Focusing Comments on
By Rodney Dick
A “teachable moment” exists when there is still something that can be done to improve a grade on a live assignment; according to Walvoord and Anderson, instructors should only put time into comments that reach students in teachable moments. Rather than simply attempting to convince our students about our decisions for assigning a grade on a given text, we should try focusing our comments on drafts of papers which can be improved: “The basic principle of commenting is that your comments are part of a communication between you and your student, and the comment only succeeds if it produces the desired learning on the student’s part” (123).
Knowing when and how to comment increases your effectiveness and decreases the time you spend grading. With this in mind, here are both the theoretical rationale and practical applications for two specific ways instructors can ensure the effectiveness of comments on student texts and reduce the amount of time spent commenting:
Rationale: “By trying to read at a number of levels,” says Thomas Newkirk, “the teacher does not read effectively at any.” The instructor needs to propose a set of criteria that will both match the progression of the writing process and will steady the teacher’s own reading process (36-7).
Application: Teachers need to focus reading to the objectives of the writing task or specific assignment. Newkirk says that “the major problem with reading papers is defining a set of criteria” (36). If your students are writing a reading response paper that requires an understanding of key points or issues in a certain text, comment on how their writing shows or doesn’t show their understanding of those issues. If a text should include a working development of key vocabulary terms, concentrate your reading and response to that. Also, think of the overall objectives of the course. Does the text show critical thinking skills? Does the paper contain a relevant display of the secondary research available? Rather than comparing the student text to an “ideal” text, think about how it fits into the context of the course goals established in the syllabus. “If studies of the reading process tell us anything, they tell of the primacy of purpose” (36).
Rationale: In Effective Grading Nancy Sommers points out some basic problems students face when burdened with a teacher’s comments that attempt to do too much. Combining both local-level suggestions about grammar and punctuation and more global suggestions about content and organization can mislead students. Students faced with a large number of grammar and punctuation problems can devote all their energy to correcting those mistakes and ignore any other comments. In addition, the student might be lead to believe that it is the instructor’s job to mark all errors and that it is their job to correct only those errors marked by the instructor. Moreover, the student may become reluctant to revise any area of the paper not marked by the instructor, thereby circumventing the growth and discovery that might otherwise take place in the student’s thinking (124).
Application: If the objectives of the writing task require that your students concentrate on mechanics, don’t feel obligated to mark every error. According to R. Baird Shuman, “student writing improves dramatically when teachers mark no more than a set number of errors in a paper” (Shuman 95). Instead, choose a limited block of text (one or two paragraphs) and edit only that section for grammar and punctuation. Make a comment in the margin that you’ve edited only this section and that it is the student’s responsibility to follow your lead. Another technique, as discussed by Richard H. Haswell in “Minimal Marking,” is to indicate the presence of any unquestionable errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar only with a check for each error in the margin by the line in which it occurs. The idea here is that the checks indicate the presence of errors; but, rather than relying on the editing skills of the teacher, the student will still be responsible for locating and correcting them.
If the student’s paper is seriously flawed in its conception, evidence, structure or line of reasoning, you can focus your comments on that. Concentrate the writer’s attention on what must be attended to first. Inform the student about lower-level concerns, but don’t spend an exhaustive amount of time marking every error on a paper that, in all likelihood, will be extensively rewritten.
For one assignment, instructors can also use student self-evaluation as a guide to focus their own comments on student texts to those areas that the students feel are the strongest and/or need the most improvement. This goal can be accomplished through a checklist, a list of reflection questions, or even a list of questions specific to the objectives of the assignment. As our article entitled “Response as Dialogue” discusses, a student’s self-evaluation can act as an immediate starting point for your evaluation; however, it can also be an effective way to both reduce the amount of time you spend commenting and ensure the interest in acting upon the comments you make on student work. By asking students to incorporate self-evaluation into their writing process, you will teach them the importance of revising and commenting on their own work, instilling in them the idea that writing is more than just a one-shot effort.
Haswell, Richard H. “Minimal Marking.” College English 45.6 (1983): 600-604.
Newkirk, Thomas. “Read the Papers in Class.” Classroom Practices in Teaching English 1979- 1980: How to Handle the Paper Load. Ed. Gene Stanford. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1979. 34-41.
Shuman, R. Baird. “How to Grade Student Writing.” Classroom Practices in Teaching English 1979-1980: How to Handle the Paper Load. Ed. Gene Stanford. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1979. 95-96.
Walvoord, B. and U. J. Anderson. Effective Grading. San Francisco: Fossey-Bass, 1998.
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