Helping Writers Help Themselves

Helping Writers Help Themselves:

Inspiring Meaningful Revision through Self­-Assessment

Lauren Fields

Although most composition instructors would agree that revision occupies an important place in student writing, opinions differ regarding how we might best create a curriculum that fosters meaningful revision. A particularly thorny element of this debate involves postgraded revision policies, or policies allowing students to rewrite a graded paper to receive a higher grade. I first encountered the variety of arguments for and against postgraded revision in 2012 while crafting a syllabus for my first Writing 150 course. My undergraduate experience as a Writing Center tutor led me to enter the graduate program firmly opposed to any type of postgraded rewriting. I couldn’t count the number of times I had coached apathetic freshmen, their resolutely disengaged hands shoved in sweatshirt pockets, through the process of identifying possible revisions in their opinion editorials and rhetorical analyses only to have them quickly disregard all the promising changes we discussed. By the time we made it to the end of their papers, the students were always quick to admit that they weren’t actually worried about revising yet because, thankfully, their instructors “just let us rewrite as much as we want, even if we get a bad grade.” Convinced that this type of serial rewriting actually discouraged students from putting effort into the revision process, I made no mention of a postgraded­-revision policy in my syllabus.

But as the first day of class drew closer, I approached several second­year veteran instructors, hoping to confirm that my syllabus did indeed portray me as the perfect balance between rigorous grader and approachable mentor. As our discussion moved to my revision policies, I was surprised to learn that many of these more experienced instructors did not share my disdain for postgraded rewriting. Though several of them did agree that allowing students to rewrite after receiving a grade inhibited students’ willingness to spend significant effort revising, others vehemently argued that encouraging students to reexamine and rework an essay multiple times proved to be the most rewarding learning experiences students encountered in their courses. Although I still avoided postgraded revision that first semester, I resolved to further explore this apparently polarizing issue as well as the larger questions it evoked regarding how we might encourage our students to invest themselves in the revision process.

My review of composition scholarship revealed no formal studies examining the specific affordances and constraints of postgraded revision; however, I did discover occasional anecdotal assessments of these policies scattered throughout the past fifty years of composition guidebooks and journals. Many instructors favor allowing students to revise after receiving a grade, because they feel it affords students every possible opportunity to improve their writing. For example, Laura Larson insists that building “rewrite days” into her syllabus teaches students the value of reexamining their work, fosters meaningful opportunities for instructors to mentor students during the revision process, and prepares students for real­world writing in which proposals and manuscripts often go through several rewrites before the final product. Keith Connors likewise argues for the benefits of accepting rewritten work throughout the semester, insisting that it encourages students to take responsibility for seeing a draft through to a polished state and eases the grading load for instructors who can receive revisions at staggered intervals throughout the semester.

However, other instructors are quick to highlight the detriments of postgraded rewriting and insist that the drawbacks outweigh any further revision experience that these policies allow. Some, like several of my colleagues and me, argue that postgraded revision tempts students to put minimal effort into the first graded draft because they recognize that they will ultimately be able to revise. Others assert that postgraded revision often results in inflated final grades and can cause students to fall behind in current assignments as they get bogged down in revising previous essays. Reta Madsen, for instance, finds postgraded rewriting unnecessary, even counterproductive. In her own classes, she forbids students to rewrite a graded essay because she finds students have often grown too tired of the assignment to consider substantial revisions. Moreover, she argues that essays in an effectively orchestrated curriculum build on the requirements of past assignments, which allows students to apply the feedback they receive on final drafts to the next assignment. Thus, they hone their writing skills without spending too many weeks on a single essay.

