Category: Evaluation

Grading English Language Learners’ Writing

This semester, I’m teaching more international students than I have in the past. Since some of them do not always have the best English, it raises a question: how do I grade their writing? How much do I focus on their ideas and how much do I focus on their ability to communicate their ideas and arguments? While this problem is not unique to international students, it is particularly important when the students seem to only have been studying English for a year or two rather than a decade or two with native speakers.

Personally, I find it ethically problematic to significantly punish students because they cannot communicate their ideas because they do not know our language. But how do I know what aspects of their paper are unclear due to a language barrier and what is off due to confusion, bad ideas, or problematic interpretations?  This semester, most of my international students with poor English are from China, so I was particularly happy to stumble across this explanation of Chinese language while preparing a class about ancient China:

Chinese is almost the opposite [of Japanese]. The word order is closer to English, with the verb coming before the object (e.g., “I read [a] book”). The Chinese language is also completely uninflected, having no tenses or plurals or any grammatical modification of word endings whatsoever. Honorifics, for the most part, are absent: Chinese is not a respect language. Chinese is also monosyllabic, at least to the extent that every Chinese character (written symbol), without exception, is pronounced as a single syllable and is a discrete unit of meaning. (Chris Holcombe, A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, 1st edition, 2011, p. 16)

From this, I think that, when grading the writing of students whose first language is Chinese and who are still learning English, we can be a bit more lenient about tenses and the inflection of plurals. Spelling, too, may also be a problem while adjusting to the Latin alphabet.  Additionally, many sentences are likely going to be pretty short and simple–just as our Latin sentences rarely approach Cicero’s in length or complexity. With these cautious allowances, I think we could be fairer to our students as they struggle with learning a complex language. Of course, they may require us to do more work to decode our students’ papers–and in some ways our Latin learning and teaching experiences have helped prepare us very well for that task–and that provides other grading dilemmas regarding what is their idea and what is our [creative?] reading of their paper (It’s worth noting that we also face the problem of decoding some native English students’ papers).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t gently encourage them to improve their English–I think we should. I think we should also encourage them, along with all other students, to seek out the help of an on-campus writing center, learning center, or a peer editor. I just think we shouldn’t excessively punish them because they aren’t a skilled native speaker.  So how much is fair to deduct from their scores due to grammatical and syntactical problems? Perhaps a few points, just like you would with a native English speaker. After all, their papers will probably already suffer if a language barrier diminishes their ability to understand their sources, so avoiding double jeopardy seems fair.

Essentially, I suggest that we should not treat them worse than you would a native English speaker. Provide them with similar advice, resources, and guidance about writing. Deduct similar, reasonable amounts of points for grammar mistakes, but put more effort into trying to understand their writing and ideas by understanding how English and Chinese differ. That may help us see through some of the fog that clouds our vision of their ideas and help us arrive at a more authentic and appropriate grade.

What is in a name?

A paper by any other name would be as formal, right? Apparently not. This semester, I assigned several brief writing assignments in my mythology and Roman archaeology classes. I called them “Exercises” so that they would not seems as stressful and help communicate that they should be brief. Instead, I think the word “Exercise” communicated that the papers were less formal than I hoped. Many of the students frequently used the first person–“I think…,” “We know this because…,” “I chose to talk about…,” or something along those lines. It was not the rare, more formal “In this paper, I argue…” or “…, I argue,…” which you see in some scholarly settings. While reading these, I was impressed by how distracting the first person was for me and so how much I hated reading it. This is the most obvious example of how these “Exercises” seemed too informal.  Two were handwritten, many were a single paragraph of few hundred words, and many lacked a thesis statement.

Now, I am sure I seem like a crotchety old man here, and I am well aware that some of my complaints reflect other issues–students needing to improve as writers, changing language norms, students are often less invested in academics than their professors were/are–but there seems to have been a communication disconnect here. The students seem not to have understood what I meant, and this can have very bad pedagogical implications. For instance, when I taught my Roman archaeology class about the Colosseum, which was built on the artificial lake in Nero’s Domus Aurea, I said “The Flavians sought to give back the land from the Domus Aurea to the people because it was acquired after the Great Fire of 64.” Based on their answers on exams, students seem to have heard “The Flavians were giving back to the Roman people.” and understood it as a way to repay the people for something. These are two very different concepts of the Colosseum. One sees the Colosseum as a just return of land and an attempt to placate the people or buy their support, the other suggests the building was part of a social contract in which the emperor must thank the people for their support. The latter is anachronistic–the Romans did not have a Lockian social contract.

