English Composition Student Rights

Pouring water over a metal frame will do nothing to give this substance the frame’s shape. The water simply continues to flow. In a similar manner, compositions are difficult substances to form into rigid structures, but we instructors do it anyway in an attempt to help students develop critical thinking skills and practice rhetorical approaches and analyses. So, we give our students glasses and containers and rules in which to pour their compositions—and then we attempt to grade them—and things get really messy. We use rubrics and peer editing sessions to determine grades and we decide whether or not revisions are allowed. Some instructors don’t allow for any revisions at all, while others allow for multiple revisions and sometimes, students don’t receive any comments back at all from instructors—just a grade on a rubric and maybe an isolated written remark that may seem confusing. What then, should students expect from the moment they draft a composition to the time it is assessed? What assessment measures can be expected? At the very minimum, I believe students deserve the following actions to be taken:

1) An essay/composition grade or assessment should be determined by a professional in the field who has earned the appropriate degree. Some instructors do prefer peer grading (which is different from peer editing), but even with peer grading, instructors themselves often read the paper and determine whether or not the final grade accurately reflects the paper’s content and correspondence to the assignment goals. According to Stanford Teaching Commons, this peer grading method can be used effectively if students are properly trained through multiple sessions and examples before grades are given. Peer grading does not violate FERPA laws, according to the U. S. Supreme Court and some instructors truly believe that peer graders are accurate and hold peers to high standards. However, some practitioners and researchers show that peer graders are not always accurate and that they are not qualified for the job (“Against Peer Grading” by John Warner, 2014 and “The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning” by Sadler and Good, 2006). In my college level classrooms, I never relied on peer grading because it was difficult enough for me to become confident with my own assessment techniques over several years. How could I expect students, without a degree to become competent in just a few weeks? Grading eight sections of papers per semester—on top of committee and professional development work—was extremely difficult because grading compositions is time-consuming and the demands from administration to take on more students and tasks are never-ending. However, handing this responsibility off to anyone else, could lead to assessment solutions that teachers and students no longer control. One such assessment solution, includes “machine scoring,” which the National Council of Teachers of English is strongly against since “Teachers are the most knowledgeable practitioners and advisors in assessing students’ literacy—their reading, writing, and communication skills” (2016, “National Survey: Teachers know best how to assess students’ literacy, want changes in testing system.”) Composition students then, have a right to be assessed by individuals with specific degrees in the field and not a “smart” past student, a computer, or peer who has only received one or two weeks of training.

2) Students should be given the time they need to complete assignments, especially if they are on a 504 Plan or Individualized Learning Plan. In-class writing prompts and essays can be an important way for students to learn how to prepare for essay writing on tests or for standardized/national tests for entrance into college, but relying solely on these kinds of methods could lead to superficial writing that lacks reflection (see the article by Paul Thomas, “Teaching Writing as a Journey, Not Destination,” 2017). If in-class writing/essays are crucial to the course content/material though, students on learning plans should be given extra time if their plan states so—and even if students are given several class days to write. Instructors may not be purposely denying students any of the accommodations specified in a plan, but sometimes they forget.  Students may remind their instructors that they do need this kind of accommodation.

3) Rubrics can make expectations clear, but students may also want a few, effective comments. In addition to rubrics, I often summarized my comments in 3-5 sentences. I told students what was working, and three areas that could be improved. Sometimes students took my advice. Sometimes they didn’t, but many said they appreciated the comments because past instructors never made them—and if they did, they were too vague to fully appreciate. A “good” comment is specific and identifies the problem, why it’s a problem, and a possible way to fix it. Comments, in my opinion, remind students that instructors are human beings who are reading their papers and responding as an audience member to their work.

4) Revisions should be encouraged. Some instructors limit revisions to only one major paper in the course, sometimes in an effort to cut down on work load because of the high demands composition teachers and instructors face. These demands are real and teachers/instructors face them valiantly each day, but eliminating chances to revise only hurts students and interferes with the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Outcome Statements for Composition, which states that students should “be aware that it usually takes multiple drafts to create and complete a successful text.” Allowing students to revise compositions that are assessed helps them learn more about the writing process and their own writing. While the workload does increase somewhat, I found that in my composition classes, if I allowed students to revise their papers once for a higher grade, I could also enforce strict deadlines for the revisions in order to pace the workload. Many students chose not to revise, but the option was there for those who, upon more reflection, wanted to push their compositions in a different direction.

5) Talking/conferencing about writing should also be encouraged. Students may disagree with a comment or grade, but that disagreement can turn into a powerful revision. In my experience, if a student could respectfully argue his/her point effectively during a conference, I told that student to put those precise words down on paper and hand the assignment in again. Sometimes in talking, the answers become clearer.

Even with all of these rights or expectations outlined above, students may still not agree with the final grade on an essay, but they at least deserve the chance to fully participate in the composition process—and help shape the direction in which their writing takes them.



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