Responding to Student Writing

Your comments on student writing arguably constitute the most personal, serious, and lasting intervention you can make in a student’s academic career. In addition to providing the student with an evaluation of a particular paper, comments perform several important functions. At their most basic level, comments illustrate to students that their papers are written to be read. This idea— that someone is actually going to take what they write seriously—is big news to many students and can transform them from dull, confusing, or oblivious scribblers into self-critical writers for whom the reader’s interest and understanding are paramount. By communicating your expectations and explaining discipline- based methodologies and conventions, comments also shape the way students will formulate ideas and arguments in the future.

Writing good comments is challenging work, not least because it’s time-consuming, hand-hurting, and at times (2:00 a.m., for instance) soul-defeating. The first paper in the stack is usually the hardest to get through; the last is equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion. But the payoff for students is inestimable: a good comment can help them write with the knowledge that a real, live person, interested yet skeptical, is at the other end of the process.

Commenting typically involves reading each paper carefully while making marginal comments that track your response as a reader, then writing a final comment that sums up the paper’s main accomplishments and areas for continued growth. 

In the Spotlight: Sample Feedback, Grading Writing

Establishing evaluation criteria

Perhaps the most crucial step you can take toward responding to student writing fairly, effectively, and efficiently is to decide on your evaluation criteria. As students so often put it: What are you looking for? Here are three ways to work out a useful answer to this all-important question:

  1. Identify the qualities of the best writing in your field. Here the Writing Lexicon offers a concrete framework; each term listed there corresponds to a quality that most faculty and graduate student instructors value in both professional and student writing. At the top of the list is “motive”: the most exciting papers tend to be those that are compelled by a genuine issue, whether an anomaly in the text or data, or a gap or disagreement in the scholarship.
  2. Take your cue from the assignment. What do you expect will be the characteristics of the best responses? You should add these characteristics to your list of evaluation criteria. For example, if the assignment asks students to take a side on an issue, you’ll be looking for an explicitly stated position. If the assignment asks students to interpret a text in light of a theory, you’ll be looking for an explanation of the theory and a statement of how the theory provides a new understanding of the text.
  3. Let the stack instruct you. While it’s entirely possible to receive only mediocre papers, not an exciting or fabulous one among them, some papers will nevertheless be better than others. You can learn from the better ones what relatively successful responses to the assignment look like, and add the qualities of these better papers to your list of evaluation criteria. In the process, you might also get a sense of how to revise the assignment for future courses.

In establishing your evaluation criteria, it’s important to resist the simplistic distinction between “writing” and “content.” In this context, “writing” usually means “mechanics,” whereas “content”—a large, undifferentiated category if there ever was one—presumably means everything else. A more careful articulation of the elements of academic writing will enable your students to improve particular aspects of their writing—for example, their ability to pose a compelling problem or question, or their analysis of texts or data.

Making comments in the margins

One of the most significant conversations you can have with a student takes place not in office hours but in the margins of the student’s paper. Marginal comments are by nature dialogic and multi-purpose: in them, you may give advice, pose questions, offer praise, express puzzlement, suggest new lines of inquiry, and provoke thought. Marginal comments not only show a student that you attentively read their paper, but also provide examples of the general observations you’ll go on to make in your final comments. If you tell a student in the final comments that more analysis is needed, for example, the student should be able to locate one or more specific places in the text where you’ve indicated that analysis is lacking.

To students, it can sometimes seem as if marginal comments come in only two sizes: too few and too many. Comments that consist of scattered marks—?, !, √—with the odd “good” or “vague” tossed in, are not only unhelpful; they leave student writers feeling cheated and angry, and wondering if their instructor read their paper closely or at all. On the other end of the scale are comments so numerous or lengthy that they literally obscure the student’s words on the page. Finding the middle ground between “not enough” and “too much” is one of the main challenges of marginal commenting. Below are suggestions for addressing this challenge, and for writing marginalia that respectfully guide and motivate student writers rather than “correct” them.

  • Comment primarily on patterns—representative strengths and weaknesses. Noting patterns (and marking these only once or twice) will help you strike a balance between making students wonder whether anyone actually read their essay and overwhelming them with ink. The “pattern” principle applies to grammar and other sentence-level problems, too. Resist the temptation to copy-edit! To detect patterns more easily, read through the entire paper quickly before writing any comments.
  • Notice some genuine strengths “Good point–this raises a question about X” and “great move here–keeps me engaged as a reader” mean a lot to students, as do fuller indications of your engagement with their writing. Students need to know what works in their writing–and why it works–if they’re to repeat successful strategies and make them a permanent part of their repertoire as writers. They’re also more likely to work hard to improve when given some positive feedback.
  • Write in complete sentences whenever possible. Cryptic comments—e.g. “weak thesis,” “more analysis needed,” and “evidence?”—will be incompletely understood by most students, who will wonder, What makes the thesis weak? What does my professor or preceptor mean by “analysis”? What about my evidence? Symbols and abbreviations such as “awk” and “?” are likewise confusing. The more specific and concrete your comments, the more helpful they’ll be to student writers.
  • Ask questions. Asking questions in the margins promotes a useful analytical technique while helping students anticipate future readers’ queries.
  • Write legibly (in any ink but red). If students have to struggle to decipher a comment, they probably won’t bother. Red ink will make them feel as if their paper is being corrected rather than responded to.
  • Use a respectful tone. Even in the face of fatigue and frustration, it’s important to address students respectfully, as the junior colleagues they are.

Writing final comments

Your response to most student papers is likely to be complicated, because most student papers are complicated, possessing a sometimes bewildering combination of qualities—some desirable, some less so. Final comments give you an important teaching opportunity: the chance to synthesize the many strands of your response into a coherent, constructive statement of the paper’s main strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, this statement will not only help the student regard his or her paper more critically but also positively influence the student’s future writing experiences.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the key to writing good final comments is the same as the key to writing good anything: a strong sense of the reader. And yet many comments seem intended merely to evaluate the paper rather than to teach the person who wrote it. An easy antidote is to write final comments that take the form of a letter to the student. Here’s a possible structure for such a letter:

  1. Open with a salutation. By addressing the student directly (“Dear Pat”), you make a personal connection with the student and indicate that you have a stake in his or her intellectual welfare. You also signal that you’re writing to the person, not to the paper.
  2. Reflect back the paper’s main point. By stating your understanding of the paper’s argument or main idea, you show students that you listened to what they were saying, that you took them seriously—perhaps the most important thing teachers can do for their students. A restatement in your own words will also help you ground your comment in the paper, providing a solid foundation for the rest of your discussion.
  3. Discuss the paper’s strengths. Praise in the final comment, as in the margins, not only encourages writers but also helps them identify and develop their strengths. Even very good writers need to know what they’re doing well so that they can do it again in the future. Specific examples make the praise believable.
  4. Discuss the paper’s weaknesses, focusing on large problems first. You don’t have to comment on every little thing that went wrong in a paper. Instead, choose three or four of the most important areas in which the student needs to improve, and present these in order of descending importance. You may find it useful to key these weaknesses to your grading criteria. Give specific examples to show the student what you’re seeing. If possible, suggest practical solutions so that the student writer can address the problems in the next paper.
  5. Type your final comments if possible. If you handwrite them, write in a straight line (not on an angle or up the side of a page), and avoid writing on the reverse side; instead, append extra sheets as needed. The more readable your comments are, the more likely it is that students will read them and take them seriously.