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Meaningful Responses to Student Writing

Grading to be better understood by your students.

May 6, 2018


Alexandra (AJ) Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

It’s that time of year again: temperatures are climbing, flowers are blooming, and the only thing standing between you and summer break is the mountain of final student papers accumulating rapidly on your desk.

Forget Spring: it’s grading season.

Whether you’ve never had to respond to student work or whether you’ve done it many times,  grading final papers never feels like an easy task. Not only does it seem to require inordinate amounts of time and focus, but it is often met with a great deal of uncertainty (where do I even start?) and frustration (but we’ve gone over [inset grievance here] 20 times!). There’s also the fear of misunderstanding (am I being clear enough?) or sense of futility (will they even read this?).

When I first started teaching composition, I had no idea how to effectively respond to student writing. While I was fortunate to have an awesome mentor to help guide me through things like lesson-planning and classroom management, I was more or less left to my own devices when it came to grading, specifically. So I gave it my best effort: I thought back to feedback I’d received in my academic career—the good, the bad, the ugly—and went from there.

With continued practice over the years and no small amount of trial and error, I have both tangibly improved and become more confident in my ability to give effective feedback on written assignments. Don’t get me wrong: I still have plenty of doubts and trepidations. But now when I go to read student papers I have in mind a clearer set of objectives that makes the process more expedient and gets the desired results: improved student writing, enhanced student-teacher communication, and better attention to students’ individual needs and abilities.

No doubt much of what I’ve learned stems from my work in the university writing center—an incredibly enriching experience I think about frequently. (Side note: I highly encourage graduate students who have an opportunity to pursue this kind of work to do so, and I equally encourage faculty to talk to their university’s graduate or undergraduate tutors!) The nature of 45-minute tutoring sessions teaches you to prioritize feedback—one of, if not the most crucial skills to learn when it comes to responding effectively to student writing. Nothing is less expedient or productive than overwhelming (or demoralizing) students by commenting on every single thing in a given draft or paper. In addition, the widespread exposure to other teachers’ responses has been invaluable in refining my own methods and in ascertaining what kinds of comments students actually find constructive or confusing.

So without further ado, here are a few quick tips to help you survive and thrive when it comes to the paper grading grind:

Avoid Open Suggestion, Give Clear Instruction

A few years ago I attended a day-long workshop on ESL instruction. My classmates were a mix of native and non-native English-speaking students, and I often felt like I was doing the latter a disservice because I didn’t know enough about their specific writing needs and struggles. One workshop leader noted that ESL students respond best to explicit advice. They implored us to stop using ambivalent words and phrases—“you could add another example” or “you might use another source”—and to instead be definitive: “add another example," or “include another source.” Those vague indicators often cause more confusion than is warranted or necessary.

I’ve since adopted this as a rule for all of my students, the intent to eliminate speculation and to tell students exactly how and what to improve. By extension, instead of asking questions in comments (“what did you mean by that?”) I make a habit of providing declarative sentences (“This phrase is confusing for a reader because….Revise to clarify meaning). If students want to follow up with a given piece of advice, I welcome them to do so, but I try to eliminate as much grey area as possible from the outset.

Determine When To Be “Directive” or “Non-Directive”

This follows in part from tip #1. In writing centers, there’s a lot of debate about whether tutors should take a “directive” or “non-directive” (minimalist) approach. While the former puts onus on the tutor, the latter places it on the student. I think the debate is moot, however, because the optimal tutoring session involves a mix of both strategies. The same goes with providing written feedback. Deciding when to offer a directive vs. non-directive suggestion, however, entails two considerations: a. the individual student and b. what students can reasonably be expected to know.

For instance, a minimalist approach might involve leaving a comment like “word choice” or “awkward” (that dreaded critique) on a student’s paper.” For a native English speaker, coming up with a new word or rephrasing is likely possible and a non-directive approach is sufficient. For a second-language speaker who might struggle with vocabulary and syntax, or for another student less familiar with academic writing conventions, a directive approach becomes exigent. In these cases, I might offer an appropriate word (lest the student goes aimlessly thesaurus-hopping) or, similarly, I might either offer a less “awkward” phrase or point out what is awkward. (Pro Tip: “awkwardness,” very often in my experience, involves unclear subjects and verbs).

This is only one example, but the general point is that some problems, particularly in terms of sentence-level style, are better resolved in a directive manner. I’m not advocating that we put words in students’ mouths or divest them of authority for the sake of it, but by negotiating our expectations - providing or modeling alternatives when necessary and offering broader (if still explicit) directions in other cases—we can optimize both our attention to individual student’s needs and our pedagogical outcomes.

Comment on What’s Good and, More Importantly, Why

At the writing center, I often see drafts or papers that only point out what students are doing wrong, but I think this is a mistake. For many students (and teachers!), writing is hard and the drafting and revision processes are attended by strong feelings. Yet in virtually every draft or essay there is something a student has done well: is one use of evidence particularly effective? One paragraph well organized? One turn of phrase especially sharp? Point that out. More important, explain why the particular thing works well, either in an end paragraph or in the comment itself. This goes for “negative” comments too: don’t simply indicate the mistake or success; briefly explain the rationale behind it to really build the skill. Additionally, one of the best ways to model an improvement is to show students where they’ve already succeeded. If, for instance, paragraph one is stellar and paragraph four is a mess, I refer students back to their own work. This kind of positive reinforcement reminds them they are more than capable of what I’m asking and (hopefully) serves as motivation to address areas of concern. It also highlights the fact that writing is an uneven, evolving affair. We all have weaknesses and strengths; both are worthy of attention.

Ditch the Written Feedback (Sometimes)

In February, Michael Millner posted an impassioned, thought-provoking essay on Chronicle Vitae about why he stopped writing on students papers. It addresses many of the reasons I love conferences and tutoring: the face-to-face encounters I’ve had with students bring their papers to life in ways that are limited behind a screen. While I don’t think ditching written feedback is feasible in all cases and having a written record can be useful for both students and teachers, I strongly advise substituting a one-on-one conference for written feedback when and if possible. In the absence of these conversations, teachers have to make a lot of assumptions about a student’s writing by necessity.

We offer suggestions based on our best understanding of what students “actually” mean or were trying to accomplish, and we often assume, as a consequence, that they simply can’t or have failed to do the things we’ve asked. But such assumptions can be misguided; when I’ve had the opportunity to talk through a problem, question, or concern with a student in the room, I’ve been forced to reconcile my sense of a student’s work with their own. In face-to-face conferences, for instance, you might quickly learn that students’ struggles are not conceptual but linguistic (and sometimes unrelated to the class at all). Or you may discern that a student’s confusion lay in the initial reading process, thus leading to incoherence in the essay. In the best case scenario, being able to confront your own assumptions and hear the students explain their process and thinking in a way you simply can’t with written feedback makes your ensuing suggestions more incisive and useful. If nothing else, these conversations may just make the process of responding to papers a little less laborious and more enjoyable!

And with that, I leave you to your stack of papers: good luck and godspeed.

Do you have any tips for responding to student writing? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Nic McPhee and used under a Creative Commons License.]


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