Thursday, July 26, 2012

I have a confession...

I have a horrible confession to make. I'm totally ashamed. As a HS English teacher, this is really bad... really really bad...

Totally horrible... and I'm not using hyperbole...

I can't efficiently and effectively grade my students' writing by myself... those long labor intensive essays and research papers... yup, those, I can't grade them. I'm horrible at it. 1 page quick essay responses, I'm a little better at grading, but I still end up banging my head against the desk due to repetitive mistakes. Weren't they paying attention?! Didn't I go over this?! Ugh, another pronoun mistake?! I've been teaching for 14 years and I can't get students to improve their writing based on my assessment alone no matter how many times I try.

And how about this scenario for major writing assignments: students get assigned an essay to write that connects to the novel studied in class. Students engage in writing workshops, do some peer review, have mini-conferences with the teacher, write a draft, revise the draft, and hand it in. Those 130 ninth grade essays, double spaced, typed in 12 pt font Times New Roman, with 1 inch margins, will not get handed back to the students for months.... *GASP* and one time, not until the end of the year. I try and band-aid the situation telling the students (and myself) the process will be assessed on Marking Period A, while the final product will be part of Marking Period B's grade (ok, in rare cases Marking Period C or D). Who am I fooling?!?!?

Do the math: 130 essays x 10 mins minimum per essay (without student conferences) = 1300 mins, divided by 60 (hold on let me get my calculator...) = 21.6 consecutive hours.

21.6 hours MINIMUM for each set of assignments of consecutive grading without interruption. You got that time? Me neither. And on the rare occasions that I have sequestered myself in a locked room without distractions and interruptions (where's that?), what happens when I give the graded essays/papers back to the students? Absolutely nothing. They flip through, find the grade, grumble or cheer and then throw every rewritten, revised essay into a folder. Seriously?! 21.6 hours MINIMUM of my time wasted for a quick glance?! Rather anti-climatic if you ask me. There should be emanating from the page an enlightening glow illuminating the students' faces with understanding. But, again, who am I kidding?!

So What Happened? Where do I go wrong?

Part of the problem is in the assignment itself. Students will not become better writers if they are only assessed on one major writing task a marking period or semester. Less is more: students need to engage in smaller assignments more frequently.

The other part of the problem is in the assessment from the teacher and the effects (or lack of) of the assessment.

Was I sincere in my comments and critique for their writing? Yes.

Did I supply positive feedback and recommendations for improvement? Yes.

Were my recommendations and critiques valid? Yes.

Did my comments create an epiphany for students? No.

Did my students suddenly "get it" and become amazing writers from my grading? No.

Did they avoid making the same mistakes in their next writing assignment? Not usually.

Did they internalize anything from the comments and the grades for future improvement? Maybe, but probably not.

I have always wrestled with assessing writing in this manner because I never felt it was an effective and efficient method for improving student writing. It is one-sided and time consuming. Even though I am the "expert" and professional in the room, I am still only providing one opinion/viewpoint on the writing. And honestly, if I were such a fantastic writer, wouldn't I be living life as professional author? And if I was such a fantastic editor, wouldn't I be working for a publishing company?

The fault here lies in the system-- an archaic, antiquated system where the teacher is the only voice for evaluation. It is a failing cycle that does not produce results.

Cue, Ben Harper...I Believe in a Better Way!

The peer assessment framework I've devised was born out of necessity for time and sanity. This all started 14 years ago when I was a bleary-eyed student teacher wanting to figure out how to make grading essays less overwhelming, and every year since, and especially during the even more bleary-eyed and chaotic years when my daughters were infants and toddlers and now when they are in elementary school, I have refined the techniques to make it less about saving me time and more about giving the students an authentic evaluation experience.

Every educator vaguely familiar with Bloom's taxonomy will tell you that evaluation is one of the highest levels of thinking skills. Why should the teacher be the only one using this skill? And why should one teacher, no matter how wonderful and fabulous, be the only input for student writing? Quality writing requires quantity of writing. Quality and quantity both require time. In order to get to the quality, the teacher can not be the only one assessing the quantity of it. There's no time for it!

But there is time for Peer-Self Evaluation & Assessment!


The first key to implementing Peer & Self Evaluation is in the design. Students need to be guided in all aspects. One can't expect them to authentically and effectively evaluate each other and themselves... not unless everyone wants an A! Woo-who! #WINNING!

