Responding to Student Writing

Responding to student writing is a skill that improves with practice, especially if we pay attention to how our students respond to our comments. Here are some suggestions for making the practice of responding more efficient and effective:

Skim a set of essays before you begin responding to them

Getting a sense of what your students have written allows you to see common problems and issues that you can address in class, rather than repeating comments laboriously on paper after paper. If your class is small, you can read each paper quickly before you begin writing comments. In a larger class, you can choose a sample of 10 or 12 papers to preview.

Don't correct students' papers for them

When it comes to sentence-level errors in a WID course, you can decide how you want to respond. It helps to remember that papers that contain numerous errors may be a result of a lack of knowledge (including ESL), ineffective proofreading strategies, or mere carelessness.

If a paper contains numerous and varied errors, you may choose to return it to the student for correction rather than plowing through it with consternation. This sends a message to the student that even if you do not intend to "grade them on grammar or punctuation" they are expected to meet the standards of the university. Of course, this means you must at least skim the papers soon after receiving them to check for unacceptable submissions. The benefit is that you can save your effort for responding without being distracted or frustrated by papers that don't meet your basic standards.

If a student makes a specific sort of error repeatedly, you may want to provide guidance by marking examples of the error once or twice and then making a note that similar errors exist elsewhere in the paper. (If you mark all of the occurrences of an error, students will learn to let you find the errors instead of learning to catch them on their own.)

In either case you can suggest that students go to the writing studio for help, although the more precisely you can define the problem(s), the better the result will be. (Encouraging students who have difficulty with grammar or punctuation to work on specific problems is more effective than telling them, broadly, to "fix their grammar.")

Offer focused advice towards revision

First, experience tells us that students rarely read comments we have written on the final drafts of papers, especially if they are not happy with the grade and the comments are numerous. Many will never even pick the papers up from your office. So why waste the effort?

Instead, make your comments on earlier drafts of the work. Students will attend more fully to your comments if they have a chance to apply them directly to the work you are responding to. And they will be even more responsive if your comments are limited to two or three primary matters--a reasonable number for them to consider as they revise. Although you may feel a responsibility to point out every aspect of a paper that could use work, you will spend a lot of time doing so and students will often feel overwhelmed at the prospect of addressing your comments. Limiting your comments to two or three most important matters can protect both you and your students from burnout. This practice can also help you refine your priorities for student writing and stay focused on them as you read.

Discuss student writing in class

Students will take their writing more seriously if you take it seriously. And one effective way of attending to your students as writers is by using their work as the subject of class discussion. By treating student writing as "writing"--to be summarized, analyzed, and discussed--your students will be more inclined to think of themselves as authors, rather merely as students.  

This doesn't mean that you need to direct your course away from its subject matter. Instead of, say, discussing what the Federalists had to say about states' rights, you can orient your discussion (and even a writing project) around what one or more students had written about the Federalists' arguments.  

Grade a piece of writing on its overall success in meeting its goals

One effective practice is to comment on early drafts without assigning a grade, and to assign a grade to final drafts with only minimal comments about the paper and explaining the grade. This puts your effort will it will do the most good.

Since expectations for student writing vary by discipline, instructor and genre, it is important that students know what your priorities are for the assignment and how you will be grading their work. Whether you use a rubric or grade holistically, your students should know what you expect before they begin work on a paper.

Grading holistically has the advantage of allowing instructors to consider the overall strengths and weaknesses of individual papers, adjusting the grade if some aspects are handled exceedingly well even if other areas are weaker. Instructors using holistic grading can give the grades that seem appropriate given their sensibilities about the students and the assignments.

Grading with a rubric may promote consistency and keeps the instructor's stated priorities visible. Rubrics can also encourage instructors to rethink their teaching, since they must frequently consider student performance on specific matters they have identified as essential. To avoid the arbitrariness and rigidity of assigning numerical values to rubric categories, a system of checks can be used rather than numbers. This may retain the benefits of the rubric without over-determining the final grade.

NOTE: Parts of this text are adapted from Joseph Harris, "Responding Towards Revision"