Responding to Writing Assignments: Managing the Paper Load

Woman buried in paperworkWriting can be a powerful learning tool. But as class sizes increase and the stacks of unmarked writing assignments on our desks grow, we need to reconsider how we introduce writing into our courses. One way to give students the learning benefits of writing without burying ourselves in paper is to shift from mostly high-stakes writing assignments to more low-stakes writing assignments. This involves a shift from writing that tends to be formal and in depth (e.g., essays) to writing that is more informal, usually counts less toward the final grade, and is generally easier and quicker to mark (e.g., journals, online discussion groups). Consult the Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip “Using Writing as a Learning Tool” for more information about these assignments.

Beyond being creative about the types of assignments we create, we need to find efficient ways to respond to and assess students’ writing. Below you will find two sets of strategies: one to limit the number of assignments that you read, the other to structure how you respond to and assess the ones that you do read. Consult the concluding section for guidance on how to choose the strategies that are most appropriate for the assignments you have designed.

Limiting the number of assignments to read

  • Have students respond to each other’s writing. Rather than collect low-stakes writing assignments, have students form small groups and read one another’s work. Through this activity, students gain immediate feedback about their writing, new ideas for future writing, confidence about the ideas they have introduced, and experience in assessing writing. For brief writing assignments, you could have each group choose one paper to read aloud to the whole class. Or, simply use the ideas shared through this peer review activity as a basis for class discussion. This method is also effective for responding to drafts of high stakes writing. In this situation, be sure to give students clear guidelines for commenting on the papers (e.g., heuristics—see below).
  • Distribute deadlines across the semester. You might want students to do a fair bit of writing, but they may not need to write every week. Divide the class into manageable sections, and have a different section submit an assignment each week. Or, if you want everyone to write weekly, have all students submit assignments but respond to only some of them, giving the other students a pass/fail mark for whether they hand something in.
  • Have students create portfolios. Rather than collecting students’ work each week, have them keep their weekly writing in a personal folder or portfolio. You can then choose from at least three options. First, have the students submit this portfolio once or twice over the term. You can then compare the writing within each portfolio and write only one set of comments for each person. Or, have students submit their two or three best pieces at the end of term, which you will then read and respond to. A third option is to have students write a reflective essay or letter in which they reflect on the quality and direction of their writing throughout the term. You might want to combine this last option with in­class peer response, so you ensure that students are indeed writing regularly.

