Responding to Student Writing

Strategies for commenting on student writing

How we respond to student writing has a profound impact on students. It can make our students better learners, thinkers, and writers. It can also create a lot of anxiety and frustration for both professors and students. The best kind of commentary enhances the student writer’s feeling of dignity. The worst kind can be dehumanizing and insulting – often to the bewilderment of the teacher, whose intentions were kindly but whose techniques ignored the personal dimension of writing. Part of the problem is that our comments on students’ papers are necessarily short and therefore cryptic. We know what we mean, and we know the tone that we intend to convey. Often, however, students are bewildered by our comments, and they sometimes read into them a tone and a meaning entirely different from our intentions. We need to remember our purpose, which is not to point out everything wrong with the paper but to facilitate improvement. Responding to student writing efficiently can ultimately reach the double goal of making the process productive for the student and time-saving for the professor.

Since the kind of essay the students produce is closely related to the assignment, be sure to design the assignment carefully to produce the kind of writing you expect to receive. (You may want to refer to Creating Writing Objectives, Formal “High-Stakes” Assignments, and Informal“Low-Stakes” Assignments.) Before reading the essays it might be helpful to review the specific assignment that you have given and to keep in mind exactly what you asked your students to do while responding to their papers.

When marking and grading papers, we should keep in mind that we have two quite distinct roles to play, depending on where our students are in the writing process. If we review students’ drafts, our role is to coach: to provide useful instruction, good advice, and warm encouragement. If you assign several drafts, you might want to vary your responses depending on which draft you are reading. Respond most intensely to draft 1, less to draft 2, and even less to the final embodiment of the paper. Normally the students will improve over the course of writing drafts and the semester, so giving the most intense feedback on the first and second drafts can save you time later in the semester.

When responding to student writing every professor has had the impulse to tell the student everything that doesn’t work in a paper, point out every single grammatical mistake, and do it all in the margins of the paper or on the text itself. Often this strategy proves to be equally frustrating for the professor and the student. The professor spends a lot of time responding to everything and, possibly, loses the thread of the content of the essay. The student, who receives a paper so filled with ink that the original essay seems no longer to exist, is often confused as to what to focus on when revising the essay. As such it can become impossible for the student to know which errors should receive their immediate attention.

Marginal comments and endnotes

Commenting effectively on drafts requires a consistent philosophy and a plan. It might be helpful to quickly read through the essay before writing in the margins. Often a professor might be tempted to write a marginal comment or query, only to find that the student gives the answer later on in the essay. If you want to start commenting immediately you might consider doing so in pencil so you can erase the comment later if you wish.

Try to make comments as legible and straightforward as possible. Because your purpose is to stimulate meaningful revision, you may consider limiting your commentary to a few problems that you want the student to tackle when preparing the next draft. It thus helps to establish a hierarchy of concerns descending from higher-order issues (ideas, organization, development, and overall clarity) to lower-order issues (sentence correctness, style, mechanics, spelling, and so forth). Moreover it is best, initially, to aim at the higher-level concerns; proceed to lower-order concerns only when a draft is reasonably successful at the higher levels. Often we find ourselves pointing out all the errors in a draft hoping that the student will correct these problems in the following draft (or worse, correcting the mistakes, thereby absolving the student from the responsibility of correcting them). If a professor points out every single error the diligent student will correct these mistakes, but not necessarily the underlying problem(s). By correcting all errors in an essay we address the symptoms, but not the ailment, and do little to help the students improve their process of writing in future assignments. By pointing to a few elements that students need to work on professors allow them to focus attention on these specific issues and work with them in a concentrated fashion. One strategy is to let students know what the issues are upfront and then mark them on the first page or paragraph. It is then up to the student to identify the problem in the rest of the paper and work on the particular issues for the revision. If adopting a marginal comment + endnote system, make sure that the marginal comments relate to the endnote. That way students have a clear sense of what to do next, and the revisions will improve as a result.

Lower-order concerns such as grammatical errors, misspellings, punctuation mistakes, and awkwardness in style are frequent sources of confusion and annoyance in student papers. If teachers try to note them all – especially if the teacher becomes a line editor and begins fixing them – commenting on these errors can be dismayingly time consuming. It is best to place maximum responsibility on students for learning to edit their own work. One way to accomplish this is the practice of “minimal marking” in which the teacher tells students that their grade will either be reduced or unrecorded until most of the errors are found and corrected. To assist students in this process, instructors can place an X in the margins next to lines that contain errors, but following the minimal-marking policy means that the errors themselves are not circled or marked. The beauty of this policy, from a teacher’s perspective, is that abandoning the role of proofreader and line editor saves substantial marking time. More importantly, it trains students to develop new editing habits for eliminating their own careless errors, or to improve their skills in identifying them. Note places where sentence-level problems cause genuine lack of clarity (as opposed to annoyance).

