The following blog post was written by Dara MacKay, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. Dara currently teaches in the Youth in Transition program. Her learners generally are at a CLB 6 or 7 in writing and are preparing for future studies.
Assessment is one of the trickiest parts of teaching writing. What often comes to mind is the concept of subjectivity. Of course every instructor is going to vary in how they mark writing, and I am always aware of the fact that I want to be as objective and consistent as I can. This is no easy task, but it’s not impossible to do a decent job.
The first thing I do when I’m assessing writing is lay out a very specific, outcomes based rubric. Before my students hand anything in, they are given a copy of the rubric so they know exactly what the expectations are. It’s my job to set them up to succeed. We go over the rubric in detail, and discuss the wording and descriptors so it’s as clear as it can be. When I create rubrics, I try to make the criteria as specific as possible. There should be no surprises for my learners. I also like to create my own rubrics, or modify existing ones so that I can tailor them specifically to the task I am teaching. I see no problem using other people’s rubrics if they fit your task, but more often than not, I tweak things to make them more suitable.
Don’t Assess Everything
The next point that I would like to emphasize is that when assessing writing, you don’t have to mark absolutely everything. If you taught how to use present perfect, but didn’t focus on paragraphing, for example, only assess the use of present perfect. This is counter-intuitive for me because I have a tendency to over-assess and my learners’ papers end up look like a purple pen exploded all over the page. This is something I have been actively working on in the past few terms, because not only is it exhausting, but the marking I do is often irrelevant to the task and has no meaning for the student. They can’t possibly fix every single thing. They are learning and they make mistakes. If their writing was perfect, we wouldn’t be teaching them how to write.
What I endeavor to do is teach a series of mini-lessons that focus on aspects of writing, and then do small assessments of those concepts throughout the term. To culminate, I will then ask for a piece of writing that incorporates all the concepts and I will do a more comprehensive assessment of their use of each element. If the assessment isn’t meaningful for students, why do it? I’d rather spend my energy helping students becoming proficient in one skill than waste my time intimidating them by showing them every single mistake they make.
Assessment as a Learning Tool
If I can emphasize anything else in this short blog, it’s that assessment should be a tool for learning, every single time. If a learner can’t take something from the assessment and apply it to their work later, then we have wasted our time, and theirs. Feedback is key here. And not just the kind that says, “Good job,” or “Well done,” or “That wasn’t your best work.” Learners need to hear the WHYs. They need to know what they did right, so they can keep doing it, and what they did wrong, so they can learn. I like the two stars and a wish format for feedback. I like to start with two things the student did well, and then one thing they can work on. This way, they can work on a skill, and have (I think) more of a chance to master it because they are not overwhelmed with everything that is wrong. Build their confidence, and then it’s easier for them to take criticism.
In all, assessment in writing is a tricky subject, and obviously I can’t cover all of it in a single blog. But, three important aspects of it – rubrics, not over-assessing, and using it for a tool, is definitely a start. My best advice is to do things in chunks, and not overwhelm yourself with the enormity of the task. It can seem very intimidating, but when broken down into its parts, is very doable.
Read Dara's previous blog posts on writing: