Evaluating the Writing (Instructor's Perspective)

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Grading someone's engineering writing is challenging because there are so many variables that you can consider: what the message is (the content); how the message is presented to the readers (the style, which comprises the structure, language, and illustration); and the form of the message (format, grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling). Table 1 shows a realistic way to evaluate the style and form of engineering and scientific reports (in this scheme, a separate grade is given for content). In this breakdown, students earn points for successes in style (structure, language, and illustration), but stand to lose points for errors in form (format, grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling). This scheme mimics the way that readers assess reports because readers generally notice style when there are successes (reflected by the positive scoring), but do not notice form unless there are errors (reflected by the negative scoring).

This breakdown is used in a large design course (about 200 students) in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. The raw numerical score translates to a standard 100-point scale in the following way:

Final score = ((Raw score) * 7) + 51

Graduate teaching assistants who are under the supervision of a writing specialist perform the bulk of the grading. These graduate students receive continual instruction throughout the semester from the writing specialist. Note that other graduate teaching assistants evaluate the papers for the technical accuracy.

As part of the evaluation process, the students receive marks on their papers. The system for marking papers is designed in such a way that the students learn from the marks. For marks to be effective, they first must be clear. The students must also understand what the weaknesses or strengths are. Moreover, because an evaluated paper usually has several marks on it, a challenge is to assign a hierarchy to those marks so that the students understand what the most important weaknesses or strengths are.

The method used consists of two aspects for marking papers. The first is a clearly defined set of editing marks, similar to the ones that copy editors use. The second aspect of the marking process is a summary at the paper's end that highlights the major strengths and weaknesses. The summary may be an abbreviated form of Table 1 (without the page or chapter numbers) or a listing of the major strengths (one column with plus signs) and the major weaknesses (a second column with minus signs).

Table 1. Breakdown for Evaluation of Communication.
Structure 3 points (max) Organization of details (Chapter 2 in The Craft of Scientific Writing)
Transitions between sections and subsections (pages 53-59)
Depth of details (pages 59-63)
Emphasis of details (pages 63-69)
Crediting of sources
Language 3 points (max) Targeting of audience (Chapters 4, 7)
Clarity of details (Chapters 5, 6, 8)
Continuity between details (Chapter 9)
Illustration 1 point (max) Key images and tables (Chapter 10)
Introduction, explanation, placement, and captioning (Chapter 11)
Mechanics -2.5 points (max) Major errors (run-ons, fragments)
Errors (subject-verb disagreement, commas, usage, and so forth)
Minor errors (numerals minor usage,, and so forth)
Format -0.5 points (max) Typography (pages 222-226)
Hierarchy of headings (226-227)
Page numbers

Last updated 7/00
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