Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
Self-compassion and compassion for writers.
December 9, 2021
Let’s be honest about writing.
In the professional world, writing timed essays isn’t common. And yet, in most academic disciplines, students are expected to produce quality writing, often research-informed, under the constraints of our prompts and deadlines while managing other end-of-semester projects and exams as well as off-campus life and work.
Moreover, students have been taught to adhere to hetero-cisgender white-supremacist rules and rubrics for “good writing” (Inoue, AB.; Poe, M. Poe and Elliot, E. 2019; Kendi, I.X. 2019; Condon, F. and Young, V.A. 2017; Petrosi, K. 2015). BIPOC students carry with them stories of forced unlearning of their English and writing styles; for more information about more-equitable grading practices, see SIPs 3.6, 3.7, 4.4, 5.14, 10.9, 10.11 and 14.6.
The hard truth for students: Most students readily list their writing weaknesses and undervalue their writing strengths. You may hear students complain about essays’ time-consuming nature, which they may or may not enjoy, that produce highly subjective grades. Students may have internalized a lack of confidence in their writing or catastrophize writing as fruitless or a conduit for unexplainable or unreasonable grades based on a history of red-penned papers. They express feeling discouraged and defeated. (Check out SIP 4.8 on ways to challenge students’ negative mindsets.) Some semester projects and exams may be weighted so heavily that student success requires near-perfect research and writing above and beyond understanding and applying the course’s core concepts.
That’s a lot of pressure on students. And yes, all instructors have been through the same end-of-semester writing crunches when we were students. Does it have to be this way now just because it was then?
Meanwhile, we instructors start with scholarly intentions, confident that our assignments and exam questions showcase learning in many areas. Then stacks upon stacks pile up, and we find ourselves in a similar time crunch brought on by grade deadlines and semester weariness. We’ve addressed the frustrations of grading and the seemingly subjective evaluation of student writing before: SIPs 4.5, 5.13, 10.7.
The hard truth for instructors is that written assessments take demonstrably longer to read, evaluate and assign a grade to than multiple-choice exams and practicums. In end-of-term hurried and harried submissions, student writing can be harder to decipher. Ideas may be repeated. We have been encouraged, through the tradition of student writing, to provide feedback through white-supremacist hierarchical feedback – a stackable mix of comments, rubrics and summary comments for each student’s submission. Instead of looking forward to the pleasure of reading student successes, instructors may feel overwhelmed.
Final projects don’t need to be drudgery. What if students and instructors employed more compassion to end-of-semester writing? Grading with compassion for students and yourselves will minimize the time crunches of quick-turnaround deadlines for you and will minimize students’ apprehension toward writing.
Take a SIP of this:
If you have five minutes
- Validate that writing is hard, time-consuming and laborious. Seventeenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne called writing “labor of the mind – a job like laying bricks.” Students’ writing experiences are real.
- Set expectations for students and yourself. Remind everyone that the hard work of learning the core of the course is mostly behind them and that this is the moment to draw on that learning. SIPs 12, 4.12, and 14.3.
- Check in with students in different ways before the deadline or exam. For take-home projects and essays, ask students to write a one-paragraph project update. This update encourages students to think about their topic over a period of time and provides you with an opportunity to clarify the assignment. See SIPs 8, 9.4.
- Encourage students to put ideas on the page. Renowned writer Anne Lamott recommends writers of all levels to celebrate their “(poor) first drafts” and resist the temptation to judge the quality of writing in early drafts (Lamott, 1995).
- Do quick reviews of writing-style pet peeves and preferences. This is a moment to communicate with students (and to remind yourself) how small proofreading mistakes are easily made and easily avoided. If missing or mismatched citations bother you, then share your pro citation tips and tricks so students may limit them. Don’t give a grammar lesson. For more in-depth suggestions on how to address writing and citation pet peeves see SIPs 11, 10.3, 13.7 and 13.10.
- Share free or subscription proofreading apps such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid and citation sites such as Citation Builder and Purdue Owl or Microsoft Word’s grammar-, spelling- and citation-checker tools. Explain that these tools are great places to proof their work.
- Show students how to use SafeAssignment in Canvas to check their citations.
- Introduce to students Metropolitan State University of Denver’s helpful writing and researching resources, such as free one-on-one conversations with the Writing Center, the Tutoring Center and the STEM Tutoring Center, and other services such as Doc Drop, an online content-read-through consultation offered by the Writing Center.
- Practice stress management. Leading students in deep-breathing exercises and other destress activities resets end-of-term anxiety. See SIPs 5, 9.7 and 11.3.
