Instructors who require their students to write papers dedicate many hours each semester to reading, commenting on, and grading student writing, and they often wonder if the time they have spent translates into improvements in their students' writing skills. For their part, students want constructive feedback on their writing and often express frustration when they find their instructors' comments on their papers to be mysterious, confusing, or simply too brief.
The following tips can help you improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which you respond to your students' writing. These tips focus on the process of writing comments on students' papers (whether on rough drafts or final drafts), rather than on the process of grading papers. Grading and commenting on papers are certainly interconnected processes. However, while instructors often think of writing comments on papers as simply a means to justify grades, that purpose should be secondary to helping your students improve their writing skills.
These tips are organized under four categories:
Course PlanningWriting Comments in the MarginsWriting Final CommentsWhat Else Can You Do?Sources and Recommended Reading
Before the course begins, think about what kind of writing you will assign, and how you will respond to that writing.
You might also find it helpful to develop a sequence for writing comments. In other words, decide ahead of time which aspects of the writing you will focus on with each assignment. For example, you may decide to focus your comments on the first assignment on the writing of the thesis statement, then focus comments on later papers on the success with which the students deal with counter-arguments. Sequencing your comments can help make the commenting process more efficient. However, it is essential to communicate to students before they turn in their papers which aspects of the writing you are going to focus on in your feedback at which points in the semester (and why).
While there are shared criteria for "good writing" that apply across academic disciplines, each discipline also has certain standards and conventions that shape writing in the discipline. Do not expect that students will come into your class knowing how to write the kind of paper you will ask them to write. For example, a student who has learned how to write an excellent analytical paper in a literature course may not know how to write the kind of paper that is typically required for a history course. Give students a written list of discipline-specific standards and conventions, and explain these in class. Provide examples of the kind of writing they will need to produce in your course.
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Here are some examples of specific comments:
Rather than "vague"
Instead of “confusing,” “what?” or “???”
Rather than “good”
While you may think that writing lots of comments will convey your interest in helping the student improve, students--like all writers--can be overwhelmed by copious written comments on their work. They may therefore have trouble absorbing all the comments you have written, let alone trying to use those comments to improve their writing on the next draft or paper.
Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gottschalk, K. and K. Hjortshoj (2004). "What Can You Do with Student Writing?" In The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
“Responding to Student Writing.” (2000). Harvard Writing Project Bulletin. The President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Straub, Richard. (2000). The Practice of Response: Strategies for Commenting on Student Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
© 2009, The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis