Great Expectations: Raise the Bar for Better Writing

Person writing with pen on paper

Stuck in the doldrums of grading your student’s ho-hum writing? In the inaugural article of this series, “Raise the Bar: Building Better Writing Assignments,” the value of writing and general strategies on developing structured writing assignments were introduced. Chunking a large writing project into smaller tasks with specific milestones can lead to writing improvements, as does enabling students to make use of university resources like the FIU Library and the Center for Excellence in Writing. Let’s now explore two more strategies that may enhance student writing by establishing (great) expectations: providing writing samples with feedback and using detailed rubrics.

Annotated Writing Samples

Having a clear map, like providing the results of those who have previously sailed in the stormy seas of writing, can be beneficial. Some faculty might be hesitant to provide writing examples with the belief that current students completing the assignment will simply copy the provided sample with slight edits. To tackle this concern, discuss expectations that provided examples should only be used as guidelines in terms of quality, style, or writing structure (not as a template to be copied). Keep in mind that while some students may know how to write an analytical paper discussing an item of literature similar to a book report, these same students may not be familiar with the type of paper you require for your course.

When providing writing samples to your students, consider these best practices:

  • Remove identifying information from the sample (name, contact information, student identification number).
  • Secure permission from the author to share their work.
  • Instead of providing a student’s entire paper, provide excerpts that highlight the facets of the paper deemed important to encourage good writing. It is also beneficial to annotate a good writing sample with its strength and weaknesses.
  • While most students can recognize good writing, other students will not be able to determine the specific aspects of poorer writing. Providing poor writing samples are discouraged, unless accompanied with explicit annotations as to how the writing can be improved.
  • If you aren’t keen on using student work related to the assignment, excerpts from other writing examples can be provided from journal articles or other professional writing.

Grading Rubrics

Another way to provide assignment expectations is by introducing a rubric that can also be used for grading purposes. Rubrics provide a framework that identifies specific criteria by which students will be assessed. It encourages that the same set of standards will be applied equally to all students decreasing grading bias. Rubrics can provide a quick snapshot of overall achievement or be more analytical in nature to address more complicated tasks. Usually, rubrics are most effective when developed with specific and measurable achievements that are aligned with the assignment’s learning objectives.
A well constructed rubric will usually contain criteria, a rating scale, and descriptions of explicit performance expectations for each rating level. The rubric’s criteria should answer the question of what constitutes great writing or a high quality assignment: grammar, formatting/style, content, completion, promptness, peer interaction, etc. Each criterion can be weighted to emphasize its relative importance. However, one does not need reinvent the wheel. Use pre-existing rubrics as inspiration, or edit them to begin the rubric development process.

DOs and DON’Ts of Rubric Development:

  • DO use 3-5 rating dimensions. Using any more than 5 dimensions makes it difficult to differentiate between levels.
  • DO use well defined and consistent language when providing task-specific descriptions.
  • DON’T go overboard with details. Focus on the most important aspects on which the students should focus.

In addition to providing rubrics to students to view within an item or as a document, the rubrics can be embedded into Blackboard and used to facilitate assignment grading. Using the Rubrics tool within Blackboard and allowing students to see the rubric scores after their work has been assessed offers elaboration as to why they earned their assigned score.


The next article in this series will address a few more strategies to “raise the bar” of student’s writing using TurnItIn technology. TurnItIn provides tools to ensure academic integrity and allows another route for expanded feedback. Taking advantage of benefits of peer review and the revision process will also be highlighted. Contact your instructional designer if you’re ready to navigate towards more treasured student writing by revising or adding new writing components to your course.

Sky V. has been rocking the FIU Online Instructional Designer "hat" since 2012. She promotes the use of best pedagogical practices and implementation of diverse forms of technology, yielding a positive online teaching experience for our professors and engaging learning experience for our students. Her areas of expertise include social media, gamification and user interface design. She is also an Adjunct Instructor with FIU's Marketing & Logistics department.

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