My pedantic point is that we must be careful about how we communicate with and phrase things for our students. We have been trained to think in certain terms and to understand our subject in a specific way. Our students most likely do not know what we mean by some of these terms (e.g. identity, reception, “draws on,” “in dialogue with,” power) or they have very different ideas about what we mean by them (e.g. paper, quiz, test, exam, short essay [vs. essay], monograph, blog post). In order to be good teachers, we must find a way to communicate most effectively: try to remember what it’s like to be a student, try to think in their terms, and teach our students what our/academic terminology means.

Next time I do these exercise assignments, I will call them “Papers” and let a word limit be the main indicator of how long it should be. Next time, I will say “The Flavians returned the land of the Domus Aurea to the people” or “The Flavians made the Domus Aurea‘s land more open, more public.” Next time, my exam sections will just be called “Essays” instead of “Short Essays.” Next semester, I will continue to improve.

Online quizzes

In a recent post, I mentioned that, after the exercise with geopedia, students need to complete an online quiz on BlackBoard.  This is one of the things that I have been trying out this semester so that I ensure students are doing their homework, and I think it has worked very well.  Students seem to be coming to class better prepared than they did when I was not having them take these quizzes (albeit at a different university) and they have a stronger background in the material for the day’s lesson.

Here are some of the things that I have noticed ought to be considered with this method:

  • Time limits for the quiz. I started the semester with a 10 minute limit, but I extended it to 15 minutes after students asked for a little more time so that they could think through matching-type questions.
  • Number of attempts on the quiz. Depending on your method of teaching each lesson, you may only want to allow one attempt (e.g. with team-based learning) but multiple attempts may also be helpful (e.g. with Socratic seminars or semi-meandering class discussions).
  • Implications of flipping the classroom. This method of ensuring that students do the homework is essentially flipping the classroom–students receive more information passively at home than in the classroom. As a result, your class should not be a complete reiteration of the reading or material for the quiz. I have learned to add more material or dive into it more deeply in class.
  • Implications of quizzing students on new material. Many students become anxious about quizzes and exams, and I think giving students study questions that relate to/are similar to the exam questions may help them take the quiz with better grades and in a more calm manner (as well as know what is important information to read for).
  • What type of questions to ask. I tend to focus on questions that are fairly low on Bloom’s Taxonomy, so ones that ask students to recall information (i.e. what is the Nemean lion) or apply an new idea from the reading (i.e. identify a pot with a painting of Herakles and the Nemean lion). Partly, this is because I’m using the quizzes to make sure that students are reading the homework, partly it’s so that we can (ideally) use the class time to move up to higher levels of the taxonomy. Next semester, I think I would tell students this at the beginning of the course, so that there is a greater expectation that they learn from the passive reception of data at home–sometimes I feel like I am generally reinforcing this information in class.  Admittedly, it’s good that there is the reinforcement in class, and this can be used to your advantage.  The questions can also prime students for the class discussion.  So, for example, if you will discuss similarities between Aeneid 12 (Aeneas fights and kills Turnus) and Iliad 22 (Achilles fights and kills Hector) in class, on the quiz you can ask questions that will highlight the similarities (e.g. Who chases whom? What god helps each warrior? Is there begging for mercy and burial?)
  • Planning Ahead.  If you assign the quiz to be completed for a class, you need to have written the quiz before the end of the prior class–you cannot write the quiz the day before class.  Ideally, you’d also have planned the class for which you are writing the quiz too.
  • Visibility of the questions after the quiz is due. Depending on the system you use, you can choose whether your students can see the quizzes, answers, and correct answers after the quiz has been submitted.  Your choice on this matter could be affected by a variety of factors, including what method you will use to teach each day’s lessons and how your exams will be structured. To study for the latter, students would benefit from seeing the questions after the quiz is submitted.

