Evaluation of Writing Assignments

Teaching Resources
Writing Guidelines
Writing Exercises
Writing Courses

As challenging as the design and interactive teaching of writing assignments are, perhaps the most challenging aspect of incorporating writing assignments into an engineering or science course is evaluating those assignments. Here, evaluation does not mean simply assigning a grade, but constructing a process in which the students receive useful feedback that serves to tell them not only what should be strengthened in the writing, but also what was done well.

Unlike grading a mathematics problem in which one can assess how far a student has progressed in answering the problem, evaluating a writing assignment involves assessing several parallel aspects: the content of the message, the structure (organization, depth, and emphasis) of the message; the language of the message (at the sentence level); the illustration of the message; and the message's form (grammar, punctuation, usage, and format). As is often the case, students do well on some of these aspects, but not so well on others. The evaluation should communicate those strengths and weaknesses to the students. Moreover, the evaluation should levy a grade that is consistently applied to all assignments within that set. Such a hurdle poses problems for an instructor with more than 100 students and a handful of teaching assistants, some of whom may not possess English as their native tongue.

A well-done evaluation has three attributes: clarity, consistency, and a sense of hierarchy. By clarity, I mean that your marks on the paper clearly identify what the weakness (or strength) of the writing is, and if a revision is proposed, then what that revision is. By consistency, I mean that your evaluation is such that students feel as if the evaluation was based on logic, not whim. Also, students feel as if everyone was graded fairly. By a sense of hierarchy, I mean that your evaluation emphasizes the most important weaknesses (and strengths). Moreover, students understand that not all writing faults are equal in importance.

Also, experiences in large laboratory and design courses at Virginia Tech suggest that evaluating the content separately from the style and form serves to indicate to the students what they have done in their writing and what they need to improve. Presented here is one scheme for evaluating the style and form of an engineering or scientific report.

Last updated 7/00
You are more than welcome to use these materials in your classroom as long as you acknowledge the source.