Focusing your response efficiently

  • Give general feedback to the class as a whole. Rather than commenting on each assignment, share your general reactions with the class either in an email (or website) or orally next class. For example, tell them, “Here’s what I learned from your one-sentence summaries…,” or “Here are some of the most common problems I noticed, which you need to work on for next time …” A variation is to select one or more of the best assignments to share in class as a way to reinforce good writing.
  • Use a 1-, 2-, or 3- level scale. To quickly get through a large stack of low stakes writing, use a simple scale without adding comments. Here are some scales you could use:
    • Three levels: Strong, satisfactory, weak; Excellent, okay, no credit
    • Two levels: Pass, fail; Satisfactory, no credit; Check, minus
    • One level: Pass if turned in at all (fail if not submitted)
  • Use symbols. Rather than writing narrative comments in the margins, use symbols to indicate strong or weak passages in a student’s writing. For example, put straight lines in the margin alongside passages or underneath phrases that are particularly strong; use wavy lines to mark weak phrases or passages. Asterisks and check marks could be other useful symbols for you. If you choose this method of response, be sure to give students a key explaining your symbols. In fact, you could have them use the same symbols when reading each other’s writing. You can also create a palette of commonly used symbols or grading comments through a Microsoft Word macro or via an online marking tool.
  • Respond online. If you find yourself getting caught up in correcting students’ grammar rather than responding to their ideas, have them submit writing assignments online. You can then also respond online, where you may find it easier to give general, content-related responses instead of sentence-level corrections.
  • Use a heuristic. A heuristic is a set of questions that guides one’s attention to certain aspects of a piece of writing (see example in Appendix). The questions help you know what to pay attention to when you’re reading, and what to write about when you’re responding. Here are some points to keep in mind when designing and using heuristics:
    • Design questions carefully. You could use closed yes/no questions, such as “Does the writer explain each concept clearly?” or open-ended questions, such as “What concepts has the writer attempted to explain? To what extent has the writer succeeded in explaining the concepts?” The questions that you choose should relate closely to your purpose for the writing assignment. Note that if you use closed questions, it is wise to include space labeled “Comments” after each question so that you or your students expand on the “yes” or “no” answers.
    • Use heuristics mostly for high-stakes writing. Because completed heuristics provide a significant amount of specific commentary on a paper, they are most appropriate for high-stakes writing, especially drafts. You may find them too time consuming to create for most low-stakes assignments.
    • Give heuristics to students for peer response and self-assessment. To give helpful feedback to one another in peer review sessions, students need guidelines. Heuristics can provide this necessary structure. Students can also use heuristics to assess their own writing before they submit it to you. This will improve the quality of their work—which, in turn, will most likely make the task of marking quicker and more pleasant.
    • Translate heuristics into rubrics if grades are necessary. Because heuristics do not explicitly connect criteria to grades, you will probably use heuristics when giving formative evaluation, that is, assessment that doesn’t include a grade, such as on essay drafts. If you want to assign a grade, it would be better to translate your heuristic into a rubric (see the next point).
  • Use a rubric. A rubric is a scoring grid or scale that features a description of the primary traits or essential components of a document, along with associated grades or evaluation levels (see examples in Appendix). In other words, it includes a set of criteria that you’ve identified as important for a piece of writing and a graded scale based on how well the student has achieved these criteria. Once you have developed a rubric for an assignment, you can assess written work much more quickly, because you can compare a piece of writing to the graded scale and determine where it fits on that scale. Because rubrics tend to be quite descriptive, they minimize the number of narrative comments you need to write. By circling the features of a person’s paper on the rubric, you provide a rationale for the mark you eventually assign and need to add only a few specific comments. Online rubrics can be used to grade work that is handed in electronically. These rubrics are usually directly linked to the online grade book in the course management system. Here are some guidelines for designing and using rubrics:
    • Design rubrics as an analytic grid or as a holistic scale. The many varieties of rubrics fall into two general categories. They can be grid-like (analytic), with a list of criteria along the left side, a list of grade levels across the top, and corresponding descriptions in the remaining squares of the grid. Or they can be scale-like (holistic), in which each grade level is listed along with a narrative description of what a paper of that quality would exemplify. A holistic rubric usually is less specific than an analytic rubric and is often more appropriate for lower-stakes writing. The rubrics in the Appendix demonstrate the difference between analytic and holistic (although notice that in this case they are equally specific).
    • Design rubrics as simple or complex. A rubric can be very simple and brief or very complex and long. How complex you make it will depend on your purpose for the assignment and whether the writing is high stakes or low stakes. For example, for a low stakes assignment designed for reflection on course readings, you might use a 3-level holistic scale, accompanied by brief descriptions about the quality of interaction the writer has with the readings. In contrast, a high stakes assignment meant to bring together the various themes of the course will require a much more complex, analytic rubric, with 4 or 5 levels of quality and 4 or 5 different criteria described in some depth.
    • Give rubrics to students for self-assessment. An effective way to help students achieve their best—and thus make your assessment task easier—is to distribute a copy of the scoring rubric with the assignment, so that students know which criteria they need to fulfill for an A, B, C, etc.
    • Use rubrics to make assessment consistent when you have multiple markers. When several individuals are marking the same assignment, rubrics can make the marking more consistent. However, the same rubric may be interpreted differently by different people, so be sure to begin with a session in which you check that everyone is using the rubric in the same way and giving a similar grade for the same paper.
    • Be aware of the limitations of rubrics. A rubric can be a great tool for assessing work quickly. Note, however, that this tool’s effectiveness is limited in at least two ways. First, if you believe that it is important to interact personally with each writer through your written comments, you may find that a rubric limits this interaction. You can overcome this limitation somewhat by adding space (and planning time!) to write personalized comments on your scoring sheet. Second, occasionally you will receive a paper that doesn’t seem to fit the rubric. That is, either the paper is excellent but doesn’t exemplify the criteria you thought you were looking for; or the paper is very poor but its low quality is not reflected when you score it with your rubric. Two ways to overcome this potential challenge are to avoid making your rubric so specific that it cannot, at times, be creatively interpreted and to remember to edit your rubrics each time you teach the course, based on the problems you encounter with them.

Choosing a response strategy

The previous sections offer several strategies for responding to students’ writing. Use the questions below to decide which strategy(ies) would be most appropriate for the assignment you have designed. Remember to inform your students of your decision, explaining both the strategy you will use and why it is appropriate for the assignment. This is especially important when you plan to give few personalized comments; without your explanation, the students could easily feel that your response is inadequate.

