of the grade for the project packet, and the instructor can award different percentages based on the importance of the “documentation” process for each project.

Potential Problems: Students need to keep track of all of their materials so that they can turn them in with the project packet.  Instructors have to figure out what to do if students lose materials (either hard copy or digital).  This sort of project may favor students who work really hard and do all the work (although I don’t see this as a problem).

Variations: Instructors can choose to grade certain elements of the project separately (homework, quizzes, peer review, etc.).  Many variations are acceptable as long as the instructor provides a clear checklist for all the materials for each project packet.

Sample Grading Breakdown for Project Packets

10%    Reading Responses & Discussion Group Work

10%    Quizzes (grammar and reading)

15%    Project One (this includes all homework, peer review, activities, and drafts for the project)

60%   Final Project Draft

40%   Other Materials

20%    Project Two (this includes all homework, peer review, activities, and drafts for the project)

60%   Final Project Draft

40%   Other Materials

20%    Project Three (this includes all homework, peer review, activities, and drafts for the project)

50%   Final Project Draft

50%   Other Materials (higher percentage—you’ll be creating an annotated bibliography as part of this project)

15%   Project Four– (this includes all homework, peer review, activities, and drafts for the project)

  • 70%   Final Project Draft
  • 30%   Other Materials (lower percentage because you’ll be selecting one of the first three projects as the starting point for this project)

05%    Take Home Final Exam

05%    Participation

  1. Grading by Final Portfolio

A Final Portfolio grading system gives students grades for individual projects, but also offers a grade for a final “revised” version of several (or all) projects.  This kind of grading can also be used to ask students turn in all of their “documentation-of-learning” work in the portfolio, rather than receiving a grade for it as part of each project.

Advantages: Allows the instructor to give students the longest possible time to make revisions to some (or all) projects. Allows the instructor to assign, as part of the course grade, a research project that asks each student to investigate his/her writing process throughout the semester.

Potential Problems: Students can see this kind of final work as “make-work” or a “blow off,” so the key is to figure out ways to highlight the importance (and rigor) of revision.  One of the ways to assure this is to make the process of documenting knowledge similar for every project, so that students can gain expertise in this process as they go, but then have time to complete a “final version” of their documentation for each project before submitting it for a final grade.

Variations: One important variation can be to have students do some kind of “Project Juxtaposition” instead of a final portfolio; here, they can take elements of one or more projects and revise dramatically to consider new genres and rhetorical situations. If this was the variation, then a separate grade for “documenting-of-learning” work might need to be established.

Sample Grading Breakdown for Final Portfolio

(Note: Notice how this kind of grading emphasizes the final portfolio, while in the project packet style, projects are weighted more equally).

05%    Reading Responses

15%    Homework, Activities, & Peer Review
10%    Project One

10%    Project Two

10%    Project Three

10%    Project Four

40%    Final Portfolio (will include detailed revision plans, copies of all drafts of the projects, substantive revisions of          three of the four major projects, as well as lab notes for your activities throughout the entire throughout the semester).

  1. The Provisional Grade Portfolio

Some instructors who use a portfolio method for grading also use a system in which students receive a “provisional” grade on each separate project, with a final portfolio grade that takes into account the revision of each of the projects.

Advantages: This method can be a good way to encourage revision, since students usually receive a lower grade on the project than they would like for a final grade, and thus are encouraged to revise. It also allows students to receive ongoing feedback.

Potential Problems: It’s possible that the “provisional grade” system may be deeply flawed because the grading process mimics the grading process of other courses, where grades are not provisional. Students may be unduly upset when they receive a poor grade, because they can’t adequately imagine the revision process that will/can result in a higher final grade. Conversely, they may not feel motivated to revise if they receive a high “provisional” grade on a project. Additionally, if an instructor has a rigid system of requiring materials for projects, students can receive low grades on individual projects and be told they will “revise,” but their final grade may not actually be improved beyond a certain point. In other words, it introduces uncertainties and complexities into the grading process that are often problematic and can cause students to become disaffected from the actual work of writing (which should be the primary focus). Therefore, instructors who select this form need to make sure that substantive revision is a central focus of the course, and that students clearly understand the progression required to move from a low grade to an improved one. Instructors also need to ensure that student grades on “provisional drafts” are not harshly judged for completeness in ways that can’t be recovered through the revision process. An instructor can still have fairly strict policies about completeness of materials and due dates, but these policies should be applied to final drafts and not intermediate/provisional work. If you aren’t comfortable with holding back on these policies through an extended draft process, then another form of grading might be best. Finally, this type of grading doesn’t seem to work very well with our “documenting-learning” perspective, because while revision is key, the revisions tend to focus on the product that is finally produced rather than on the documentation of learning that occurred throughout the semester. Frankly, we don’t recommend this type of grading, but experienced instructors who’ve worked with this system before may be able to make it work.


Sample Grading Breakdown for Final Portfolio

05%    Reading Responses

10%    Homework, Activities, & Peer Review

10%    Participation (particularly significant for the participation grade will be daily participation, including peer review attendance and conference attendance)

20%    Mid-Term Portfolio (includes all materials for projects one and two)

50%    Final Portfolio (Includes all materials for all three projects, including rough and final drafts of project three)

05%    Portfolio Reflection


Note: To keep us on track throughout the semester, there will be separate due dates for each of the three projects; at those times, participants will receive a “provisional grade” that is NOT NECESSARILY an indicator of the final grade for the project. The provisional grade is simply designed to allow participants to understand how the project would be evaluated if was the version included in the final portfolio. Provisional grades are therefore usually quite low–it is unlikely that a provisional grade would be higher than a C. Provisional grades may be influenced by incomplete or late work, but these issues can be resolved through work for the portfolio. If projects are turned in as part of the portfolio without substantive revision (which I don’t expect), then the provisional grade will stand.