Students’ papers as arguments

So far this semester, I have graded students’ brief writing assignments in two different classes. Both papers were grounded in describing an object.  One paper asked students to describe a building and then identify what type of building it was (i.e. Roman temple), and the other paper explicitly asked students to compare a vase painting to events described in the Iliad. Even though the object description genre may seem fairly objective, as I graded the papers and provided comments, I noticed that many of my comments were talking about the papers as if they were arguments.  For example, I often used the words “stronger” or “more convincing” in my comments.  This is good.  As the UCLA History Writing Center states:

2.  A history research paper makes a historical argument.

Your paper must take a position on the problem you have posed.  You are not simply making observations about the material you have read:  you are using your observations to craft an argument that teaches us something new about the past.  The argument you make might revise a claim made by other scholars, might illustrate a completely new way of looking at a topic, or might reveal a point that scholars have missed in previous research.

3.  A history research paper is grounded in evidence from primary sources.

Unlike research papers in other disciplines, a history paper relies on primary source material, meaning materials that were produced during the period your paper addresses.  They might be letters, diaries, census data, maps, speeches, treaties–any raw material from a historical moment.  Primary sources are the key pieces of evidence you will use to support your argument.

By describing papers as arguments (which they are), I am trying to communicate two things to my students: (1) you need to be kind to your reader, and (2) you need to support your argument with citations for your evidence.  This framework for the comments hints that, if you are not clear and not kind, you will not convince your reader.  So you need to clearly lay out your logic and indicate your evidence (through citations).  I think it also shows why these citations are helpful. Many students know (at least cognitively, if not in practice) that evidence strengthens arguments.  Citations of the evidence, as indications that you are using evidence, help persuade your reader that your argument is based on evidence and primary sources (and therefore is more believable).  So by connecting their papers to arguments (something they may be much more familiar with than classroom/academic paper writing), I remind them why evidence and citations are important.

A greater focus on citations and their persuasive force, I think, also encourages students to ground themselves in the evidence.  In other words, it encourages them to think, “If I say something, I need to cite something, so I need to find evidence to support this claim.”  This will, again, make stronger arguments and papers.

Hopefully this framework for my comments will have helped improve the next batch of students’ writing assignments that I get on Tuesday!

As a side note, by comparing the two assignments, I have noticed two other things that helped make the papers go well:

  • Students are well prepared for the exercise by in-class activities and discussions.
  • The expectations are clearly communicated and delineated, both in class and in the writing prompt.  This could be through providing an example of the assignment, a checklist for the paper‘s requirements and expectations, or a very detailed prompt.


Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, which was 7% plagiarised from Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, has sparked a series of stories about plagiarism.  These discussions illustrate well why plagiarism is problematic, and several news stories may be helpful for teaching students about plagiarism before, or after, they commit this infraction.  The stories that I have found most enlightening, summative, and helpful for teaching about the issue are:

Of course, this discussion could be a little perilous because of how political the national conventions are and how polarizing Donald Trump is.


In continuation of my series of posts about helping students develop better emotional health and providing students with useful feedback (see standards-based grading, SE2R feedback, and commenting on students’ writing), I wanted to explore rubrics.  Even though they may not seem like the most exciting topic, they are not completely straightforward either.  I list here several pros of rubrics, cons of them, and other things to consider about them.  They are based on my own thoughts and those from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas.



  • Help grade quickly. 
  • Communicate to students what criteria you will use to grade their papers and how important each criterion is.
  • Help adjust to grading a new assignment.  If you are trying something new and the assignment is unusual to you, it may help to use a rubric and establish grading guidelines for yourself. They can help you communicate with students and share what is important to you, and they will help you emphasize these criteria properly when you grade.
  • Present an “objective” grade. Teachers can be trained to look for the same things in papers and evaluate the same paper in the same way. One way to develop these norms is to discuss four papers that are similar but on a range of levels. Teachers compare the papers and justify what criteria make one paper better than another. During the discussion, a facilitator can list all the criteria that are mentioned. At the end, teachers vote on what criteria are important and these become the norms for a class or department. This process also encourages teachers to explain grades and grade with more subtlety.
  • Provide a numerical score with which to compare students’ papers or work.


