Assessing Academic Writing

Many students returning to college-level writing feel lost when faced with an assignment. Indeed, some may not have had adequate preparation for academic writing and not know where to begin.

No matter which subject you’re teaching: economics, organizational leadership, financial decision making or communication skills, you need to remember that you’re also teaching students be college-level writers. They must meet the high standards of academic writing to succeed in our program

So are those standards, exactly?

Academic writing is well-researched, and offers an analytical examination of an argument, with properly sourced and cited evidence. Students sometimes struggle with how to find their voice in writing. They are likewise unsure of what they have to contribute to the topic.

Clear expectations are one of the keys to student success. To minimize your students’ anxiety, provide a rubric so they don’t feel there’s a mysterious, arbitrary grading process that depends on how much you like them.

It’s not a grammar or composition course, but…

Consistency in grading writing assignments across the CPS program is important. Students aren’t served if they face wildly differing expectations for writing in their classes. Some instructors feel that grammar, spelling and composition aren’t as important as the content of an assignment.

Content and an understanding of the material are key, but we need to help students become proficient communicators in verbal and written forms. In fact, this is a primary learning objective of our program, helping us meet our assessment goals.

Types of Writing: Opinion vs. Argument

College-level work is not opinion. A student may start there, but academic writing requires credible evidence to support an argument.

Sample opinion statement: I feel the death penalty is morally wrong.

Converted to an argument with use of evidence:
The death penalty is ineffective as studies have shown (citation) that it is not a deterrent to crime. Also, it costs the taxpayer almost $1 million per death row inmate (citation) from conviction, because of the lengthy appeals process.

The student can still make their case against the death penalty, but this example makes an argument rather than expressing an judgement that a reader can’t dispute.

Using Sources

Once a student finds a credible source, the next challenge is integrating it into their paper. Too often, a quote is a “drive-by”, lacking a proper signal phrase to establish context.

We help students with this in CSSEM-300 (Professional Practice Seminar), where they read They Say I Say, a text that shows students the “academic moves” they need to write college-level papers. Using templates, the text demonstrates how to summarize what others have said about a topic (“They Say”) and use that to set up their own argument (“I Say”.)

It’s also helpful to show students examples of a well-researched paper. Visit Writing Resources for samples of MLA and APA research papers. You’ll also find a helpful model paper from Prof. Eli Green. His “How to Write a Paper” uses the actual paper to explain how to write a paper! It sounds confusing here, but it won’t be when you read it.

Citing Sources

This is a challenge for many students. Citing uses unfamiliar language and seems complicated. Don’t add to the students’ confusion by varying your citation requirements.

For example, perhaps you’ve always taught students that they don’t need to cite concepts from the class text. In CPS, we want our students to cite every idea they use that’s not their own. Concepts from a text are included in that group.

Likewise, you may see that they can manage a reference list, but skip the in-text (parenthetical) citations. Be sure you spend some time covering this; don’t assume that students remember how to cite in the body of their paper. The sample papers at Writing Resources will help with this.

Some resources to help students format their citations:

Citation Machine

EasyBib (MLA free, others a fee)

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

PhilaU Learning & Advising (handouts)

Who’s this paper for? Helping students understand the audience.

It might help to clarify the audience for the class assignments. You want to instruct the student to write for someone at the college-level, but for one who is not in your class, nor has read the text.

That way, it can stand the “left on the desk” test. If a person walked in after class and found a paper on a desk, they should be able to read it and understand the full meaning of it as a stand-alone work. This is why it’s important to instruct students to cite all outside sources – no exceptions.

Remember that the CPS Portfolio will be read by reviewers who have not taken the class – another reason to practice careful and thorough citing.

It’s expected that you will use the citation style appropriate to your field. Students often find it confusing to use different styles in different classes, but if they can understand the overall concepts of citing, it will be much easier.

Research and citing information by discipline:


Social Sciences



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