January 31st, 2012

A Strategy for Grading Student Writing Assignments


Do you sometimes (maybe regularly) get papers from students filled with spelling, punctuation, proofreading, and other more serious grammatical problems? Yours is not an English class and you have other content to teach, making it difficult to address these writing problems. And yet leaving them unaddressed puts students in jeopardy. They may not believe us, but the fact is we still live in a culture that “sorts out” people based on their use of language and a student who can’t put together an error-free résumé or cover letter isn’t likely to get many interviews or good jobs.

Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson suggest a solution in their book on grading (reference below). At first pass it may seem a bit harsh, but it is a solution that works. They recommend creating what they call gateway criteria. Simply put, these are certain requirements that must be met before the paper is even graded. If those standards for things like word processing, labeling graphs, grammar, punctuation, and so forth are not met, the paper is handed back with an F and instructions to revise and resubmit for grading.

A policy like this is fair only if the gateway criteria are clearly laid out before the assignment is submitted. They should be given to students and/or posted on the course website, and teachers need to remind students about them regularly. Walvoord, who writes of her experience using the gateway criteria, explains that she also gives students information about the Writing Center, including its hours, Web address, and location on campus. She points out that’s what people in writing centers do: they help students meet the requirements of standard written English. Her students also have the option of submitting a draft of their papers at least 24 hours before they are due. She does not edit these drafts or mark errors, but she does tell students whether the paper has met the gateway criteria. If it does not, again she lets students know that help is available in the Writing Center and she identifies composition sources where students can find relevant information. Walvoord does not apply the gateway criteria policy to other work in draft form, in-class writing, or other informal writing activities. It applies only to finished, formal work.

“The result of this gateway policy is that virtually all the final papers Walvoord receives make it through the gate.” (p. 58) And Walvoord has used this policy with first-year students as well as those in upper-division courses.

If the policy sounds viable but you’re still having some qualms, consider implementing it in an upper-division course. Do so recognizing that you will have to devote time to explaining the rationale behind the policy. This isn’t an exercise of teacher power. It isn’t because the teacher is lazy and doesn’t want to correct mistakes on papers. It’s because on that first job, when the student (now employee) submits a report, prepares a proposal, or posts minutes from a meeting and there are these kinds of mistakes, there will be consequences far worse than getting an F. Bosses will not return the paper and ask for corrections. They will come to unfavorable conclusions about the potential and worth of that employee.

Walvoord and Anderson also point out that you can set the gateway criteria at different levels for different groups of students. They suggest that special attention be paid to those learners for whom English is a second language. The criteria may be set lower for these students, but only temporarily, because these learners will be expected to meet the same standards in the world beyond the college or university. “The idea is not to hand out a lot of F grades but to teach students that to function in the outside world, they will have to master ESWE (Edited Standard Written English) or their work will be dismissed before the reader has even dealt with the writer’s ideas.” (p. 58)

It is encouraging that Walvoord’s students do manage to meet the gateway standards. It underscores what research documents and most of us know firsthand. You can set standards that challenge students. If they understand the rationale behind the standards and their teachers stand by with support and encouragement, they will step up to the plate—often surprising us and themselves.

Walvoord, B.E. and Anderson, V.J. (2010). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Reprinted from Weimer, M. (2010). Gateway Criteria: Minimum Standards before an Assignment is Graded. The Teaching Professor, 24 (10), 5.

  • Melinda Johnson

    I think this is an interesting approach, but how do you discourage students from turning in poor work to begin with? It seems to me that this policy simply gives a "free pass" to students who wait until the last minute – basically, buying them more time as long as they turn something in.

    • Melissa Silva

      I think all instructors should adopt such requirements across the board. Many of my non-native speakers of English fair far better than their American counterparts in such assignments these days. Melinda, your rubric/grading scale should be specific and presented to students at the start of class. They will then know from the beginning that the work they will submit is expected to meet a certain standard. Students choosing to wait until the last minute will suffer the consequences. For many, one bad experience teaches them to pay appropriate attention to what is required.

  • Jill Emerick

    I like this idea, but I find myself wondering about its application to students in developmental courses. Would the gateway criteria become increasingly difficult as students learned more grammar skills?

  • Barbara Ninan

    This is a great article. I am very much in support of this approach. I too have noticed that a lot of nursing students at the University where I teach are struggling with writing skills. In an effort to improve the writing skills, nursing students in their third quarter are required to take a nursing class and writing class concurrently. There is one major writing assignment which meets the requirement for both classes. In the writing class, the paper is graded for writing and grammer skills and in the nursing class the paper is graded for nursing content. In order to get credit for the paper, the student must have satisfactorily meet the requirement for each class. Efforts are being made to maintain an emphasis on writing for the remained of nursing school which I will discuss in a second comment.

    • tommytd

      Barbara please check your spelling! It's grammar…not grammer skills – Yikes.

  • Barbara Ninan

    Once again, I am in agreement with this article. At the university where I teach, a plan is currently being developed to improve or maintain writing skills throughout the nursing program. A standard rubric for the writing skills component of all written assignments will be used by all faculty as the student progresses through the nursing program. Because a substantial weight will be placed on the writing skills portion of the paper, students will no longer be able to receive a passing grade just because they have covered the content. This may be an adjustment for some faculty and students. In the past, in some classes, if the student covered the content well, some of the writing skills were overlooked. As expressed in the article, many jobs will not be willing to overlook poorly written work.

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