  • Create the illusion that all readers will read the paper in the same way. Some teachers read for ideas, some read for clarity, others for organizations. By creating a quantifiable rubric, we suggest that all readers look for the same things. In reality, all of these factors, as well as the field in which we study and teach, influence how we perceive a paper.
  • Create the illusion of precision even though it may be hard to explain why a paper received an 8 or a 7 in a given category.

Things to consider

  • How detailed do you want to make the rubric? Do you want to provide “An A paper looks like… A B paper looks like…, etc.” (like the picture, above) or do you want to break the rubric down into smaller quantifiable chunks like “Paper clearly states a thesis.” and “Paper shows evidence of understanding opposing arguments.”? Depending on your approach, you will communicate what you value or read for.
  • Do you use a generic rubric for all fields, like this one for reading or this one for writing? Do you use a generic rubric for Latin or Classics? Or do you tailor a rubric to each assignment?
  • What will actually give students valuable, useful feedback? A generic rubric or a task-specific rubric? A circled number or narrative feedback?
  • You can use more than the rubric to grade. John Bean says he reads and comments on papers, determines a provisional letter grade and writes end comments on the paper, goes through a rubric and assigns number values, but does not let the number determine the final grade. Once he has graded all the papers, he makes sure the rubric’s total and the letter grades on all the papers fall in roughly the same range. When they disagree, he rereads papers and makes adjustments to the rubric grade and/or the letter grade on the anomalous papers. When he is done, he uses the rubrics to identify common problems among all students or to make conferences with students easier for him. He also tells students that the rubric does not necessarily dictate the paper grade.

Providing feedback on students’ writing

The best kind of commentary enhances the writer’s feeling of dignity. The worst kind can be experienced as dehumanizing and insulting–often to the bewilderment of the teacher, whose intentions were kindly but whose techniques ignored the personal dimension of writing. (Engaging Ideas, p. 317)

With this comment, John Bean explains the importance of providing strong, useful feedback that makes students want to improve their writing and ideas.  Unfortunately, many teachers’ comments are stifling, hurtful, and discouraging.  We want to build confidence so that students want to try again.  In order to do build this confidence and motivation, we need to provide feedback that draws attention to both the good and the bad in students’ work.

Drawing on a lot of research about writing, Bean offers a strategy for how to comment on a(n undergraduate) student’s writing.  His main goal is not to act as judge and jury but to act as coach, finding the potential within a draft and telling students how to improve their papers.  He provides several questions, in descending order of concern, that teachers should ask themselves while reading papers:

  • Does the draft follow the assignment? If no, return for rethought with few/no other comments or grades.
  • Does the draft address a problem/question? Does it have a thesis? Writers may have clarified their ideas as they wrote, so their ideas are clearer at the end than at the beginning.  This is usually problematic for readers who want the problem and thesis clearly stated at the beginning of the paper.  A nice mitigating comment would be to say the thesis was unclear at the beginning but it became clearer where the author wanted to go by the end.
  • What is the overall quality of the writer’s ideas/argument?  This is a good time to comment on the strength of the ideas, the complexity of their development, and compare students’ ideas to other sources or scholars’ work.
  • Is the draft effectively organized? This is a good time to explain where you as a reader got confused or what could make the writing easier to follow. Do the title, introduction, or a forecasting paragraph give the reader a sense of what’s coming? Are transitions and topic sentences effective, clear, and help clarify the path of the argument? Can the student summarize the purpose of a paragraph or section?
  • Does the paper follow the “old/new contract”?  The reader’s brain wants to make connections between something old/known at the beginning of the sentence and the end of the sentence with something new that advances the argument. If authors don’t move from old to new within each sentence or paragraph, confusion usually results. If you teach your students this idea, you can quickly explain your confusion with the comment “O/N” or something similar.
  • Is the draft free of grammar, punctuation, spelling errors? A good way to comment on these is not to spend all your time and anger fixing everything, but to use a checkmark to mark lines with grammatical problems.  Then, tell the student the common problems (e.g. improper apostrophe use) and/or that they will receive a higher grade when the problems are fixed and/or that they will not receive a grade until they problems are fixed. Alternatively, you can edit a sentence or paragraph as an example to show your students what they need to do for the rest of the paper.
  • Is the draft free of stylistic and rhetorical problems (e.g. wordiness, choppiness, weak verbs, excessive use of the passive voice)? Is the style and register appropriate for the genre of writing and audience?
  • Finally, provide end comments that both justify the grade and coach towards improvement–alone the former is usually negative.  Bean advises that you focus on the potential of the current draft and mention strengths, then a few areas for improvement, and then suggestions for improvement.  A similar strategy is the SE2R Narrative feedback method.