  • What is your purpose for the writing assignment? Because different types of writing encourage the development of different skills (e.g., critical thinking, creativity, clarity, elaboration), each type may require a different kind of response from you. For example, if your purpose was to get students evaluating a theory, you need to assess how well they did so; conversely, you don’t need to comment extensively on their grammar, spelling, or style. Be sure that the response you choose is closely related to the assignment purpose.
  • Is the assignment high stakes or low stakes? Not all writing requires you to respond with extensive narrative comments. In general, the lower the stakes of the assignment, the less you need to respond to it. Elbow (1997) writes, “When we assign a piece of writing and don’t comment on it, we are not not-teaching: we are actively setting up powerful conditions for learning by getting students to do something they wouldn’t do without the force of our teaching” (p.11). Don’t use Elbow’s comment to shirk responsibility, however. Weekly journals (low stakes) may need only a simple check or minus or general feedback to the class, but a 15-page essay (high stakes) will require much more, probably a rubric followed by some specific narrative comments.
  • How will students use the response you give? There are times when students will not benefit from extensive comments. For example, when you are marking final essays submitted at the end of term, assume that most students are interested primarily in their grade and perhaps the rationale for the grade; few students will actually pay close attention to the comments you’ve written throughout the paper. Conversely, assume that students will pay attention to and use the comments you write on a draft version of an assignment, so give specific comments to help them improve for the final submission. Regardless of how much you write, remember always to balance negative and positive comments, so that students are challenged to improve but not compelled to give up. And to avoid overwhelming them with a multitude of negatives, choose two or three of the largest issues to highlight.
  • What do students want to know about their writing? This question can be difficult to answer without asking students themselves. When students submit long or complex pieces of writing that will require a significant level of response from you, consider having them submit an informal cover letter along with their assignment. You might ask them to tell you a list of their main points, how they wrote the assignment, which parts they’re most and least satisfied with, and what questions they have for you as a reader. These letters will help you to decide what to comment on.


  • Andrade, H.G. (2000). Using rubrics to promote thinking and learning. Educational Leadership, 57 (5). Link to Andrade Article (scroll down to volume 57, February 2000).
  • Bean, J.C. (1996). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Elbow, P. (1997). High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing. In M.D. Sorcinelli and P. Elbow, eds. Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines (pp. 5­13). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Mertler, C.A. (2001). Designing scoring rubrics for your classroom. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 7(25).
  • Montgomery, K. (2002). Authentic tasks and rubrics: Going beyond traditional assessment in college teaching. College Teaching, 50 (1): 34-39.
  • Moskal, B. M. (2000). Scoring rubrics: what, when and how? Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 7(3).
  • Williams, J.D. (1998). Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice, 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ, and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wright, W.A., Herteis, E.M., and Abernethy, B. (2001). Learning Through Writing: A Compendium of Assignments and Techniques, Rev. ed. Halifax: Office of Instructional Development and Technology, Dalhousie University.


Sample heuristic:

  • Does the writer respond to the assigned prompt with appropriate depth and focus?
  • Does the paper have an apparent and easy-to-follow structure?
  • Does the writer interpret key concepts correctly and provide his or her own reasonable applications as evidence?
  • Does the writer use sentences that are well-formed and appropriately varied in length and style?
  • Is the paper generally free of spelling, typographical, and grammatical errors?
  • Reader’s general comments:

Sample analytic rubric (based on above heuristic):

Criteria A (Excellent) B (Very good) C (Fair) D (Poor)
Depth and focus Responds to prompt with appropriate depth and focus Appropriate focus, although could be in more depth Some attempt to focus Not at all focused and/or very superficial; may not follow prompt given
Structure Clear introduction, smooth transitions between topics, and thoughtful conclusion Introduction, transitions, and conclusion present, but could be clearer or smoother Evident which topics are being discussed, but no introduction, conclusion, or transitions Unclear which topics are being discussed and when; transitions non-existent
Content and application of concepts Concepts correctly interpreted; own applications given for each concept discussed; applications are reasonable Concepts correctly interpreted; own applications given but may be unreasonable Some concepts interpreted incorrectly; few applications given or applications are illexplained Most concepts interpreted incorrectly; no applications given
Sentence structure Sentences well-formed and appropriately varied in length and style Most sentences wellformed, with occasional awkwardness Some sentences poorly constructed but generally understandable Many sentences poorly constructed, incomplete, and/or awkward
Mechanics Few if any spelling or grammatical errors Some spelling and grammatical errors, but paper is still understandable Some spelling and grammatical errors, making paper difficult to understand in places Many spelling and grammatical errors, which present significant barrier to understanding

Sample holistic rubric (variation of above rubric):

A (Excellent) Responds to prompt with appropriate depth and focus. Clear introduction, smooth transitions between topics, and thoughtful conclusion. Concepts correctly interpreted; own applications given for each concept discussed; applications are reasonable. Sentences well-formed and appropriately varied in length and style. Few if any spelling or grammatical errors

B (Very good) Appropriate focus, although could be in more depth. Introduction, transitions, and conclusion present, but could be clearer or smoother. Concepts correctly interpreted; own applications given but may be unreasonable. Most sentences well-formed, with occasional awkwardness. Some spelling and grammatical errors, but paper is still understandable

C (Fair) Some attempt to focus. Evident which topics are being discussed, but no introduction, conclusion, or transitions. Some concepts interpreted incorrectly; few applications given or applications are ill-explained. Some sentences poorly constructed but generally understandable. Some spelling and grammatical errors, making paper difficult to understand in places

D (Poor) Not at all focused and/or very superficial; may not follow prompt given Unclear which topics are being discussed and when; transitions non-existent. Most concepts interpreted incorrectly; no applications given. Many sentences poorly constructed, incomplete, and/or awkward. Many spelling and grammatical errors, which present significant barrier to understanding

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