To Assess Students’ Improvement, Repeat the Writing Prompt

September 2014 calendarWouldn’t it be great to have a way to assess students’ writing improvement without relying on bubble tests?

You can have one.

And you don’t have to spend hours or a fortune to do it.

Materials you need

    • A clear statement of your annual (or course) writing objectives.
    • A grading rubric that incorporates the standards in your objectives.
    • An authentic and tested writing prompt calling for middle- to higher-level learning from the students to whom the objectives apply.

June 2015 calendar

The assessment must be a writing prompt that cannot be answered with memorized material. In other words, the writing prompt must call for application, at minimum, but preferably for analysis, synthesis or evaluation.

This procedure can be adapted for advanced classes by giving students a general topic in advance. This allows them time for study and research. They get the actual writing prompt at the assessment session.


This article originally appeared in the August, 2009, issue of  Writing Points,  ©2009 Linda Aragoni

Set your objectives at C-level

Don’t set your writing course objectives equal to a grade of A. Set them equal to a C.

You want everyone to achieve writing competence, even the even the dullards, the unmotivated, and the lazy students. You have a fighting chance of getting the back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class group to try for a C.

Competent expository writing is:

  • Unified to make one clear point (its thesis).
  • Organized clearly in support of that thesis.
  • Developed with adequate detail to make readers think the thesis is plausible.
  • Presented clearly so readers never have to guess at the writer’s meaning. Correct grammar, punctuation, and usage contribute to the writer’s presentation.

When student are competent expository writers, I can stop teaching them about expository writing. They will improve just by practicing what they already know. If I change the genre or raise my standards, then I may have to do more teaching.

If C is the grade you award for competence, you should have a big group who earn A’s and B’s. (One year I taught five sections of English composition in which no student earned less than a B.)

In writing, as with many skills, the step from no skill  to competence is enormous, but the step from competence to proficiency is small. Once students get to C-level, they’ll get to B-level just by having more opportunities to practice.

Aim to meet objectives by mid-course

Students always take longer to meet your annual writing objectives than you think they will.

I’ve learned to set learning objectives for writing that I think students can meet by mid-course. If I’m wrong (I’ve never been right yet!), I still have plenty of time to do more teaching and/or to give students more practice.

Giving myself plenty of leeway to meet my writing objectives takes some of the pressure off me in teaching writing and off my students in developing writing skill.  I don’t feel an obsession to mark more errors in the mistaken hope that students’ writing will improve in direct relationship to the amount of red ink I scrawl on their papers.

Also, if I can get a significant portion of the class up to competence even at the three-quarter mark, I can devote attention to those who need some additional help.