Practically speaking, Bean suggests follows this strategy at a late-stage of the writing process or as  “final draft” which students have the option of revising (cf. Test Corrections).  Indeed, the strategy’s potential for guiding revisions is great and could be applied during the writing process before papers are turned in.  You could encourage students to read through this (or a similar) list of questions before they turn in the paper, enlist peer-editors who are given this check-list or list of questions, or you could provide comments yourself.  The latter is clearly more work for you, but it can be made a little easier with the use of technology, especially Google Docs or similar apps based on Google Docs.


SE2R Narrative feedback method

Feedback is crucial to learning. Students are reassured by acknowledgment of their progress and they need to know what to improve upon. Regular feedback is one of the most effective ways of improving a student’s grade. Feedback can also be tricky. We need to motivate students to improve rather than burden them with a depressing, litany of “no”s and problems. We need to acknowledge what they did well as well as what they did wrong. We also need to provide clear, substantive feedback rather than just unclear lines on a page near good or bad sentences–how do students even know what is good and what is bad?

The most common form of feedback is a grade, perhaps with incorrect answers marked wrong and perhaps with a few comments. But if we include a grade, students often only look at the grade and not the comments. Indeed, as a student, I remember wanting to read and consider the comments but being very drawn to the grade. Standards-based grading eliminates the numerical or letter grade, so the importance of comments and narrative feedback increases dramatically. While researching standards-based grading, I found many teachers liked the SE2R system because it gave teachers a structure for how to provide narrative feedback. It can be summarized in this nice infographic:



  • A structured, routine way to provide comments.
  • It ties the comments to the learning standards.
  • It helps you conceptualize what they have done when you summarize their work.
  • It shows the student how you interpreted their work. Depending on the subject, this offers the student the chance to understand if they communicated what they wanted to communicate. This is better than making them guess from what perspective you were commenting on their work.
  • It shows the student what they have done and where they need to improve.
  • It is a clearer way to communicate than “92%” or “Good job!” or “See me.” It should limit the number of conversations that start with “Wait, I don’t understand why I got this grade.”
  • It provides students with resources for how to improve.
  • It offers students the chance to improve their grade.


  • Students may still be distracted by a letter grade and not focus on comments. Perhaps you could not give them a letter or number grade until after the work is resubmitted.

Finally, this method may or may not save time while grading students work. You might spend more time commenting at the end of a paper, but you may not need to provide as many detailed comments throughout the paper–although those would still be helpful for students. Some quizzes and tests might take longer to grade with this method, or this method could be used flexibly on only those assessments that could have received the “See me” comment. It all depends on the assessment and on the quality and amount of feedback you want (or need) to provide to help your students learn and succeed.


T. H. M. Gellar-Goad’s “How Learning Works in the Greek and Latin Classroom” Blog Posts

In June 2014, T. H. N. Gellar-Goad began a seven part series of blog posts for the Society of Classical Studies. These posts took the insights from How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. and discussed how to apply these ideas to teaching Latin and Greek. The last post of the series was in July 2015. They are all excellent and helpful. I provide links to them below, especially because the SCS website has recently changed and old links may have become dead.

These are all very good posts, and I hope to return to many of the topics and ideas in these posts for my own classes and my future blog posts.

Grading “Grammar”

When I was talking to my brother, who teaches a writing intensive course at American University’s law school, about my recent post about checklists for student papers, he mentioned a rule that they have: if your paper has a certain number of grammar mistakes, it is returned to you and you must edit and resubmit it within 24 hours.  A “grammar mistake” is defined for them as a problem that an 8th grader would be able to identify.

