Formative Assessment For Essay Writing: It's What Students Want

Formative Assessment For Essay Writing: It's What Students Want

In a 2013 survey from English Journal, participating students indicated that writing improvement suggestions on their work during the development stage of writing was more important than constructive feedback after the assignment had already been turned in. Eighty percent of students were most interested in their final grade after they had already submitted their work. When asked about feedback during the writing process, however, a staggering ninety-two percent of students said that “edits to improve writing” would be the most useful type of feedback—with just four percent of students interested in the potential grade their draft would receive.

What does this mean for teachers? If the survey is an accurate representation of the student population as a whole, the time teachers spend painstakingly grading and providing thoughtful feedback to students on their final drafts isn’t as useful as they thought. Constructive feedback is critical to the learning process but is most effective when provided to students when they’re able to incorporate that feedback. Sure, your students might remember your suggestions on their next assignment, but wouldn’t they learn more if they had access to that insight during the writing process?

This is where formative assessment comes in: A powerful tool that helps educators direct their time and resources into what matters most for their students. It’s fluid and flexible; responsive, rather than rigid. By placing as much emphasis on formative assessment as summative, teachers are better equipped to establish a curriculum that meets the individual needs of their students. Check out some of our suggestions for how you can incorporate formative assessment in your writing classes.

Turn Your Students into Essay Graders

Have your students critique and provide a grade for an essay at the start of a semester or the school year. Choose a piece that has a variety of issues. For example grammar, structure, cohesion etc. Ask students to provide detailed comments on where the essay went wrong, and see if students can organize these comments by the types of mistakes that were made. Moreover, have them identify important elements like the thesis, topic sentences, in-text citations, use of evidence, and analysis etc. By checking their knowledge of essay essentials you can get a pulse on what components of a successful essay they can identify, and what gaps need to be closed throughout the year/semester. If you do this before engaging in peer review, you can also demonstrate feedback and critique standards expected of them. 

Create a Structured Peer Review Process

Peer review allows students to learn through teaching. By having students share and correct peer papers, writing instructors can gain insight into where students are struggling to identify common errors—in their classmates’ work, and in their own work. Have students submit essays and devise a system to distribute them anonymously. (This will help alleviate some of the stress or embarrassment some students may feel in sharing their work.) For a truly formative experience, simply ask students to improve the paper as much as possible—refrain from passing out a rubric or sharing common mistakes. This way, you’ll be able to pinpoint what types of writing errors your students are failing to identify from square one. You can also try digital peer review.

Do Simple Checks

Formative assessment doesn’t have to take the form of an “assignment”—it can be as simple as checking in with students after a lesson. Consider using exit slips for a quick way to assess student learning. Develop comprehensive questions based on the lesson’s learning objectives, and give students five minutes at the end of class to write a short answer. By looking at the responses as a group, you’ll be able to get an idea of how many students grasped the objectives.

Mistakes vs. Errors

Traditional assessment involves providing feedback and an appropriate grade—and identifying classwide information gaps in order to improve lesson delivery. By reframing your assessment process to identify errors, rather than mistakes, you can get a better grasp of where students are struggling. It's one thing to say “this is incorrect,” and another to say “this is how this is incorrect.” Check out this list of different types of writing errors to guide your assessment strategy:

  • Factual errors focus on incorrect information.
  • Procedural errors involve problems with applying routines, rules, or procedures.
  • Transformation errors occur when students are asked to apply what they have been taught to a novel situation.
  • Misconceptions are inaccurate beliefs that are clung to despite instruction.

WriteLab & Formative Assessment

WriteLab helps teachers implement formative assessments in their classroom by providing student data on the final product and the process. While WriteLab helps students improve their writing before submitting it, it also makes student progress visible. With WriteLab’s feedback, a student’s final draft may be free of many of its original mistakes, but teachers still have access to the suggestions the program made before submittal.  WriteLab gives your students the kind of assessment they really want—helpful suggestions during their writing process. Learn more about how WriteLab works


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