Shannon Thomas and I worked with Mechanical Engineering lab TAs, their coordinator Kimberly Clavin, and Professor Xiaodong Sun to develop criteria for grading technical writing on student lab reports.
Though "techies" tend to be uncomfortable communicating the work that they do, the kinds of communication they need to master as part of that work--the audiences they need to address, the forms of writing they need to confront, the media in which they need to work--are more complex than what even folks in the humanities face. The first advice I got about writing and other forms of communication came from my father, an electrical engineer, who drove home to me again and again the importance of communicating clearly, precisely, and persuasively, as well as the consequences of failed communication (his favorite aphorism was that bad writing would go into the 'circular file').
However uncomfortable technical instructors are with communicating, they are in the best position as practitioners to help their students learn how to master the kinds of writing they will face in their work. They may be unfamiliar with the language they might use to coach their students, but they know when lab writing doesn't quite work the way it's supposed to. Our approach, then, was to help the TAs articulate their expectations for lab writing in as concrete a way as possible. We hoped to give them a good method for developing useful, descriptive rubrics to use while they were grading lab reports.
We tried to proceed as empirically as possible, beginning with hypothesized expectations and checking them against sample student lab reports. We started with Kimberly's general rubric for technical writing, which included six categories for TAs to evaluate: content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and grammar/conventions.
These general terms, though useful in categorizing broad issues important in writing, are less helpful for articulating how those categories play out in particular forms of technical writing. Therefore, we asked the group to state specific characteristics of lab reports that applied to each category. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to record the wonderfully observant points that the group made--perhaps someone who did so could post the list.
From here, each group member looked at a sample student lab to see if our initial criteria fit, and if there were any other observations we might make about how students write lab reports. Any patterns found among the reports could point to issues that might be worth spending 5-10 minutes in labs discussing. Again--feel free to post any observations made during the session.
We didn't have time in the workshop to complete a detailed rubric, but we had a very useful discussion about how this could be done. Evaluating student writing and responding to their learning needs is a long term process that requires constant, careful examination and reflection.
Here's the handout we used for the workshop: Mechanical Engineering Workshop, AU06