  1. Classic Portfolio Grading

The classic portfolio grading system usually includes two major grades–one for a mid-term portfolio and one for a final portfolio.

Advantages: The instructor is able to look at a range of student work and make note of various things like the writer’s development, the level of consistency, etc.  Portfolios can be a great way to collect many materials that help an instructor judge whether the student is doing work appropriately (i.e., plagiarism).

Potential Problems: Students can get frustrated if they are not getting grades on their work until after the mid-term.
Variations: Modified portfolios can include a range of materials–from just multiple drafts of the projects, to research materials, small assignments, etc. If grading many different

elements, it’s best to create a portfolio checklist for both the mid-term and final portfolio, so students can be sure they have all materials.

Quick Advice: If using a portfolio grading system, you’ll want to make sure to consider how much weight to give non-project work (quizzes, participation, etc., and how to encourage students to complete rough drafts, which is sometimes difficult if there is no explicit grade).  It’s also important to make saving and compiling the portfolio an explicit part of class work. It’s also CRITICAL for instructors using this method to figure out how to include the “documentation of learning” aspect of our program into the daily work of the course. This kind of documentation and research is NOT something that can be done only at the end the of the semester, so instructors using this method have to figure out how to motivate students to complete this work regularly.


Sample Grading Breakdown for Final Portfolio

05%    Reading Responses

10%    Homework, Activities, & Peer Review

10%    Participation (particularly significant for the participation grade will be daily participation, including peer review attendance and conference attendance)

20%    Mid-Term Portfolio (includes 1st & 2nd drafts of projects one and two)

50%    Final Portfolio (include all drafts of all projects and Lab Notes

05%    Portfolio Reflection and final exam


  1. Student-Grading

Beginning in Fall 2010, one of our instructors, Anjanette Riley, began to experiment with a genre-based writing course that uses “peer-grading” (where students assess each other course grades). Since then, several other instructors have taken up this from of grading. Anjanette created a website that outlines her practices more fully, which you an access at http://genrebasedinstruction.wikispaces.com/

Peer Grading Description (excerpt from ENG 101 course syllabus by Anjanette Riley)

You as a writing community, as individuals and as a whole, will be responsible for identifying criteria for what would demonstrate that you as a community and individuals have learned and upheld the features of your individual genres in your writing. You as a class will also be responsible for grading each others’ works. In groups of 4-5, you will evaluate and grade fellow students’ packets at the end of each project. You will be expected to evaluate each packet according to group and individually-generated “rubrics” that will be turned in as part of the packet. Each project will be evaluated as a packet and will be given one single grade, meaning that any of the individual texts it is comprised of can either improve or hurt your score. Along with a grade, peer groups will generate a grading memo explaining to the author and the instructor how the text did or did not meet the criteria in the rubrics. More information about grading a packet will be given when the project is introduced.

Grades given by peer groups on any project should not be seen as “set-in-stone.” It is assumed that you will take advantage of the opportunity to make revisions to your work as you develop as a writer throughout the semester. If you feel the grade you were given by your peers is invalid, you may appeal your grade to the instructor. The appeal process will require you to demonstrate during a conference with the instructor how your packet shows you have met the goals of the project and the course. The instructor will respond by either leaving the grade as it is or raising it. A grade given by your peers cannot be lowered by the instructor.

The instructor will also comment on your drafts (in whichever stage you desire). Comments are not intended as demands for change. Instructor comments are designed to be descriptive in nature, outlining what the text does and how it does it. These comments are useful to you in as far as they provide you with another person’s approach to your work, which can help you determine whether your text is being interpreted in the way you intend and to make changes accordingly.

Any revisions to your packets you make will be graded solely by the instructor. Your final presentation will also be graded by the instructor.

The final grade you receive on your four packets will be averaged at the end of the semester. This average will make up 90 percent of your overall grade (or about 22 percent per packet). The remaining 10 percent is for participation and your final presentation. Any deductions to your grade as the result of excessive absences will be applied at the very end.


A Note on Revision for All Grading Methods

It’s important to remember that students should receive feedback on their writing throughout the semester. Using different types of author reviews (both within and between sections of ENG 101) can help give students a different perspective on their writing, and individual conferences can provide a better location for one-on-one conversations about the student’s goals and ideas.  However, significant written feedback is important for any successful, rigorous writing class.  This means that you will want to think about how to build both opportunities and rewards for rough drafts into your syllabus.  This can be done in any number of ways–through grades for project components, through a grade for an entire project packet, or as part of a portfolio grade.  But if using a portfolio grading system, make sure to distribute opportunities for significant feedback throughout the semester–not just at mid-term and final.


Evaluating Student Work Using the Learning Outcomes

The evaluation of student work should be tailored specifically to learning goals for each type of writing/project students completed, and these learning goals should connect directly to the Course Learning Outcomes.

Grading criteria for specific projects should reflect a clear sense of the skills and concepts students should be exploring or mastering as part of their work on that project, but should also reflect the goals of the Learning Outcomes for the entire course. Student-led criteria creation or other variants in criteria creation are encouraged; however, the instructor must make sure to (a) offer students a specific way to understand what the project is designed to teach, and (b) offer students a specific and clear way to understand what they did and didn’t do well. It is important that the instructor be able to clearly define both his/her own learning goals for the project, and how these goals tie into the larger learning outcomes for the course.