Teaching, Revising, and Assessing Digital Writing

Digital writing allows students to combine words, images, sounds, and videos into multimedia compositions that can reach a global audience. With this wide range of choices, they have numerous opportunities to express their ideas ranging from a personal essay recorded as a podcast to a research project presented as a web site or even an argument created as a blog post, complete with links and supporting graphics.

And, while these creative possibilities are useful and engaging for our students, it can be difficult to know exactly what we are looking for when we, as teachers, need to assess their work. Consider the following:

  • In much the same way we would use a rubric to evaluate a traditional academic essay, are we looking for distinct qualities in their digital writing such as organization and cohesion? What if disorganization — through a series of links or a cryptic video introduction — is actually part of the intended effect?
  • Even if we avoid grading on specific rubric-like criteria, are we searching for a checklist of component parts? Must all pieces of digital writing include certain elements like a title page, a list of references, or embedded quotations, statistics, or other evidence?
  • Or, if we offer narrative feedback without a grade or score attached, what is it, exactly, that we are looking to describe in a piece of digital writing? Do we comment on the final product only? Or, do we want some documentation of the students’ processes?

Revising words, sentences, and paragraphs presents a challenge to any writer, from novice to expert. When we add in components of digital writing such as images, audio, and video, the task becomes even more complex.

These are all questions that I have faced when working with teachers, and I decided to tackle the conundrum head-on. In my recent book, Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely, I worked with seven teachers on students’ projects ranging from elementary school to first year composition in college. One of the things that we discovered in the process was that traditional “rubric-like” measures alone were not adequate in the ways that they could describe the work that students were doing.

Moreover, we recognized that just grading the final product did not provide enough insight into the work that these students were doing as digital writers. We needed a more robust language for talking about student work and, in turn, what we could learn from it as teachers.

Thus, we used two frameworks for talking about students’ digital writing, in terms of both process and product. First, we explored the Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project’s “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” The framework outlines both the “habits of mind” for students to develop as college-ready writers as well as the types of “writing, reading, and critical analysis” that they must perform in order to learn these habits of mind.

we recognized that just grading the final product did not provide enough insight into the work that these students were doing as digital writers. We needed a more robust language for talking about student work and, in turn, what we could learn from it as teachers.

Second, we looked at the National Writing Project Multimodal Assessment Project Group’s work on “Developing Domains for Multimodal Writing Assessment: The Language of Evaluation, the Language of Instruction.” The MAP Group’s work began with a question, “What would the assessment of digital writing look like if we began with conversations between writers and readers, students and teachers, children and adults?” We took that question up in our work, too, and we explored how the domains — looking at the piece of digital writing, or the “artifact,” itself as well as examining the context, substance, process and technique, as well as habits of mind used to create it — could contribute to a richer dialogue not only about evaluation, but about curriculum and instruction as well.

Revising words, sentences, and paragraphs presents a challenge to any writer, from novice to expert. When we add in components of digital writing such as images, audio, and video, the task becomes even more complex. I look forward to the conference keynote session, when we will pursue these ideas surrounding assessment and explore samples of students’ work with the goal that you can bring these types of rich, sustained conversations about the craft of digital writing back to your classroom.