Assessing Writing, Improving Writers



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Assessing writing is a difficult task – ​even for the most experienced teachers. In this module, CMU faculty discuss strategies for communicating what students have achieved and what they still need to learn. Topics include the differences between formative and summative assessment, the value of posting and discussing model work, and the characteristics of a productive rubric. Class activities and conversations with individual students should help students view feedback as part of an ongoing – and lifelong – conversation about writing. CMU students voice their appreciation of well-crafted feedback by sharing what matters the most to them when instructors assess their writing.​

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The Purposes of Assessment

The purpose of assessing writing varies across contexts. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (2013),

​sometimes, a teacher assesses in order to decide what the student has achieved and what he or she still needs to learn. Sometimes, an entity beyond the classroom assesses a student's level of achievement in order to say whether they can go on to some new educational level that requires the writer to be able to do certain things. At other times, school authorities require a writing test in order to pressure teachers to teach writing. Still other times, as in a history exam, the assessment of writing itself is not the point, but the quality of the writing is evaluated almost in passing. (para. 46)

Although faculty assess writing for a variety of reasons, most assessments can be classified in two broad categories: formative and summative.

Formative assessments – frequent, on-going checks for understanding – can happen in many ways: in-class with a qui​ck check-in or with a writing activity, through individual writing conferences outside of class, and through exchanges via email or via comments on documents. Observations, running records, surveys, interviews, and various forms of self-evaluation, such as exit slips and formal reflections, can all be used as formative assessments. Often, these are referred to as CATs, or "classroom assessment techniques." ​

Summative assessments – which can include written exams, revised essays, portfolios of student work or other substantive projects involving writing – are used to determine how students have achieved significant learning goals. As noted throughout this guide, we want students to have adequate time, instructional support, and feedback before completing a summative assessment. For these assignments, evaluation criteria should be made clear, perhaps by providing a rubric.  Your students will thank you:  In a national survey, one of the course features that mattered most to students was  clear guidelines, outlines, and/or evaluation rubrics for all major course assignments or activities (i.e., offers clear expectations for how assignments are to be created and graded) (, 2014, p. 1).  The fact that students rated this item so highly tells us that novices appreciate a transparent educational experience, one in which instructors provide models and grading rubrics that clearly convey expectations.

As we consider the timing and purposes of various assessments, we also want to remember that we are working to help our students become thoughtful readers, critical thinkers, and clear, coherent writers. Using a variety of assessment techniques to measure their ability on different writing tasks will help them accomplish these goals. ​​​​​


Early Frequent Assessment

National Council of Teachers of English. (2013) "Formative assessment that truly informs instruction."

Northern Illinois University, Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. "Formative and summative assessment."

Indiana University, Bloomington. "Classroom assessment techniques: Specific methods."

References​ (2014). Research brief: Importance of key aspects of course design to students.