Pedagogy Column: Valuing the Writing Process

Margaret Barrow, English


Grades indicate to students how well or not they have completed the assigned tasks. How often have you found yourself working long hours on grading students’ papers only to watch your students turn to the last page to see the final grade and ignore your comments? Too often, the long hours it takes to carefully read through student papers boiled down to that one letter on the last page.


My solution to this problem is to emphasize the writing process. I grade students’ efforts and provide comments along the way, from their chosen topic, to submission of outlines, drafts, peer reviews, and the final polished essay. I see each part of the process as equally important. To grade just the final product teaches students not to value the actual messiness that must occur in order to reach the final polished version of a piece of writing. I explain ways students can improve a piece of writing as they are working on it. I agree with Valerie Strauss when she says in her article in The Washington Post, “For grades to be meaningful and useful to students, they require some explanation, perhaps suggestions or direction” (“Grading Writing: The Art and Science — and Why Computers Can’t Do It”).


At the outset, providing students with clear grading criteria helps them to understand what is expected of them. Therefore, I hand out grading rubrics and specific writing task oriented checklists. John Bean’s important pedagogical suggestions in his book Engaging Ideas offer many more ways to ensure clarity in grading criteria. In-class norming sessions, peer-review checklists, and revision-oriented comments, to name a few, help to present clear grading criteria. And, we must not forget that our comments, which often align with grading, need to offer students encouragement as they participate in the writing process.  


For me, there is no getting around the importance of the process of writing. My students begin to understand and value it as much as they do the final grade, because in working through the process as a valuable part of writing, students experience writing as a work in progress shaped by their engagement in the process. A single-minded focus on counting and circling all errors in a paper can effectively demoralize students and constrain their efforts to learn to improve their writing. By focusing on grading the process of writing, both students and instructor become invested in the writer’s work as it takes shape.