Kristian E., Class of 2019, Military Veteran

Grading Student Writing

Kristian E. Class of 2019, Military Veteran

For the same reasons that writing is such an effective learning experience, it is the most difficult kind of student work to grade and to comment on. Writing requires students to integrate a variety of sophisticated skills to produce a single product, the paper. Weighing student achievement in these different areas-which may include grammatical ability, rhetorical skill, organization, content knowledge, critical thinking, and research skills-to arrive at a single grade which can be clearly justified to a student can be a real challenge.

Several criteria must be weighed in choosing a method for grading writing:

  • Does the method give the student a useful assessment of his or her achievement and likely future success?
  • Does it hold students accountable for basic skills — i.e., the ability to produce relatively error-free Standard Written English?
  • Does it seem fair to students?
  • How time-consuming is it?

These criteria will be weighed differently by different instructors, in different classes, and in different disciplines. Some representative methods are described below and weighed against these criteria. Ultimately, an instructor should select or design a method which fits the role the writing assignment plays in the student's education. Whichever method the instructor chooses, he or she should clearly explain to students how their work will be graded and what criteria will be applied. Be sure to consult the National University Catalog for definitions of what levels of achievement letter grades (A – F) represent, and be sure your students understand those definitions and how they might apply to your writing assignments. Encourage students to solicit your feedback on drafts of their papers at any stage of the process.


The paper is graded solely on its content, its mastery of the material it is presenting. Grammar, style, spelling, organization, etc. are not graded. This method may be preferred by instructors who feel pressed for time, who feel insecure about correcting student mistakes, or who feel overwhelmed by student mistakes.


  • It's quick.
  • Grades are easy to justify because based solely on instructor's particular expertise and course content.
  • May seem fairer to ESL students who struggle with Standard Written English.


  • It allows students to succeed despite poor writing and communication skills, thus sending an unrealistic message that such skills are not important in other classes or in the "real world."
  • Often, problems in the "form" of the paper may interfere with the reader's ability to clearly understand the "content."

All or Nothing:

No (or very few) sentence-level errors are accepted. Papers handed in with errors are returned or severely penalized.


  • Such rigorous standards may force students to learn to write better.
  • Prepares students to meet more rigorous standards in other classes and in the "real world."


  • It may be an unrealistic expectation: very few students may be able to meet such a standard, especially ESL students.
  • Students may be intimidated or discouraged about their abilities.

Percentage or Point Systems:

Writing competencies are categorized and points or percentage values assigned to each category to calculate the final grade: for example, content-50%, organization-25%, clarity-15%, bibliography-10%.


  • Allows students to succeed in some areas despite low skills in others.
  • Clearly indicates instructor expectations and priorities.
  • Appears "objective."
  • Suggests the complexity of the writing process and of a reader's response to writing.


  • Does not reflect the way writing is actually read or assessed in the "real world."
  • Implies that content and form are separable rather than interrelated features of written communication.
  • A student could potentially fail one category completely and still receive a passing grade: for example, depending on the weighting of particular aspects of the paper, a student could receive a passing grade for a paper written on the wrong subject, or in a foreign language, despite the fact that those essays might receive no points for, respectively, content or clarity.
  • Can be more time-consuming than others, as it requires the instructor to assign several separate grades to the same piece of writing.


A more sophisticated, graphic version of the point system. Letter grades are plotted along one axis and specific features of writing (e.g., "thesis," "argument," "organization," "sentences") along the other. Brief descriptions of each feature at each grade level appear at the intersections. Thus, for instance, "C" level organization might be described as "difficult to follow in places." A total grade is determined by combining the grades in each category (according to some percentage system). Charts can be copied and returned to students indicating separate grades in each category.


  • Same as percentage/point systems
  • Criteria in the different categories are briefly defined.
  • Charts can be customized to reflect different goals and expectations for different assignments.


  • Same as for the percentage/point system method.

Holistic Method:

The writing assignment specifies an audience and the purpose (or purposes) the essay is supposed to fulfill-that is, the effect(s) it is supposed to have on that audience. The essay is given a single grade assessing how well it fulfills those purposes-how well, in other words, the essay "works." Thus, for instance, distracting sentence-level errors would bring down the overall grade to the extent that those errors keep the paper from having the desired effect on its intended audience.


  • More than any of the other methods, this one reflects the interrelationship of form and content.
  • More than any of the others, it reflects the way writing is actually read and assessed in the "real world" i.e., in terms of its effectiveness in getting something done.
  • Unlike some of the other methods, this method doesn't require instructors to be grammar experts; they only need to be able to recognize and point out places were sentence-level problems are hindering the overall effectiveness of the essay.
  • Because the essay is given a single mark rather than several, this method is pretty quick.


  • Students may feel this grading system is too "subjective." (Note: The answer to this complaint is to point out that this is the way writing is read in the "real world.")