In order to build rapport, trust, and an opportunity for valid comments, I scaffold the process and start with small assignments that introduce the skills needed. I do mini-lessons on grammar, writing structure, etc. Many students are familiar with the 6 + 1 Trait Writing from their middle school years, so that gets mentioned as well. I have students constantly trade papers from quick worksheets to quick writes. They become used to sharing their work. I also preface every peer-self evaluation activity with a quick reminder on the need for valid, honest commentary.

General Game Plan for Peer Evaluation:
  1. Students trade assignments 
  2. Read through multiple times and complete evaluation worksheet 
  3. Complete scoring checklist & OSU rubric 
  4. Return assignment to the writer, and writer reviews worksheet and rubrics 
  5. Writer critiques evaluator completing the evaluation checklist. 
  6. Writer agrees or disagrees with evaluation and signs off on the score. 
  7. In case of disagreement, writer and evaluator conference and discuss specific points of disagreement. When compromise is reached, all is turned in to me. If no compromise can be met (rarely happens), I conference with both and review the total evaluation. 
  8. Teacher reviews the assignment and evaluation and provides a wholistic score on the entire process using an OSU rubric. 

Use of Rubrics:

I use 2 different rubrics for facilitating the peer evaluation. The Yes-Partial-No checklist is point by point assessing whether the student completed specific aspects proficiently. Students receive 2 points for every Yes, 1 point for each Partial, and 0 points for each No. The OSU rubric is for overall effort, presentation, etc.

O= Oustanding, the student exceeded expectations for the assignment 100%/A
S= Satisfactory, the student met expectations and performed proficiently approximately 90% A-/B+
U= Unsatisfactory, the student did not meet expectations approximately 75% C/D

Notice for the OSU rubric there are no in-betweens & no coddling. Student work falls into one of the 3 categories. When students reply, "but shouldn't I get an S+, it was really good!," I rebut with, "Maybe, but it is still just a S. It either is outstanding or it isn't. Figure out what you need to do to make it outstanding next time." I'm trying to combat all of my students asking me, "What do I need to do to get an A?" and settling for "good enough." I refuse to give them the answer for how to get an A. Obviously, do what I told them to do, but I want more. I want them thinking BEYOND the requirements. Stop settling for "good enough" and excel! THINK! Don't just be a robot following commands.

The total points for each rubric vary depending on the assignment. Students receive four different scores: Checklist, OSU, Evaluator, and Overall score (from me using a seprate OSU rubric). Students must sign off on all scores received and engage in conferences when scores are in dispute. I step in to moderate as needed, but so far I rarely need to do so. So not only are students getting assessed on their writing skills, but their evaluation skills are also taken into account, and they are receiving feedback on mutliple levels in a timely fashion.

Sample Evaluation Worksheets & Rubrics:

I also adapt these worksheets for self-evaluation and students critique themselves.

Keeping it Fresh

I constantly keep students on their toes switching up a piece of the pattern for each different assignment:

  • Editors/Evaluators are student or teacher or randomly selected, sometimes with names, sometimes without. 
  • Round-robin group evaluations where students obtain 3 total critiques on the same assignment from different people. 
  • The class creates the rubric & checklist together. 

The Secret of this Success

If this were an action research project, I would provide stats and evidence on writing before and after implementing the peer evaluation framework, but I can tell you this works. The proof is in the attitude of the students and in seeing the process take place. The students are engaged, on task, take responsibility/ownership of their work, and have learned how to defend and communicate their ideas to others. The proof is also in the efficiency of the system: we spend a total of 86 mins (2 class periods, each 43 mins) on the evaluation process. Students receive immediate feedback instead of waiting for me to return papers sporadically.

I've crafted this framework and refined it every year. So this works because I keep working at making it better. This framework can also be adapted for every subject. Have students critique each other on lab reports in Science, completing equations in Math, performing a piece in music... it works for every subject! If you would like additional samples or more clarification, let me know!

My next task is to figure out how to evolve this into a paperless and tech-y format. Blogs? Google docs? Google form? Edmodo?

Any ideas are welcome! (Chime in #Cheesebuckets!)


  1. Wow - I can totally relate! I teach high school English, and sometimes I feel like my job necessitates having no life. My hat's off to you for doing this while having your own kids! Thanks for this great post. I've come up with some techniques for myself (I give type-written bullet-point feedback on first drafts of major literary essays, and the mandatory second drafts must have the changed parts colour-coded to show evidence of having worked on the aspects I identified). I find this goes faster because I can type faster than I can hand-write which allows me to give more detailed commentary/instructions. Also, I find that I say more of what I'm actually thinking this way because I don't have to connect it to the rubric; I can genuinely assess the student's needs and comment on those without having to justify a grade. Also - it gives me a chance to say things like "I appreciate that you are trying trying to use specific quotations in your writing! But, I'm not sure the ones you've chosen are the best. Try..."