This seemed like a potential solution to a problem I had on my mind.  When I was reading John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning into the Classroom, he describes five different kinds of grammar:

  1. internalized ideas about word order and inflection of words shared by native speakers (i.e. word order, syntax, and morphology).
  2. Scientific attempts to understand Grammar 1 (i.e. morphology charts), but this may not help gain greater understanding of Grammar 1.
  3. Etiquette grammar, such as avoiding “ain’t” and “brung” that may be social or dialectical markers.
  4. Definitions of parts of speech, kinds of clauses, and phrases.  Bean says this is often associated with 8th grade and may be used to justify grammar 3.
  5. Stylistic grammar that focuses on writing and rhetorical strategies like wordiness, weak words or lack, of emphasis.  For English, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is the most popular rulebook here.

Bean goes on to say that schools enforce “standard English” (i.e. elite, academic English) which often means Grammars 3-5.  This disadvantages people who were not raised as part of the middle-class or upper-class, who may not have had English as a first language, or who chose to resist these rules out of pride, defiance, or social identity.  Because they do not use Grammars 3-5, they may have limited financial success or be shut out of some social circles.  Bean goes on to talk about reasons for errors in student papers, including inattentive editing.  He says that we underestimate students’ knowledge of Grammars 3-5.  Students are able to correct mistakes when they read their papers aloud or produce another draft of the paper, and the number of errors increases with the cognitive difficulty of the assignment.  If we accept that students understand “proper English grammar,” he suggests several more fruitful ways to grade or respond to students’ errors:

  • Emphasize how errors limit the rhetorical effectiveness of their papers.
  • Encourage students to “revise” their papers more than to “edit” them.  You can do this by commenting on the ideas in drafts rather than on the typos or subject-verb-agreement.
  • Encourage students to find and fix their own errors, such as through the rule at American University’s law school.

While these ideas are great for dealing with the problem of emphasizing Grammars 3-5 for students’ papers, what about for translating Latin?  We require our students to translate Latin into “standard, proper, idiomatic English” (usually, Grammars 3-5); but what about the student who doesn’t have English as a second language? or the student whose social or cultural English dialect is different from the academic English dialect?  What are ways that we can help them, or at least not penalize them as much?

  • On the first day, ask if English is everyone’s first language.  As part of a first day survey, we can ask “What are your second language(s), including English, if applicable?” We could also ask them to write complete sentences in response to our questions on this survey.  Based on their answers, we can determine how well our students know Grammars 3-5.  If one student does not use academic, standard English in their writing, should we adjust how we grade that particular student?  (N.B. I currently grade translations subjectively as it is, assigning letter grades based on overall quality).
  • Grade translations based on English Grammars 1-2.  Sometimes we can determine what misunderstanding students had with a sentence, sometimes we can’t.  If we can find the underlying misunderstanding, is the difference between the student’s translation and our translation a matter of Grammars 3-5? If so, does that deserve to earn fewer points?
  • Teach English Grammars 3-5 as we teach Latin. Many students enjoy Latin because they are improving their English too.  Indeed, to teach some Latin constructions, such as the passive voice or indirect statement, we need to teach the English counterpart first so that students understand the concept and how to translate it.  While we teach new concepts, we can emphasize and consistently review the “proper English” translation of things.  For example, one of my students did not use an academic dialect of English, and finally he asked me to review with the class the translation of every verb tense (when we were reviewing tenses anyways).  Not only was this a helpful exercise for everyone, but it helped teach him the “proper English” for translations that had been preventing him from earning more points.  Furthermore, some of our native English-speakers may not fully understand the difference between the continuous aspect of the imperfect tense and the completed aspect of the perfect tense.  They will also appreciate consistent, frequent reviewing that the imperfect is translated as “He was selling apples” and the perfect as “He sold apples.”
  • Talk to students, other foreign language teachers, and ELL teachers about how to better grade these students.  I wish I had talked to the student who I mentioned in the last bullet point, explained these different levels of Grammar to him, explained why they are hurting his grade, and talked about how we could improve the situation (both on his end and on my end).  I think this would have helped increase his satisfaction with the class, his grade, and his social need to learn “proper English” for success in other classes.  Similar conversations with other foreign language and ELL teachers may offer other insights on how to grade translations and such.

As this last point suggests, I most certainly don’t have all the best ways to respond to this class of social phenomena and I would love to hear your ideas about it too.  I do think it is good to be aware of the issue and its potential effects on our students’ grades and futures, especially if we want to encourage diversity.