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Assessment and feedback of engineering writing

Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

The assessment of student writing in engineering courses can vary between simpler analytic rubrics to more complex, holistic rubrics. When “writing-to-learn” is the primary objective of your assignment, a rubric is recommended that focuses more on the technical merit of the student’s content and less on the grammar and mechanics. Additionally, simpler rubrics have the advantage of being quick and easy to apply, which can be necessary for large lecture classes.

Each of the examples below is merely a template; to tailor a rubric to your specific situation, you can change or add categories, change point values, and edit the descriptions of what you expect at each level of achievement.

Rubric Best Practices

  • Give students the rubric you will use before they turn in their writing assignments. This helps students understand the basis on which their writing will be scored, and it makes both you and your students accountable to the same set of standards.
  • If students are completing their writing assignments in class, make the rubric available to them as they’re writing by putting it up on the projector screen in a Word document or PowerPoint slide.
  • Consider creating the rubric with your students, because it provides them with a chance to reflect on the assignment and promotes their metacognitive awareness of the rhetorical writing tasks they must perform. Furthermore, if students dictate the parameters of the rubric, they are being held accountable to standards that they set for themselves rather than by an instructor or TA. To get students to think about important criteria for a particular assignment, instructors or TAs might try the following strategies:
    • Open a class discussion by asking students why they think the assignment is important.
    • Ask students to write a response where they describe what effective and ineffective examples of the assignment would look like. Then, have them share their examples and generate criteria based on the characteristics that they describe.
    • Brainstorm evaluative criteria as a class. Ask students to volunteer what they consider important traits or characteristics for this assignment and write their ideas on the board. After all answers have been shared, ask students to rank which traits or characteristics are the most important.
    • Put students into groups and ask each group to come up with several criteria for evaluating the assignment and rank each one according to their importance. Then, have each group share their criteria and use the most important from each group.
  • Have a quick discussion with your students to make sure they understand what each category in the rubric means.
  • Discuss why certain categories in the rubric have higher point values than others. For example, you may discuss why showing conceptual knowledge or having adequate evidence to back up a claim is more important than grammatical correctness.

Examples of rubrics suitable for engineering write-to-learn assignments

Simplest—holistic rubric: Writing assignments get a single score based on an overall assessment:

3 – Effective

Technical answer has an appropriate level of detail and correct usage of technical terms and concepts. Response is clearly and concisely written.

2 – Partially Effective

Technical answer has minor mistakes in logic or usage of technical terms and concepts.

1 – Ineffective

Technical answer has major mistakes in logic or usage of technical terms and concepts.

Pros:

  • Creating a holistic rubric takes less time, since there are fewer categories and descriptions.
  • With only a single score to assign, grading can be done quickly.

Cons:

  • Students will not receive feedback that shows specifically which aspects of their writing they need to improve upon.
  • Without specific feedback, students may not understand why they received a certain grade.

More detailed—analytic rubric: Different aspects of the written responses are each assigned a point value.

Category

Score

Demonstrated conceptual knowledge

/3

Quality of support / explanation

/3

All aspects or parts of question addressed

/2

Spelling and grammar

/1

Documentation and Sources

/1

Total

/10


Demonstrated conceptual knowledge
: The student has demonstrated that they understand the concept(s) that they were tasked to write about.

Quality of support/explanation: The student has provided sufficient evidence for their answer and articulated ideas, concepts, or processes using language suitable for a given audience.

All aspects or parts of question addressed: The student has responded fully to the prompt and answered every part of the question.

Spelling and grammar: The student has proofread and shown an attempt to boost their professional ethos by addressing grammatical and mechanical issues.

Documentation and sources: The student has cited sources according to the given documentation standards.

Pros:

  • Students will receive more targeted feedback that highlights their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Students will have a better understanding of the grade they earned.
  • With general categories and point values, this type of rubric does not take long to create.

Cons:

  • Grading will take more time than the simplest rubric, since instructors and TAs will have to assign multiple point values.
  • Without explanations of each category, students may not understand what each category means, or they may not know what good “quality of support/explanation” or “demonstrated conceptual knowledge” looks like.

Most detailed—analytic rubric: Different aspects of written responses are each assigned a point value based on specific descriptions of each grade division.

Category

Excellent (3)

Acceptable (2)

Unacceptable (1)

Conceptual knowledge

Technically effective; writer applies concepts and terms accurately.

Mostly effective and accurate; might have small errors in understanding or applying terms.

Technical content is not effective; concepts and/or terms do not demonstrate understanding.

Writing content

Writing style is clear, logical, and concise; student has developed their professional ethos by proofreading

Writing style is generally readable; student may not have sufficiently proofread

Writing style is difficult to read, with many distracting errors that detract from the student’s professional ethos.

Pros:

  • Students will receive the most targeted feedback as they will have descriptions for each category and what each point value means.
  • Students will understand the rationale behind the grade they earned.

Cons:

  • Creating this type of rubric will take the most time as instructors and TAs will have to write descriptions for each category and each point value.
  • Grading will take more time as instructors and TAs will have to assign multiple point values.

Tips to streamline the grading process for written work:

  • Skim through all assignments to find examples of excellent, adequate, and poor answers, in order to establish standards for grading each particular assignment.
  • Consider providing collective feedback on common issues in a handout or PowerPoint slide during class, along with individual feedback.
  • Have the rubric in front of you while grading so that you keep the criteria fresh in your mind as you go through each paper.
  • Grade for approximately 1-2 hours at a time. This amount of time is ideal for developing a rhythm to get through a number of assignments without burning out.
  • If you are receiving written in-class assignments, ask students to write legibly and pay attention to their word and line spacing so that their work will be easier to read. You might even consider asking all students to write on the same type of paper so that formatting for written work can be more standardized.
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Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.