November 17, 2021

Groups of students pass sample essays around their table, referring to a rubric as they work. Occasionally a debate ensues: 

“This one earns the thesis point. 

“No it doesn’t. They don’t actually argue anything.” 

“Yes they do. Right here. See?” 

“Yeah, but that’s not an argument. That’s just a summary.” 

“Well…what’s the difference?” 

These students are engaging in a process called essay norming. Often utilized by teachers in collaborative learning teams, essay norming sets a replicable standard against which essays are scored, ensuring relative consistency between classrooms. Not just for teachers, however, AP teachers often have their students engage in periodic essay norming activities to help them gain a clearer sense of how their AP timed writings will be scored. 

As you can see from the sample comments above, as students grapple with how to score the essays, they begin carefully considering the nuances of writing. Freed from the burden of trying to create content to earn a score, students begin focusing on the craft of writing in order to assess the appropriate score for others.  

This process pulls back a curtain for students. They begin to realize – in many cases for the first time – that rubric scores represent an assessment of skills based on the evidence presented to the reader, not personal preferences or other subjective factors. For many students, this is the first time they have ever taken the time to carefully review the rubrics against which their work is scored. What they find is often eye-opening for them.  

Having students engage in essay norming requires students to read, carefully, the rubric against which the work will be scored, forcing them to tease out the difference between each score. When they realize what needs to be evident for a piece of writing to move beyond the proficiency level, for example, students suddenly begin to see their own work in a different light.  

Essay norming for students also allows students to see the various individual components that make up a piece of writing. When they craft their own essays, they are focused most often on the whole document, working to create a cohesive argument. But when they evaluate writing against the rubric, they begin to realize how many individual factors come together to shape the effectiveness of a piece. A writer may utilize advanced stylistic techniques, for example, but that doesn’t remove the need for them to also include a clear, specific argument. Suddenly, students begin to understand how the same piece of writing may be strong in some areas while being relatively weaker in others. In the process, they begin to recognize what types of elements they need to focus on in their own writing. 

After students engage in an essay norming activity with the work of others (I prefer working with sample essays from anonymous writers), I will have students score their own writing against the same rubric. The self-evaluation that follows the essay norming activity often results in far more thoughtful analysis of their own writing, which I ask them to capture in a reflection piece. Having completed this activity, students are able to more accurately – and objectively – assess their own writing, identifying areas of relative strength and weakness, which in turn allows them to make smart revision decisions.  

Although essay norming with students is often done in advanced English classrooms, this activity can – and should – be incorporated into classes with all levels of learners. Furthermore, to maximize the effectiveness of this activity, it should not be relegated to an exploration of only one type of writing, as often happens when we only have students evaluate AP-style timed writings for the norming activity but not the other types of writing they complete in our classes.  

Interested in having your own students engage in essay norming? Here are my suggestions on how to successfully integrate this activity in any ELA classroom: 

  • Begin by having students norm a stack of essays written by anonymous strangers. You can often find sample essays online with a little bit of digging. Depending on the length of the essays, I recommend starting with between 3-5 essays. 
  • Have students complete the essay norming activity in small groups of 3-4 students, especially during the early rounds of this activity. Students have the most meaningful conversations when they can bounce their observations and thoughts off of other students. 
  • Make sure the rubric they are scoring the sample essays against is the same rubric that will be used to score their own work. If you have different rubrics for different types of writing, make sure you pair the correct rubric.  
  • Follow each essay norming activity up with a self-assessment of their own writing. This can be done with a piece that they wrote previously or one that they are planning to submit for an upcoming assessment. Be sure to ask students to justify their scores for each rubric category with evidence from their writing. 
  • Finish the self-assessment with a self-reflection that asks them to identify their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Leading with strengths generally sets a positive tone for students and reminds them that even if their essay needs some improvement, they still have elements to celebrate. The self-assessment will allow them to clearly see where they should spend their revision time.  
  • Extend the learning further by having students compare their own self-assessment to the score they earn once you have evaluated their work. While there may some minor differences between their score and yours, if the scores are significantly different, it may be a good time to reteach the skill. Conclude the closing review activity by asking students to identify 2-3 writing goals they feel would be appropriate to work towards in future assignments based upon their findings in connection with this activity. 

About the Author

Andrea Yarbough is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. Trusted by major organizations with curriculum design and professional workshops, she has extensive experience developing meaningful, effective instruction for students and teachers, resulting in better outcomes with less work. 

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