Responding to Student Writing

Elbow, Peter. "Ranking, evaluating, and liking: Sorting out three forms of judgment." College English 55.2 (1993): 187-206.

In this article, Peter Elbow identifies the problem of how to assess writing.  He distinguishes between ranking and evaluating, arguing that ranking is troubling because it can be inaccurate or unreliable, does not lend itself to substantive feedback, and can be harmful to the learning environment.  Giving a score or a number (and he includes holistic scoring in this argument) leads students to care more about scores than learning.  Evaluation, on the other hand, looks thoughtfully at a piece of writing and attempts to address the strengths and weaknesses of different stylistic and rhetorical features.  Evaluations cannot be reduced to a single number.  Elbow offers strategies for reducing the grade mania of both students and teachers, including:  portfolios judged only as acceptable or unacceptable; “crude or minimal ranking,” using such terms as “Honors” and “Unsatisfactory”; analytical grid; the sharing of peer feedback and publication; and modified contract rating.  Because too much evaluation can also harm the learning climate, Elbow supports the creation of “evaluation-free zones.” Elbow concludes by arguing for the importance of “liking,” emphasizing that good teachers like student writing, see what is potentially good, and encourage it.  In his experience, “liking” leads to improvement, is a mark of a good writer, and encourages much better writing.