Response as Dialogue:
An Alternative Approach to Assessing Student Writing
By Tony Scott
You have a stack of papers to be graded, yet you have difficulty being enthusiastic because you wonder how integral your assessments are to the learning process. Or perhaps you don’t mind grading, but you have a feeling that many students aren’t interested in your specific responses to their work--they seem only to want to know their grade.
Probably the least favorite activity of most teachers I know is responding to papers. It is a time-consuming task that can be viewed more as an institutional responsibility than as a key component of a course. However, effective writing assessment can be an important element in a writer’s development; and if you begin to feel that your students are learning as a result of your assessments of their texts you may find yourself becoming more engaged in your responses. Below are a number of suggestions that could help instructors become more effective, and engaged, assessors of student texts.
When approaching assessment, it is important to have a clear understanding of the pedagogical goals for each particular assignment. Understanding these goals will enable you to concentrate on particular aspects of your students’ writing. Many teachers see virtually all responses to papers within the context of grading, using written comments to explain or justify a certain letter or number ranking. There are a number of potential shortcomings of this approach. If you see your written responses to drafts as rhetorical justifications for grades, that is very likely the way that they will be received by students. This approach risks promoting among students the view that writing is only a performance for evaluation, just another mode through which they are ranked. Their focus is then shifted toward achieving the desired ranking and away from your substantive responses to their draft.
If you desire that your students focus on their development as critical thinkers and competent writers within your discipline, it may be helpful for you to view your responses as part of an ongoing dialogue with the student-writer, rather than as a strictly uni-vocal evaluation. A dialogic approach can enable you to respond to the substance of the text, speaking directly to the student author about content. The text itself is then more likely to be seen by the student as a mode of knowing or a vehicle for ideas, rather than strictly as a performance for the benefit of the teacher.
There are a number of practical steps you might try to make assessment more dialogic in your class:
Incorporate Reflection Into the Evaluation Process: Try asking students to turn in with their assignment a memo in which they explain their purpose for that particular text and ask you to respond to certain aspects that they know could be problematic: Is a particular paragraph clear? Is a certain concept relevant to the overall theme? Would an alternative organizational scheme be more effective? Incorporating reflection into the evaluation process accomplishes several goals: it gives you an immediate starting point for your response; it causes students to be more invested in reading your response because they initiated it; finally, and perhaps most importantly, it causes students to become their own assessors, moving them toward greater awareness of the quality of their own work and the degree of success of their composing decisions. You might also try asking students to write a reflection on your response after you hand the papers back. This will compel them to give more thought to your response, and it will enable you to evaluate how well you are communicating.
Consider Incorporating Some Grade-Free Writing Into Your Class: “The worst part of grades is that they make students obey us without carefully thinking about the merits of what we say” writes composition scholar Peter Elbow (196). Grade-free writing can also help to shift students’ focuses away from a perception of writing-as-ranking, helping them to understand the various ways that it can enhance their learning. Grade-free writing can assume a variety of forms. You could ask students to write to flesh out topics for longer works, work through their reactions to particular concepts, or describe certain theories or processes in order to better understand them. These grade-free responses establish a pattern of communication between the instructor and the student that is outside of the matrix of evaluation. This pattern could enhance the effectiveness of your responses to graded assignments because they are within the context of an on-going dialogue about writing. An additional consideration is that grade-free assignments are a way for you to incorporate more writing into your class without dramatically increasing your workload–-all writing does not have to get an instructor’s response.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, View Your Comments as Communicative Acts, and subject them to the same scrutiny you would apply to your other professional writing. Are your comments clear? Could they be reasonably read in ways that give them a different meaning from the one you intended? Do your comments stress the same concepts, values, and/or perceptions of quality that you have emphasized in class? Are your comments consistent with your pedagogical goals?
Taking measures to ensure that your responses are read and more fully understood by your students could help make grading a less painful task.
Elbow, Peter. “Taking Time Out from Grading and Evaluating while Working in a Conventional System.” Assessing Writing 4.1 (1997): 5-27.
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