Responding to Student Writing, March 2016

This is the time in the semester when many of us get bogged down with student papers.  On the one hand, we want our students to produce detailed culminating papers that represent rigorous academic work on a subject; on the other, we wonder how we can possibly do justice to reading, responding to, and grading them all.

Tom Deans of the university Writing Center offers the following recommendations, which build on three assumptions: (1) that more effective and reflective learning is our foremost aim, not just cleaner texts; (2) that the teaching of writing is a complex process that happens in a matrix of relationships; and (3) that writers typically need different kinds of feedback at different stages in the writing process:

  • Put more time and energy into formative comments on drafts than on summative feedback on final submittals
  • Help students discern two or three priorities for revision
  • Never line-edit an entire student text
  • Try marginal comments that emphasize readership
  • Require students to do self-assessments

The Writing Center also suggests these tips:

  • Focus your formative commentary on higher order concerns.
  • Make several sample student papers available to your class.
  • Affirm what is going right or what seems promising as much as you critique what needs work.
  • Distribute evaluation criteria or a grading rubric with your assignment.  Students should know in advance how you will assess their writing.
  • Call students on when they are playing it too safe, restating the obvious, listing points rather than building an argument, retreating to the 5-paragraph theme, etc.
  • Remind students that attention (or lack of attention) to style and proofreading is not just about following nit-picky rules; even a few surface errors invite readers to question the intelligence and commitment of the writer.
  • Responding to student writing need not always be done in writing.  Fifteen-minute individual conferences or recorded audio comments can stand in for a page of written comments.

If you would like more information on responding to student writing, view this week’s 20-Minute Mentor video, “How Do I Give Feedback that Improves Student Writing?” which is available through Sunday, March 27th.

You are also invited to attend the Writing Center’s April 1st Lunchtime Seminar on “Responding to Student Writing: Are There Better Ways to Grade?” How can requiring students to submit brief cover letters or self-assessments with their papers both reduce your grading time and nudge your students to take more responsibility for their writing? How much commenting is too much? Are you aware of the benefits of audio responses to drafts? We’ll broach these and other questions as we explore strategies for responding to student writing–strategies that promote learning even as they lessen the time and anxiety of grading.