    Peer evaluation is one that I haven't had much success with, probably because I haven't had any accountability built in. I really like the methods you've outlined here. This is something I'll have to try! Thanks for this awesome post (which I found because someone tweeted about it! :)

  2. Thank you for this! I am a middle school teacher in a high-performing school district. I teach 3 English classes (as many as 90 students) and 2 History classes. I have struggled with grading and how to do a thorough job that doesn't require me to work 80 hour weeks.

    Your ideas are right on the mark for me and very useful. Not only do I love how you've detailed peer editing processes, but I agree with your OSU rubrics--these are methods that I can use! I SO appreciate it!

  3. @Teri & Katie, it is good to know that all English teachers struggle with this! When teachers had fewer students, it was certainly more manageable, but in today's climate, we need to diversify our tactics. I'm glad you find my techniques useful! Please let me know how they work in your class and any tweaks you make to the process.

  4. Thank you for sharing your great ideas. I have not had much success with peer evaluation. I don't know if it's because my students want to be "too nice" to one another, or if they really do not know the content well enough individually to assess a peer's work. Perhaps I quit letting kids try too easily. Your ideas here give me renewed hope that I can get peer evaluation to work. I know it will save me time, and it will most certainly give students more buy in to the feedback process.

    I do have a lot of success evaluating my kids' writing via Google reader and having them publish on their blogs. A pad of sticky notes and my iPad = huge time saver. I'd love to share more ideas. DM me on Twitter if you'd like.

  5. I love this idea! i teach 5 English classes (4 sections of English 12 with 150 kids). Students do a 6 page research paper, and I'm sure you can imagine the feeling of staring down 900 pages of student writing.

    I've used a similar process, having each students' papers peer evaluated by 2 classmates using the rubric they were provided at the start of the writing assignment. Each student averages the grades they received and then Agree / Disagree with the average, providing a rationale if they disagree. Then I give the "Agrees" a brief look over when grading and focus mainly on evaluating the "Disagrees" more intently. I'd say it cuts grading time by 1/3.

    However, that method is only as effective as the evaluator's knowledge of the English writing content. Your method here has all the checkpoints that really hammer down the accountability and requires students to think and reflect more thoroughly on the whole process.

    Great job!

  6. Hi Robert, I just added the evaluation of the evaluator this past year. I was having issues with students padding their grades for those who "Agree" on their scores. Now, their scoring is much more valid and authentic. and at times, i find they are harder on each other than I would have been on them! Go figure!


  7. you're my lifesaver! I'm a high school English teacher at a school for the deaf and just this weekend am about to embark on critiquing 13 college essays written by my seniors. For me the peer evaluating is hit or miss. Most of the time, my students spend so much time looking for grammar errors, they never bother to provide feedback on content other than the "this looks good". The only time their evaluations are any good is when assignments are authentic like when we wrote children's books that would be taken to the elementary school, or our Senior Journalism project where the class designs their own magazine from the ground up. It's hard to get students to internalize a literary analysis paper or even research papers with self-selected topics. This year I notice their blog writing is better than any printed/docs work they turn in. They need to care about the topics and care what others think about their writing. I like your rubrics and your ideas for smoothing out the process. Hoping I can put some of these ideas to good use!

  8. Great post! I am a ed tech specialist at an alternative school, and always looking for fresh ideas to use with our nontraditional students. I will be working with our HS SS teacher next semester on a major research paper that his students will be doing. I love your tips on how to scaffold the approach with students, and this will prompt me to extend my time with the class so I can introduce the peer editing concept in small chunks prior to students writing their papers. Exciting stuff - thanks so much!

  9. Awesome post... Thanks for sharing. I'm in my second year teaching 6th graders overseas and am constantly struggling with grading/assessing writing for all of the above reasons (plus they're ALL second language learners). I can't wait to try a different approach:) Keep up the great work!

  10. @ Tcsamripa, Patryce, & Reyna- Thanks for reading!

    If any of you have ideas on how to make it paperless or use technology in other ways to enhance the process, I'd love to hear! Just because educators have always been the only one to grade papers, doesn't mean that it should always be that way. We need technology to help us be efficient & effective, as well as have students feel more vested in the process.

  11. I would highly recommend It has become my go to when using students writing in the classroom. Students can see their most common mistakes at a glance and keep revising until they are ready to turn in something that is free from common errors. I can focus on content and style. Student accounts are inexpensive. Our entire high school was quote $1500.