Using Student-Developed Standards To Assess Writing

Teaching Tips

I was going to write an update about using conference grading, and I will, but today my heart is still full from experiencing one of the most productive tools in my teacher toolbox: collaborative standards – so I just had to write about student-developed standards. I first wrote about this in April 2015 (see 3 reasons you should build assessments as a class) and semester after semester I find this experience helpful to my students in the moment as they work on their current project and in the future as they think about their process, but it is also tremendously helpful to me as a teacher. My students and I work together to develop the standards we use to assess each unit (including both the individual work and supporting the community as well as the actual deliverable culminating the unit — which is why I like to refer to each unit as an Achievement). Every time I work through this process with my students I am convinced it is genius (spoiler alert – not my genius) because it promotes student confidence and agency and helps us all better understand the strengths and weaknesses in student understanding of their own writing process (and my teaching).

The Process

The process of developing our standards is simple. Before we begin the conversations I share my vision and goals for the deliverable and how it fits into my larger vision and goals for the class. By this time students have learned quite a bit about the deliverable including studying models, strategies, and tips. I then share the student learner outcomes from the other stakeholders involved in our class (the English Department and Morehead State University) which apply to this unit (I have to do some selection because this list is too long to fit legibly on a slide which is a problem for another day).

Students then spend some time individually brainstorming a list of standards that reflect both the unit and the deliverable as well as the goals of all the stakeholders. The next steps vary according to the class.

I teach two sections of my general education writing classes and the afternoon class (which is located at a regional campus) is usually smaller than the morning class. In the morning class students collaborate in small groups to develop a list of standards, after that process is well underway I share the list of standards developed in a previous semester to further inform their process, and they give me their written standards at the end of class. The afternoon class starts their process the same way, but in addition to the previous semester list the students are given the lists created by the morning class as well. Then as a group they work to reconcile all the lists into one list of standards that will be used to assess that unit that semester.

My professional writing classes are taught online and so that process is slightly different. The introduction is similar in that I share my vision and goals although here there is more emphasis on the models, strategies, and tips offered by professionals for the specific deliverable and less emphasis on the other stakeholders. Students are then directed to spend some time reflecting and developing their own list of standards for the unit or achievement. As this class is online we then move the discussion to a collaborative document that is split into two parts: the top half lists the standards developed in a previous semester and the bottom half asks simply what support is needed to successfully meet those standards. Students are asked to add, subtract, edit, or ask for clarification. It can get a bit messy with long sidebar conversations taking place in the comments. Ultimately I am the one who needs to do the reconciliation at the end, but this is not controversial as general consensus usually develops as the conversation unfolds.

The Benefits

As I note in 3 reasons you should build assessments as a class, this work is a powerful teaching and learning experience. The process gives students confidence, ownership, and power, but it also makes visible so much student thinking about their writing process that I can’t think of a more beneficial writing classroom experience. I find this process helpful to my students in the moment as they work on their current project and hope it will inform their writing process in the future after they have left my class, but as a teacher this process highlights for me the lessons that I need to deliver to help my students achieve the standards they have set for themselves. Using student-developed standards to assess their writing is a win-win-win. Developing our writing standards as a writing community is one of the important ways that I hope to teach my student writers that they have agency over their own writing.

Image: Standards by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

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