As it turns out, the Brigham Young University (BYU) composition instructors’ postgraded revision arguments that I encountered in 2012 seem to echo the range of opinions found in composition literature. To further probe some of my colleagues’ viewpoints and get a sense of their various approaches to revision, another new instructor and I conducted an online survey of Writing 150 instructors in the fall of 2012 and asked them to describe their own revision policies as well as their views on postgraded rewriting. Of the thirty-­one instructors that responded, 68% allow some type of postgraded revision, although the details of these policies vary. Of those allowing postgraded rewriting, most find it essential to helping students master revision skills, and many argue that the possibility of improving students’ initial grades motivates students to revise. Yet, those opposed to the practice feel it actually encourages procrastination and unnecessarily burdens the instructor with grading revised drafts. Despite these differences of opinion, nearly 98% of the respondents report satisfaction with their current approach to postgraded rewriting whether or not they have incorporated a revision policy into their own classrooms. But even though nearly everyone surveyed appears satisfied with his or her approach to revision, I believe these differences of opinion within our own program as well as the lack of research on this topic in composition scholarship indicate the need for further exploration. My own experiences as a Writing 150 instructor and Writing Center tutor and my analysis of postgraded rewriting leads me to conclude that this practice, because of its emphasis on grades and instructor evaluation, fails to motivate substantive, independent student revision. Moreover, I argue that incorporating carefully managed self­-assessment rather than postgraded rewriting encourages students to better engage in deep revision and revise independently when extensive evaluative feedback is not available.

Demotivating Nature of Postgraded Revision

Research indicates that grades and evaluative instructor feedback can diminish students’ feelings of self­efficacy as well as their desires to devote time and effort to an assignment. While some instructors favoring postgraded revision insist that the prospect of a higher grade can motivate students to revise, studies exploring the psychological effects of grades and instructor evaluation on student motivation indicate that focusing on grades, as postgraded revision tends to encourage, can actually discourage students. In order to explore this relationship between grades and students’ willingness to exert effort on assignments, a 2011 educational psychology study examined students’ feelings toward instructor evaluation through three formal experiments at a Swiss trade school. In these experiments, psychologists focused on 115 students’ “approach and avoidance achievement goals” as indicators of student motivation. According to the authors, students always approach a task with some type of specific goal or expected outcome in mind. Students expecting a desirable outcome and feeling confident about their abilities to succeed adopt “performance­-approach” goals while students who feel anxious, lack self­-esteem, and fear appearing incompetent relative to their peers adopt “performance­-avoidance” goals (Pulfrey, Buchs, and Butera 684). The study’s three experiments, which entailed surveying students’ goals and expectations prior to completing graded and ungraded tasks, found that “the expectation of a grade for a task, compared with no grade, consistently induced greater adoption of performance­-avoidance, but not performance-­approach goals, even when the grading was accompanied by a formative comment” (683). The authors attribute graded tasks’ tendencies to induce performance-­avoidance goals to the sense of reduced autonomy students often experience when being graded; the authors argue that students often feel powerless when the value of their performance is, in large part, determined by an outside source (685).

This study confirms previous experiments’ findings that also detail the negative effects of grades on student motivation. For example, a 1988 study similarly concluded that formative comments do not reduce the demotivating influence of a grade, and a 1991 study asserted that simply “avoiding substandard performance might well be uppermost in students’ minds as they embark on graded tasks” (686). Yet, despite the 2011 study’s seemingly definitive stance on the demotivating impact of grades, the authors still close with an element of pragmatism. They acknowledge that assessments and grades cannot be avoided altogether and therefore conclude that “seeking ways to make them as user-­friendly as possible is a most worthy quest” (698). Because this research indicates that grades inhibit student motivation, deemphasizing grades whenever possible, particularly during the revision process by avoiding postgraded revision, would seem to improve student motivation and thus increase grades’ “user­-friendliness.” Although some instructors argue that grades can serve as a motivation for student revision, these significant studies suggest otherwise. Not allowing students to rewrite graded assignments would appear to shift the focus of their revision away from simply achieving a higher grade, thus allowing them to approach revision with feelings of confidence rather than a sense of powerlessness. Though this approach does not mitigate the possible negative effects of grades entirely, it can encourage students to more positively engage in revision.