Writing many marginal comments can be problematic since there is not enough room and the student will often have difficulty comprehending all the comments. A good solution is to combine marginal notes with an endnote. Brief marginal comments such as “Tangled sentence” or “This passage is garbled” help the writer to see where problems occur. If students have severe sentence-level difficulties, the professor can recommend that they seek help from the various tutoring services available on campus.

On the last page of a student paper, many instructors write a summarizing endnote. This is a good place to critique in greater depth the two or three elements that you have pointed out in the margins, and makes your criticism cohesive and understandable for the student. Here you can explain in greater depth what exactly the (most) problematic elements are, why they are important, and suggest ways to work on these. (It is often most effective to limit the number of primary observations to the two or three most serious problems, which will often result in a better revision than citing many.) Bear in mind it is not your responsibility to correct the errors, but rather to suggest ways that the student can do so.

The productive endnote will balance assessment, critique, and encouragement. If teachers think of their end comments as justifying or explaining the grade, they tend to emphasize the bad features of the paper (“This is why I gave you a C”). But if they think of their purpose as guiding revision, or even as suggestions for future writing assignments, their end comments can be more affirmative, and often more productive. A paper that deserves a C as a final product is often an excellent draft even though it has not reached finished-product standards. An endnote can sum up the strengths of the draft, identify the main problems to be worked on, and make a few suggestions for what to do next. In order for the student to work with your critique the comments need to relate to the level of the student. Raising critical issues is perfectly legitimate, but you want to do so in a productive and respective manner.

It is a good idea to clarify in the endnote what the essay actually does: surprisingly often our students don’t know exactly what they have written. It will also allow you to explain what the essay lacks. If working with research papers you might want to address the thesis – or lack thereof. This is also a good place to draw attention to the evidence used, the structure, or any structural problem of the essay. It is helpful to let the student know what works in the essay. This element of honest and measured praise encourages the student to keep working on the issues in the essay that don’t work, but reinforces the student’s sense that some things are indeed working. However it is important that the praise corresponds with the critique so that the student doesn’t get confused.

Communicate with your students about their writing

Finally, think of your commentary as personal correspondence with the student, something that makes your own thinking visible and permanent. Try to invest in your commentary the tone of a supportive coach – someone interested in the student as a person and in the improvement of the student’s powers as a writer and thinker. If the instructor has asked students to submit the assignment once in its final version, they can be encouraged not to turn in the first version they write in working on future assignments, which is usually a draft needing revisions that will move the draft toward excellence. Challenge writers to deepen and complicate their thought at a level appropriate for their intellectual development. Suggesting that students read their papers out loud before turning them in is another proven way to reduce error and help the students to improve their work.

Getting writing back is an anxiety-producing event in student life. We see them go straight to the grade, and only then, perhaps, engage in the comments. In our educational system the grade is of course extremely important to students; it assesses their level of work, but it does not teach them much in itself. There are several different ways that you might consider to increase your students’ engagement in your comments and by extension their own writing. One strategy is to communicate in a direct and personal way with the student. The best way to do this is one-on-one conferences. For example, an endnote could say: “You’re making real progress. Please see me so that I can help you move to the next stage.” An invitation for personal help is particularly useful when the student’s problems involve higher-order concerns.

Some professors have successfully adopted a system of letter writing. The endnote on the paper is created as a letter addressing students by name with the professor’s signature on the bottom. This letter then warrants an answer from students addressing the two or three elements pointed out in the critique. The students’ letters are turned in with the next draft. In that letter, besides addressing the problematic elements from the last draft, students are asked to point out what has changed in the essay, what they think the improvements are, and what, finally, they would like the professor to look at in this second draft. This system will allow your students to engage in a discussion of their own writing and progress while requiring them to read, understand, and engage with your comments.

At the end of the writing process, when students submit final copy, our role is judge. At this stage, we uphold the standards of our profession, giving out high marks only to those essays that meet the criteria we have set. We can also offer helpful and supportive comments to students by praising good titles, good thesis statements, good transitions, and so forth. In giving feedback on the final paper, it is very helpful to students to remember that they will be moving on to other classes, and to give comments accordingly.

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 14.
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