Now More Than Ever: Why Collaborative Grading Works, Even Online

Zoom meeting occurs on computer screen with coffee mug on table next to laptop

Over the previous decade, researchers have made the case that engaging students in metacognition improves learning outcomes for students across fields (Zhao et al, 2014; Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Anderson, 2002). We believe one of the best ways to engage students in metacognition and self-assessment is to involve them directly in the grading process. Below, we outline two strategies for doing so: class-generated rubrics and collaborative grading sessions. We also offer helpful guidance on using technology to enhance each, and offer tips on how students (as well as faculty) can learn how to fully engage in the learning process online.

In most cases, the traditional notion of a collaborative grading process can seem to be an oxymoron: students look to an instructor to set the rubric and establish grade parameters but are left to their own devices to endure the writing process. Researchers have consistently found that when students are engaged with metacognitive strategies—from a simple learning strategies survey (Zhao et al, 2014) to direct teaching of Bloom’s Taxonomy (McGuire & McGuire, 2015) to training in self-assessment (Morales, 2014), self-efficacy (Cassidy, 2015), and mindset (Yeager et al, 2016)—they become stronger, more resilient learners. We believe one of the most valuable metacognitive tools a student can acquire is their ability to self-assess and review their own writing.

Consider, then, the notion of a collaborative grading process that rewards “persistence” as it builds a metacognitive approach to writing. Not only does this practice seek to motivate students to embrace their assignments and criticism with new vigor, but it aims to increase their awareness of the stakes, allowing them to redistribute their energies to those areas that need the most work. By incorporating the tangible goal of a one-on-one session, students can be encouraged to be more mindful of the work put into the grading process. Collaborative grading normalizes grading practices while engaging Haynal’s message that “increased communicative practices in the classroom [are] a democratizing practice” that reduce communication barriers and negative perspectives between teachers and students (2016, 111) (2016, 111).

With this in mind, we offer some concrete suggestions for faculty.

Be open. Be Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

To initiate the process of collaborative grading, have each student make an appointment with the instructor to discuss the paper holistically, considering all of the elements you consider important in your course. Grade this draft together and explain why and how the draft will be graded following each of the rubric points. This practice may be expanded virtually using pre-graded exemplars to review the practice using a shared screen in your chosen virtual conferencing platform. Change the future!

Knowing the rules versus understanding the process.

By recognizing the “significance of communication as performative and transformative learning in all general education classrooms,” (Haynal, 2016, 115) faculty’s overall goal for a class should be developing students’ understanding and motivation to embrace the potential errors outlined in an assignment, take the feedback, and continue to work on the final draft and future assignments.  The student in question can take on the responsibility of participating in their own education, engaging the process instead of passively being led and lectured. Grades are constructed, rather than given. During collaborative grading, errors aren’t something to be marked by an instructor and absorbed by the student; errors are addressed in a living document. The process does not end once the product has been submitted. This makes for an active classroom where all parties are engaged and a student’s sense of  “democratic citizenship” (Haynal, 2016, 115) is invigorated such that they want to work with the instructor to improve and  share in the goal with their classmates.

Use class-generated rubric.

One way to provide students a guided, scaffolded entry into self-assessment is to have the entire class collaboratively generate the rubric for an assignment. For this approach to be successful, it’s critical that students are given ample opportunity to reflect on what they believe “success” on the assignment would look like, ideally in writing. This can be accomplished with a warm-up writing activity. It can also be helpful to provide students with categories for assessment, ideally the same categories that have been used throughout the semester.

Professors, let go!  

Instructors lead students, teach students, and show them the way. This is the narrative both students and instructors hold. However, if both parties come to the table with preconceived notions, then students may not be ready to learn and instructors may miss the mark, despite all good intentions. Collaborative grading allows for a closer dialogue of specific expectations on an assignment and shows students that the instructor actually cares about their success. Provide the first assignment draft, grade collaboratively, and then students may be more motivated to explore the many gradations of provided exemplars.

In the online environment, which for many students and instructors will be the new normal, the face-to-face conference does not have to go the way of the dodo. Using calendar, appointment-making apps such as, you can arrange meetings with students via the preferred video conferencing platform and by sharing screens, get right into your students’ work and provide real-time feedback. This has long been an effective method of grading writing; rather than the traditional method of covering a student’s paper in ink or comment boxes before passively returning it (how very asynchronous), going over an assignment in person helps foster engagement and ensure that students are receiving the feedback they need.

Beyond this, implementation is simple and direct: individual students or groups suggest criteria, the instructor/facilitator records them, then the class deliberates on that criteria until an agreement is reached. Then the class can move on to the next criteria, more informed and more engaged.

Christian Aguiar is an assistant professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. His research focuses on multimodal writing and supporting first-generation college students in composition courses. He is a 2019 Roueche Teaching Excellence Award Winner.

Andrew M. Howard is an assistant professor and the English Program Coordinator at UDC Community College. He has presented pedagogical research at NCTE, NADE, and for Complete College America which focuses on co-requisite course implementation and inclusive assessment. Recent fiction and nonfiction publications include Sycamore Review, Miracle Monocle, and Undeniable: Writers React to Climate Change.

Ahmad Wright is an assistant professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia Community College and former coordinator of the Center for Academic and Career Excellence (CACE). 


Cassidy, Simon. “Resilience Building in Students: The Role of Academic Self-Efficacy.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (2015): 1-14.

Haynal, Kaitlyn. “The Transformative Power of Communication: Democratizing Practices for the General Education Classroom.” The Journal of General Education 65 (2016), no. 2: 110-125.

McGuire, Saundra Y. and Stephanie McGuire. Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Stylus Publishing, 2015.

Morales, Erick E. “Learning from Success: How Original Research on Academic Resilience Informs what College Faculty Can do to Increase the Retention of Low Socioeconomic Status Students.” International Journal of Higher Education 3 (2014), no. 3: 92-102.

Yeager, David S., Gregory M. Walton, Shannon T. Brady, Ezgi N. Akcinar, David Paunesku, Laura Keane, Donald Kamentz, Gretchen Ritter, Angela Lee Duckworth, Robert Urstein, Eric M. Gomez, Hazel Rose Markus, Geoffrey L. Cohen, and Carol S. Dweck. “Teaching a Lay Theory before College Narrows Achievement Gaps at Scale.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (2016), no. 24: E3341-E3348. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1524360113

Yeager, David S. and Carol Dweck. “Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe that Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed.” Educational Psychologist 47 (2012), no. 4: 302-314.

Zhao, Ningfen, Jeffrey Wardeska, Saundra Y. McGuire, and Elzbieta Cook. “Metacognition: An Effective Tool to Promote Success in College Science Learning.” Journal of Science Teaching 43 (2014), no. 4: 48-54.