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Student writing

University of WashingtonAs a faculty member, lecturer or TA you might work with student writing in a number of ways: short-answer exams, essays, journals, blog posts, research assignments and so on. You may also take your students through the writing process by assigning drafts, encouraging peer response through structure or informal exercises, and using writing to encourage active learning.

The following suggestions will help to make your work easier in each of these roles and will also help your students be more successful with their writing.

Assigning writing

Whether or not you have developed the writing, students will be more successful if the assignment contains the following information:

  • Purpose: What is the goal of the assignment? Why are students being asked to write it?
  • Audience: Who are students writing to? You? Each other? A specific audience?
  • Grading criteria: Include a summary of the criteria you will use to grade the writing.
  • Models: What have students encountered in their readings or lectures that illustrates the kind of thinking and writing you expect?
  • Format: Are there any special requirements?
  • Length, due date: Place this information prominently on the assignment sheet

Taking students through the writing process

Other ways to help students be more successful with their writing are to encourage drafts and peer response groups and to offer writing conferences. Not only do students benefit from this process, you will also benefit by receiving final papers that are easier to read and grade.


Encouraging or requiring students to write drafts of papers one to two weeks before they are due helps students avoid writing the paper the night before and often results in better final papers. If there is time, you can review drafts but students can also be referred to peer response groups or to writing centers.

Peer response groups

Having students respond to one another’s drafts, either in pairs or as members of a small group, can permit valuable revision to take place without making more work for you as the grader. As readers of each other’s work, students are especially effective in determining whether their peers have completed the required tasks of the assignments. For more information about using peer response, contact CTL.

Writing centers

Many departments have writing centers. If you send students to the center in your department, be sure to provide the center staff with copies of your assignment.

The Odegaard Writing & Research Center is open to all members of the UW community.

Writing conferences

When there is time, one-to-one or small group writing conferences are valuable for helping students move from the draft to the revision.

Using writing to encourage active learning

There are many ways to take advantage of the role writing plays in learning. Below is a list of some roles writing can play in teaching and learning and how to facilitate them. For additional ideas about integrating writing into your teaching and your students’ learning, contact staff consultants at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

  • To stimulate class or small group discussion
  • To focus attention in small group discussion
  • To focus attention or encourage reflection in lecture
  • To direct reading

Assign five to ten-minute writing exercises

These exercises can range from lists showing what information students have grasped to paragraphs in which students compare and analyze different positions or take a position and defend it. Sharing these written responses can enable both you and your students to discover what they know, what they still need to find out and how they are thinking. You do not need to grade this writing.

Grading writing

If you have make clear to yourself and your students your criteria for grading a writing assignment, you will have a focused, objective way of responding and your students will have a greater chance of meeting your expectations.

Develop grading criteria

Referring to the assignment, ask yourself what you expect students to do on the assignment. Your answer might result in a list of points reflecting the specific things you expect to see and how you expect to see them. Organize your list to reflect your priorities for the assignment; then think about what elements would be necessary for an A paper, a B paper, a C paper. This process should help you develop criteria specific to the particular assignment.

Once you have established a clear task and grading rubric, you should inform your students what you’ll look for in their writing.  If they are informed of your requirements ahead of time, they may be less likely to complain that their grade was “subjective.” Also consider using parallel language when describing your grading scheme and when commenting on student papers.  This will help students to identity the strengths and weakness in their work, which may assist in future improvement.

Be consistent

If you are teaching more than one section of a course, be consistent in your grading and commentary across the sections.

Strategies for giving students feedback

Consider attaching a separate sheet to each student’s paper on which you have printed the criteria specific to the assignment, leaving blanks for your comments.

Whenever possible, make your comments text-specific by referring to particular places in the paper where students are successful or where problems occur. Comments like “Good!” and “Unclear” provide students with little information to help them revise or write the next paper.

Choose three areas that you will focus on in your end comments. That way, your students won’t be overwhelmed by a paper that seems you’ve written more than they have.

Limit sentence level comments. Don’t mark every grammar and spelling error in the paper; instead, select a representative page or paragraph for this level of response and ask the student to apply what he or she learns from your work to the rest of the paper.

Information for TAs: Student writing

  • Work with your supervising faculty member to create a grading criteria. Communicate this criteria to the students.
  • Be consistent across sections. If TAs in charge of other sections are reading the same assignment, work together to develop, test and use grading criteria. Some departments also require a “norming” session, so TAs can adjust their own grading to match that of their department’s requirements.
  • Encourage students to come and see you during office hours to discuss their writing.

Additional resources