Limitations of Postgraded Revision

While psychological studies indicate that postgraded revision fails to motivate all types of revision, composition scholarship suggests that it specifically discourages substantive and independent student revision. In their examination of instructor feedback, McGarrell and Verbeem argue that evaluative instructor feedback fails to encourage students to reexamine and reconsider their own ideas and insist that it is difficult to imagine why developing writers who received evaluative feedback would feel motivated to significantly revise their arguments when it seems that their instructor expects them to merely “correct” their drafts. McGarrell and Verbeem further argue that revising by simply responding to evaluative feedback evokes superficial revisions rather than a reexamination of the substance of an argument (231). I have also witnessed this response to evaluative feedback in my own classes. While I have never allowed my students to rewrite graded papers, I do respond to my students’ initial drafts of every major assignment through extensive evaluative commentary, noting where they met rubric expectations and briefly offering suggestions for revision. By this method, my students do, in effect, revise after receiving evaluation, even though this evaluation comes in the form of margin annotations rather than a formal grade. Although I always hope my students will look beyond my comments when revising to consider their own vision of their argument, I have noticed that most revisions in my students’ final drafts are, unfortunately, merely attempts to rectify the shortcomings I point out. And often these corrections are, as McGarrell and Verbeem suggest, quite superficial. For example, if I note that their rhetoric seems too abrasive for their intended audience, they will often soften their word choice in the sentences near my marginal comments. But my marginal evaluations generally fail to encourage students to reexamine their argument more globally, further demonstrating that revising in response to grades and evaluation fails to evoke substantive changes.

Students’ reluctance to respond to evaluation by reworking ideas and arguments seems to reflect postgraded rewritings’ tendency to discourage independent thought during the revision process. McGarrell and Verbeem further argue that evaluative feedback “appropriates the responsibility for revision from the student” because the student only feels the need to make the instructor’s suggested corrections (231). As such, students fail to learn the revision skills needed in future classes and even career settings when evaluative feedback is no longer available. However, BYU’s Writing 150 curriculum suggests that we hope to prepare students to engage in written discourse beyond the academic classroom. We teach them to write opinion editorials and to make research­based arguments concerning public issues. If we hope that students will write effectively outside of our classrooms, we need to teach them methods of revision that don’t require dependence on instructors’ evaluations.


While postgraded evaluation fails to motivate substantive, independent revision, self­-assessment offers a much more promising alternative. Yet, before exploring how self­-assessment can encourage students to thoroughly revise their work without relying on instructor feedback, we must first establish a definition for this concept and examine methods of incorporating self-assessment into students’ revision processes. Although composition scholars propose a variety of definitions for this practice, they all seem to agree that self­-assessment involves a pattern of conscious self­-monitoring and self­-evaluation that leads to behavioral changes. Hilgers, Hussey, and Stitt­Bergh, in their review of self­-assessment literature, note that many disciplines practice this strategy and that students should therefore be familiar with its basic premises. They explain that actors practice self-­assessment when they play back recordings of performances, and dancers scrutinize their jumps and turns in mirrors for similar purposes (1). They also suggest that nearly all of us self­-assess every time we pass a mirror by examining our reflections and smoothing our hair or straightening our ties when necessary (8). Yet even though almost everyone recognizes the value of self­-assessment on some level, the composition classroom does not sufficiently utilize this practice. According to Hilgers, Hussey, and Stitt­-Bergh and several other scholars, the complex cognitive processes involved in the task of writing require that composition students be taught to self­-assess in order to revise their work.

Although these scholars are optimistic about the many benefits of self-­assessment, they recognize that this “learning to decenter, to step outside of one’s intentions in a draft and read that text with the eye of another” can be incredibly difficult (R. Larson 98). Accordingly, many suggest a variety of different strategies for teaching self­-assessment in the classroom. Richard Beach, a seminal advocate for self­-assessment in composition instruction, proposes three heuristics for student self-assessment that nicely summarize many scholars’ varying recommendations. Beach suggests that students interrogate their drafts by considering three basic categories of questions: describing (What is your purpose? What do you want your audience to do or think?), judging (What are some problems you perceive in achieving your intended purpose?), and selecting appropriate revisions (How can you change your paper to address these problems?) (“Demonstrating Techniques for Assessing,” 59). Hilgers, Hussey, and Stitt-­Bergh provide additional suggestions for helping students practice these techniques. They recommend creating a rubric as a class by identifying effective aspects of sample student essays, thus allowing students to fully understand the importance of the criteria they will use to evaluate themselves and preventing them from feeling compelled to meet an instructor’s arbitrary, prescriptive guidelines (12). The authors suggest that sample texts can also be used to model self­-assessment for an entire class before requiring students to evaluate their work individually.

