Towards a Pro-active Technical Writing Curriculum


The root of the problem lies in the monolithic, product-oriented design of many technical writing assignments.  The only meaningful contact between student and instructor is scheduled after the assignment is completed.  Given this reality, and given the fact that somebody has to grade the papers anyway, I attempt in the following sections to work within the grading paradigm.  This section analyzes elements of the evaluation process and describes efforts to make it work more efficiently and communicate more effectively.  The analysis does not solve the grading problem, but it does help define its severity.

Three kinds of evaluation

When grading student papers, I communicate to students in three different ways: corrective marks, marginal notes, and an end comment.  Corrective marks denote simple word- or phrase-level errors.  Marginal notes highlight specific weaknesses in thought processes and organization.  The end comment assesses the student’s overall performance.

Corrective marks

Although corrective marks are probably responsible for most of the ink I expend on student papers, they have the least effect on a student’s grade.  Depending on the situation, even severe problems with spelling, punctuation or articles (a, an, the) may only slightly hamper a student’s ability to perform a writing task.  Yet, I am aware that if I do not try to improve students’ grammar, nobody else will.  Corrective marks are routine, tedious, and unavoidable.

Marginal notes and the “transparent reader”

As I read the student’s document for the first time, I jot down brief evaluative notes in the margins, such as “good point” or “you don’t consider the drawbacks.”  These comments emulate what one writing expert calls “a transparent reader” [2], that is, they represent the thought processes of an interested, generalized reader who encounters specific obstacles to understanding the text.  For instance, a student may promise to talk about points A and B, but jump immediately to point B.  To identify the organizational problem, I write the following: “I am confused because I was expecting to read about point A first.”  Such a statement identifies the error by communicating the consequences.  A blunt command (such as, “Reverse your discussion of points A and B”) would not be as instructive.

The end comment

After reading the entire paper, I gather my impressions into one or two short paragraphs, summarizing important achievements and shortcomings, and identifying patterns in my own commentary.  The end comment is an important bridge from the impressionistic and qualitative data upon which I base my evaluation, to the quantitative assessment – the number grade – the students receive.

Student response

The marginal notes and end comments are ideally open-ended questions:  “Glad to see you return to the insulation problem, but where did your idea about the fuel injector go?”  Such comments are designed to begin a dialogue.  However, once the assignment is over and done with, most students do not want dialogue.  They simply want to know what the “right” answer was.

  • Your paper requires a title.

  • Your title is too vague.
  • Your title does not seem to relate to the paper.
  • Your title is too ornate or misleading.
  • Your title should be more specific.
  • Your title is acceptable.
  • Excellent title.

Fig. 2: Sample listing of “canned” qualitative statements evaluating a student’s title. 

In order to avoid clouding the evaluative message I wished to send, I continued making open-ended marginal notes, but switched to shorter, more declarative statements for the closing comment.  I prepared lists of comments in advance, based on the kinds of notes I found myself writing repeatedly.  Fig. 2 shows the range of comments I might choose from in order to evaluate a student’s title.  These comments were designed to fit together with macros to create an evaluative statement like the one given in Fig 3.    The macros simplified my grading task, allowing me to provide more factual information than I tend to write out by hand (such as describing the function of an abstract in Fig. 3.  I used a word processor to modify the plain vanilla paragraph as appropriate. Fig. 3 identifies the student-specific passages (presented here in italics).

Your title is too vague.  Your abstract leaves too many questions in the reader’s mind; it should be a miniature report that contains all the important information you want the reader to learn.  You adequately address the question you were supposed to answer, although the example on page 2 is mostly just taking up space.  Always define your terms before you use them.  Your discussion on other liquid coolants is good, but you should cite your specific references to outside information -- merely listing the outside authors at the end of your paper is not enough.

Fig. 3: Sample of a macro-compiled end comment.

Although the system proved efficient, the hierarchical relationship of the pre-written answers was never clear to anyone but me.  For instance, a student reading the sentence “Your title is adequate” would have no way to know that her “adequate” title actually cost her points.  I was also particularly troubled by the fact that two different assignments might end up with identical paragraphs, but different grades.  Although the macro-assisted end comments were less subjective than the earlier, more conversational, end comments, I was still expecting the students to interpret them without the proper context.

