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Grading in Junior Year Writing Courses

Grading in a writing course involves balancing several ideas: clarifying effective writing and communication in the discipline, including students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and managing the paper load effectively and efficiently. JYW instructors are encouraged to choose the grading method that they believe balances these elements. To assist in developing grading plans for their courses, the page offers an overview of grading and then some concrete grading methods. 

General Principles for Grading Writing

Grading should be connected to assignment learning objectives. If there is a clear bridge from grading to what students are expected to learn from the course, then grading can present itself as a concrete goal for students to work toward. Grading is also an opportunity to offer ongoing, constructive feedback on student work.

Best Practices for Grading

  1. Define learning objectives. Learning objectives are a list of concepts that instructors want students to learn through their participation in an assignment. More information about defining learning objectives under Assignment Design. By defining learning objectives early and devising a plan for students to learn and practice them, grading practice can be directly connected to what students are working on in class.
  2. Integrate Criteria into the Learning Process. Sometimes, grading criteria that seem perfectly clear to teachers (or writers who are used to certain disciplinary genres) are rather opaque to students. Other times, the definitions of certain terms (such as what counts as an adequate explanation of a secondary source) can vary across disciplines and students may have conflicting ideas over what these ideas mean. For these reasons, it is important to explain grading criteria and ways of writing that are important to the major. It is also useful to offer students opportunities to practice these ideas through in-class activities. In this capacity, an instructor acts like a coach, helping students to work toward disciplinary definitions of effective writing.
  3. Focus on global writing concerns, rather than local concerns. “Global” issues are facets of a piece of writing that affect the meaning of the piece as a whole (e.g. organization, argument, purpose, research processes), whereas “local” issues are generally contained to one area (e.g. word choice, grammar). Commenting on global issues facilitates the inclusion of diverse cultural practices, foregrounds higher order learning objectives and discipline-relevant thinking and writing in the feedback process. Global feedback is also a way to keep comments focused on facets of a student’s writing that are most likely to be relevant on future projects. 
    Note: Local issues can signify global issues. For example, a jarring transition between two paragraphs might reveal that the argument of the student’s paper could be more cohesive. We recommend discussing this issue with a student as a global issue, so that the student is not misled into thinking that if they just patch up their transition, their argument is sound. More information on local and global issues can be found under Teacher Feedback and Paperloads.
  4. Value Diverse Writers. Students may take many different roads to the course learning objectives, working with different writing processes, ways of thinking, linguistic or cultural frames, and abilities. A main goal in teaching writing, and by extension grading writing, should be to foster students’ integration of learning objectives with their previous writing knowledge and strategies. 
  5. Adopt a Readerly Stance. Graders of writing often look at a piece of writing from an evaluative stance: what is working, and what is not? This is perhaps natural in grading, but it is not the way that most people read in day-to-day life. Usually, when we read, we are hoping to learn information or understand a new perspective. In either case, we assume that the writer is capable in some capacity and we do not immediately jump to evaluation. This means that reading student work from an evaluative standpoint means reading it from a different standpoint than its audience members would read it from. Responding to student work as a reader positions students as experts who have worthwhile points to make and orients feedback to a reader’s perspective. 

Methods for Grading Writing

There are several different methods for grading writing, each carrying their own philosophies, values systems, and workflows. Below, we offer a brief overview of some common methods for grading to help instructors determine which might be best suited to their course. 

Rubric Grading

Rubrics are explicit articulations of the grading criteria of an assignment. Often, rubrics involve dividing a writing assignment into various parts, to which a grader assigns discrete grades and then assembles a total score. For example, a rubric for a literature review might name categories like “Accurate representation of sources,” “clearly articulated purpose,” “signposted organization and relationships between sections,” and “depth of analysis.” 

A rubric helps to offer clarity on what counts as good writing in the discipline. It also gives the class a common vocabulary for assessing writing; students use the language on the rubric to facilitate activities like peer review. Rubrics also offer transparency in criteria and have potential for efficiency in grading. 

Holistic Grading

Holistic grading involves making an overall assessment of a piece of writing without separating categories of criteria. Written feedback usually explains how a grading decision was made. Holistic grading allows for more flexibility than a rubric in that it allows instructors to focus on what the individual student achieves without comparing them to a single standard. This approach of focusing on a whole piece of writing also helps the instructor adopt a readerly stance and can contribute to a strong emphasis on global feedback. 


Portfolios are collections of student work and can take many forms. Portfolios can be collected at the end of individual units (a collection of short assignments on one topic, or a series of drafts on one project) or at the end of the semester (encompassing what the student sees as their best work). In many cases, the portfolio includes a short reflective statement from the writer describing what they see the collected work of the portfolio representing. It is important to note that, even if an instructor is using an end-of-semester portfolio system, they should still give feedback on student work throughout the semester. 

A portfolio is a way to see (and give credit for) all of the work and knowledge that is not immediately visible in a final draft. For example, a student might have decided to revise their introduction because the audience they chose might not consider it compelling; this sense of audience analysis might not be immediately visible by only reading a final draft, but might indeed signify that students have achieved learning objectives like audience awareness. 

Portfolios emphasize the writing process, growth, and reflection. Portfolios are also helpful for group projects, where final products can obscure the behind-the-scenes work of some group members. 

Contract Grading

A grading contract is an agreement between teacher and student on what counts for a given grade on an assignment. Contracts are often framed in terms of effort, labor (measured in time) or completion (if students complete X number of components, they earn Y grade). Contracts often involve student input. 

Contracts hope to take the mystery and power dynamics out of grading. This may be especially appealing for linguistically marginalized students who would like their writing to be graded without instructor bias around their language use to play a role. Contracts also accept that making mistakes and taking risks are an acceptable part of the learning process, rather than something to be penalized for. They also allow the instructor to focus on feedback rather than grades.