Beach offers additional strategies for helping students hone their self-­assessment skills, proposing that instructors address individual challenges through conferences. He recommends that instructors use these meetings either to respond to the students’ texts as a member of the students’ prospective audience or to model how they might self­-assess the essay if they were in the students’ positions. Beach explains that these techniques can help students further grasp “how to sense dissonance between goals and the text, dissonance that serves as an incentive to revise” (“Demonstrating Techniques for Assessing,” 63). Yet, he also cautions against implying that an instructor’s model evaluation represents the single correct way to self­-evaluate, insisting that instructors focus on “showing students how to do something rather than telling them what to say” (“Demonstrating Techniques for Assessing,” 59).

Benefits of Self-­Assessment

Both anecdotal discussions and formal studies of self­-assessment in composition classrooms indicate that adopting these techniques can effectively motivate substantive and independent revision. In his exploration of forces that encourage student revision, Donald Murray argues that “revision can be dull if the writer is only trying to conform to a particular set of editorial conventions, if the process of discovery is concluded and there are no surprises lurking on the page” (57). He therefore suggests teaching students to revise by showing them how to reexamine their ideas and discover what more they have to say in order to inspire students to become truly engaged in the revision process (56). His notion that students will want to revise when they focus on their own visions and purposes of their writing rather than merely seeking to respond to an instructor’s evaluation speaks to both the demotivating aspects of postgraded revision as well as the motivating nature of self­-assessment.

Moreover, a study of undergraduate students in a psychology composition class indicated that self-assessment can also increase students’ sense of self­-efficacy and encourage students to approach the revision process with confidence. Composition scholars Heidi Andrade and Ying Du interviewed fourteen students regarding their impressions of their self-­assessment experiences and discovered that even though many students “initially perceived the requirement to self­-assess as ‘a big pain,’ they were unanimous in reporting positive attitudes toward it after having done it” (164). These students described acquiring a better understanding of the assignment rubric and more confidence in their abilities to perform well on the assignment (169). Although these students still reported some difficulty transferring these skills to other courses (166), and more research must be done before we can draw large-­scale conclusions regarding self-­assessment and self­-efficacy, both this study and Murray’s findings position self­-assessment as a more effective tool for encouraging revision than postgraded revision.

Yet, self­-assessment not only encourages students to become more interested in reexamining their writing; it also prompts more effective revisions. Many composition scholars assert that self-assessment inspires students to make deep, content-­level revisions rather than simply adjusting word choice. Hilgers, Hussey, and Stitt­-Bergh argue that superficial revisions stem from students’ failures to “analyze the weaknesses or problems in their texts” (16). The authors suggest that students who conclude that their sentences or paragraphs simply “sound bad” might tinker with word choice and sentence construction. But students who interrogate the purposes of their writing and recognize where certain points don’t support that purpose, as self-­assessment encourages, tend to craft more meaningful revisions (17).

Beach and Eaton similarly argue that self­-assessment provides students with the tools they need to conduct substantive revision. In their examination of scholarship exploring revision in composition classrooms, Beach and Eaton conclude that deep revision requires students to detach themselves from their original perspectives, and as Nancy Sommers argues, critically assess their own writing (150). Beach and Eaton also note that students who are “able to define their own intentions and recognize the disparity between these intentions and the draft” tend to revise beyond the sentence level (150). Because self-­assessment compels students to evaluate their writing from the perspectives of their audiences and locate disparity between their intended purposes and audience reactions, this practice encourages students to reexamine and revise their writing in substantial, meaningful ways.