- Set Canvas assignment options for anonymous grading or flip over the title page on projects and GreenBooks before you begin grading. Anonymous grading can reduce implicit bias.
If you have 30 minutes
- Provide class time to work on writing. For take-home projects, ask students to bring materials to work on, no matter where they are in their writing processes. This can work for timed in-class essays, too. Ask students to practice writing on a prompt that relates to (or will be) the exam question(s).
- Give more time and feedback to prewriting, such as outlining and drafts, so that students can incorporate more-critical conceptual feedback during their writing process. SIP 3.12 presents the value of rough drafts.
- Share one of your marked-up drafts with your students. This reminds you and them that writing is a hard, messy process. The pressure for perfection lessens as students see that the professional in front of them doesn’t create perfection all at once.
- Provide examples and samples from former students as guides for current students (SIP 7.14).
- Incorporate contract grading for anti-racist grading practices that support MSU Denver’s multiple-Englishes stance. SIP 5.5 offers ideas on applying contract grading for all disciplines.
- When you’re grading, set a timer. Pace your grading. The average time to grade a first-year college essay is 15-25 minutes. Set reasonable amounts of time for the learning level and the subject matter of the papers.
- Chunk grading. It’s OK to grade five essays from one class and then grade five essays from a different-subject class. Marathon grading sessions may seem productive until you’re taking longer and losing focus. See SIP 7.9 for more tips on dividing grading into doable tasks.
- When time is up, get up. Reward yourself with a good stretch, grab a fresh cup or walk around the floor. Return to the grading with fresh eyes and renewed grace.
- “Sit on your hands.” In other words, resist marking up the writing and instead offer summative feedback. Joseph Williams (1981) argued, “When we read for typos, letters constitute the field of attention; content becomes virtually inaccessible. When we read for content, semantic structures constitute the field of attention; letters – for the most part – recede from our consciousness” (p.154). While it might be tempting as a scholarly reader to elaborate on research or offer deeper critical questions, remind yourself that this writing is the culmination of a student’s learning within a timed environment. Student-writing feedback need not be comprehensive, because students’ learning on this particular topic in this particular moment has ended.
- As you grade, remind yourself that any student product is not a reflection of you-the-scholar. When you find yourself mumbling back to the paper, it’s time for a break. Use sticky notes, find humor in a meme or text or call a friend. Intellectually, you already know that a student’s work is not your work. Yet many professors take on the burden of student performance as a reflection of their own job or scholarly expertise. Build in reminders that you are not a product of the students’ writings. You’ll feel better during and after grading.
If you have an hour or more
- Learn more about compassionate grading (SIP 11.12), contract grading and labor-contract grading for an anti-racist approach to grading writing.
- Share and compare grading tips with colleagues. Norming rubrics equalizes the grading playing field and removes some of the internalized pressures on individual graders.
- Reimagine writing prompts. Ask students to write suggested prompts, which you may tweak.
- Explore with your students the importance of real-world writing in their future career fields. Create assignments in which students research the writing within their discipline.
- Consider redesigning course assessments to include more writing and researching or to better integrate discipline-specific writing earlier in the semester. Stagger small-stakes writings with larger assessments so that big-investment writings seem more doable. See SIP 14.5 for suggestions on diversifying your course and for incorporating student voices in the design: SIPs11 and 14.9.
Danielewicz, J., & Elbow, P. (2009). A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching. College Composition and Communication, 61(2), 244–268. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40593442
Ferlazzo, L. (2021). “I No Longer Give Grades on Student Writing Assignments, and It’s the Best Thing Ever!” https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-i-no-longer-give-grades-on-student-writing-assignments-and-its-the-best-thing-ever/2021/01.
Inoue, AB., and M. Poe. (2020). “How to Stop Harming Students: An Ecological Guide to Antiracist Writing Assessment.” Composition Studies, vol. 48, no. 3, fall 2020, pp. 14+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A656822421/AONE?u=auraria_main&sid=summon&xid=e5fcc181.
Lamott, A. (1995) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books.
Williams, J.M. (1981) “The Phenomenology of Error,” College Composition and Communication, 32(2), 152–168. https://www.jstor.org/stable/356689
Zakharov W., H. Li, M. Fosmire, PE Pascuzzi, & J. Harbor. (2021). A Mixed Method Study of Self- and Peer-assessment: Implications of Grading Online Writing Assignments on Scientific News Literacy, College & Undergraduate Libraries, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2021.1889426
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