Before my next grading ordeal, I took a few hours to produce a checklist, a facsimile of which appears as Fig. 4.n.

To facilitate the sorting and stacking of such a large number of reports, your grader has removed all reports from their folders and binders, and returned them separately to your professor.

Execution: Presentation and Format

Appearance (spacing and indenting, page numbering, etc.)

5 __

Title/Title Page (informative, not just "Writing Assignment”)

3 __

Abstract/Summary, or first paragraph (informative by itself)

3 __

Introduction/Background (informative, but not a textbook)

3 __

Discussion  (thorough, more than equations)

3 __

Conclusion/Recommendations (substantial, useful)

3 __

Subtotal 20 __

Execution: Writing Mechanics

Words: (spelling; proofreading; vocabulary)

5 __

Syntax: (articles; word endings; word choice)

5 __

Sentences: (grammatically correct; clear and precise)

5 __

Paragraphs: (ideas, sentences follow clear, logical pattern)

5 __

Organization: (logical subdivisions, appropriate content)

10 __

Subtotal 30 __

Assignment Content

Part 1 – Definitions

Factually correct

2 __

Easy to find in report

2 __

Adhere to proper format

3 __

Avoid using other undefined words

3 __


Part 2 – Solution to Problem


3 __

B: Graph properly labeled; axes scaled usefully

3 __


3 __

(a gift)

1 __


Part 3 – Explanation of Solution

Answers easy to find in report (not just in appendix)

2 __

Answers not merely given, but also explained 

2 __

Explanation not merely given, but also applied

3 __

Application not merely given, but given effectively

3 __


Subtotal 30 __

Overall, this report shows evidence of your ability to...

Understand thermodynamics

5 __

Comprehend and follow assignment instructions

5 __

Communicate effectively to a non-expert 

5 __

Apply your knowledge creatively to a real-world problem

5 __

Subtotal 20 __



Fig. 4: Grader response sheet designed to translate complex, layered qualitative statements into numerical figures.  Although the specific listing of items to evaluate helped me to focus uniformly on one item at a time, I soon found that I was assigning the totals in the far right column first, and then filling in the subsections to meet my prediction.

The idea was that I would break the grading task up into smaller, more easily manageable units.  I have little to say for the original checklist now, except that filling out hundreds of them made my head hurt.  Fig. 5 represents a modified grading sheet, developed with a writing centre colleague, Deirdre Kwiatek.  Being less complicated, the second checklist required less effort to fill out, and better suited a situation in which two people shared the grading.

Grader Response Sheet

ECE110S Formal Report

Note: a checked item means you did it particularly well.  Circled items hurt your grade.

___Presentation (out of 10)

Font, margins, spacing, etc.

___Report Structure (out of 40)

Title Page:  informative (not just “Writing Assignment”)
Introduction:  gives purpose and plan for report
Background: relevant; brief
Discussion: relevant; substantial; organized; examples
Conclusion: follows from/supported by discussion

___Writing Mechanics (out of 30)

Proofreading for: careless mistakes; inconsistencies; redundancy
Words: vocabulary; endings; articles (a, an, the); singular/plural
Sentences: clarity; concision (brevity); grammar
Paragraphs: organization; transitions

___Creative/Intellectual Involvement (out of 20)

Awareness of audience; depth of thought; engagement with subject; fulfills assignment goals

___ Total (out of 100)   

Fig 5: A greatly simplified grader response sheet.  For this assignment, the professor was not looking for any specific factual answers; hence, the grading scale emphasizes form and expression.

Preliminary Conclusion

For large numbers of papers, I prefer the simplicity of the latter sheet to the thoroughness of the former; in retrospect, however, I appreciate the clear hierarchical structure of some categories on the first checklist (“Part 3–Explanation of Solution” and “Overall, this report shows your ability to...”) over the more muddled grouping of the items in the last category on the second checklist (“Creative/Intellectual Involvement”).  Nevertheless, the sheets accomplished an important task: they provided the students with data which they were readily able to process.  Informed by the data, they were better prepared to make sense of the other commentary.

Next: Analysis

Dennis G. Jerz