Self­-assessment also empowers students to carry out the bulk of this revision independently. Because it teaches students to recognize the shortcomings of their texts without the evaluative response of an instructor or even other peers, self­-assessment better prepares students to revise independently in future writing situations absent the benefit of external evaluative feedback. Some might contend that this argument for self­-assessment that privileges students’ own responses above instructors’ feedback suggests students have no need for an instructor during the revision process. Yet, I would argue that even though students need not rely on their composition teachers for specific revision directions, they still need instructors to teach and facilitate this process of self-assessment. In short, we must help these student writers to learn to help themselves. Richard Larson affirms that an essential task of a composition teacher is to “wean the student from unexamined dependence on another person’s assessment—to help the student become an autonomous reviser” (98). Because self­-assessment teaches students to trust their own diagnoses of their writing without depending upon other’s evaluations, self­-assessment encourages autonomous revision far more effectively than postgraded rewriting.

Writing 150 Application

Although Writing 150 instructors can certainly incorporate self­-assessment into their own curriculums in a variety of ways, I conclude with a brief outline of how I plan to adopt some of these methods in my own classroom. Because Hilgers, Hussey, and Stitt­-Bergh suggest that self-assessment be consistently and frequently integrated into students’ revision processes (6), I plan on requiring a written response (what Richard Larson calls a “postscript”) to Beach’s three assessment prompts after the first draft of each major assignment. Although I will not grade the self-­assessment itself, I will require students to bring these responses to our instructor conferences, making their evaluations of their own texts the focus of these meetings. As Beach suggests, I also plan to help students address individual self-­assessment difficulties by modeling the practice with sample texts and responding to their drafts as a prospective audience member. Although my incorporating self­-reflection does not allow me to escape the demotivating aspects of grades entirely, it should encourage my students to reexamine their own ideas in meaningful ways and prepare them to revise independently after leaving my classroom.



Works Cited

Andrade, Heidi, and Ying Du. “Student Responses to Criteria-­Referenced Self-Assessment.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 32.2 (2007): 159–81. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

Beach, Richard. “Demonstrating Techniques for Assessing Writing in the Writing Conference.” College Composition and Communication 37.1 (1986): 56–65. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Beach, Richard, and Sara Eaton. “Factors Influencing Self­-Assessing and Revising by College Freshman.” New Directions in Composition Research. Ed. Richard Beach and Lillian S. Bridwell. New York: Guilford Press, 1984. Print. 149­70.

Connors, Keith J. “Do it Now!” College Teaching 43.1 (1995): 16–17. EBSCO. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Fields, Lauren, and Laura Marostica. “WRTG 150 Revision Policies and Feedback.” Survey. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Hilgers, Thomas L., Edna L. Hussey, and Monica Stitt-­Bergh. “The Case for Prompted Self-Assessment in the Writing Classroom.” Self­-Assessment and Development in Writing: A Collaborative Inquiry. Ed. Jane Bowman Smith and Kathleen Blake Yancey. New York: Hampton Press, 2000. Print. 1­24.

Larson, Laura. “Making Writing Real: ‘Rewrite Days’ and Other Empowerments.” College Teaching 43.4 (1995): 132–33. JSTOR. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Larson, Richard L. “Revision as Self­-Assessment.” Self­-Assessment and Development in Writing: A Collaborative Inquiry. Ed. Jane Bowman Smith and Kathleen Blake Yancey. New York: Hampton Press, 2000. Print.

Madsen, Reta A. “Teaching Students to Revise.” Collective Wisdom. Ed. Sondra J. Stang and Robert Wiltenburg. New York: Random House, 1988. 55–56. Print.

McGarrell, Hedy, and Jeff Verbeem. “Motivating Revision of Drafts through Formative Feedback.” ELT Journal 61.3 (2007): 228–36. Print.

Murray, Donald M. “Teach the Motivating Force of Revision.” The English Journal 67.7 (1978): 56–60. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.

Pulfrey, Caroline, Céline Buchs, and Fabrizio Butera. “Why Grades Engender Performance-Avoidance Goals: The Mediating Role of Autonomous Motivation.” Journal of Educational Psychology 103.3 (2011): 683–700. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.