First-Year Writing and the Learning Record: At Midterm

Row of rainbow-colored folders


Kendall Gerdes

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Adapted from Openclipart

It’s just past midterm and my students in first-year rhetoric and writing (RHE 306) have just submitted Learning Record portfolios. I adopted the Learning Record model as developed by UT’s own Peg Syverson, outlined at

I have thoroughly enjoyed giving comments on student writing without having to weigh it carefully on the letter grade scale. Once at the midterm, and once again at the final, students will be asked to write short arguments citing evidence from other parts of their Learning Record portfolios. They may cite interviews they conducted with someone close to them on the topic of their own literacies; they may cite a journal of observations they’ve been keeping throughout the semester on what they learn from class and course work; they may cite comments I’ve given or that they have received in peer review; finally, they may cite their own work, comparing early drafts and revisions, to show evidence of specific improvement.

I asked students to organize the evidence they select in terms of the goal-domains of our course: rhetoric, the writing process, research, presentation and digital literacy. And, I ask them to analyze this evidence in terms of several dimensions of learning (from Syverson’s framework, skills and strategies, knowledge and understanding, use of prior and emerging knowledge, reflection, and creativity and imagination. I showed my students an exhaustive sample focused on a single course strand and asked them to be much more highly selective than the sample: only choose to include the most persuasive analyses in your work.

On the basis of their evidence and analysis, students must request from me a single grade (not a range), making reference to a set of evaluation criteria that describe student performance in each letter grade range. Students are permitted to mix criteria and ask for plus/minus grades, and I think this gives them a chance to see how their strengths and weaknesses span several grade levels. It points out what they are already good at, what they ought to work on, and what seems to be holding them back. I also ask them to include a plan for improving their performance in the remainder of the semester.

The first blush of grade requests are fascinating. Students have tended not to blow up their self-evaluations; most are honest and modest about their own performance. I encouraged them to think of honesty as an appeal to ethos, designed to get me to trust their judgment. Though some requests offered minimal justifications in terms of the evaluation criteria for the course, most were extremely careful. Even students whose writing has been unsatisfactory, and who have displayed frustration trying to understand my comments, produced insightful reflections on their own performance that illustrate a capacity to write arguments that certainly exceeds the capacity portrayed in earlier papers.

I’m excited to sift through them all and write my responses to students because I believe that the midterm exercise is equipping them with rhetorical skills that will pay dividends on their remaining assignments. I also believe that most students have succeeded at diagnosing their own challenges and articulating both a desire and a plan for improvement. They are learning to think about their course work rhetorically, as arguments toward their final grade. And best of all, they’re learning to think of their grades as directly related to what they learn about rhetoric and writing—not as the subjective result of a soft or harsh teacher, but as the earned product of their own best efforts and estimations.


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