Responding to Student Writing
Instructor comments on students’ writing is an important part of helping students become effective academic writers, and can provide the productive feedback a student writer needs to revise a particular assignment. Responding to student writing can be a challenging task, however, particularly when deciding what feedback to include in a response. Too much feedback can be overwhelming for students, while too little feedback can leave students feeling they don’t have a clear direction for revision.
At the University Writing Center, our consultants work with students to help them understand instructors’ responses as well as come up with plans for revision based on instructors’ responses. Here are some strategies, though, that may help when structuring and formatting commentary on student writing, as well as in prioritizing types of feedback.
Some forms of comment have proved to be more effective than others.
Research on student writing has demonstrated that a draft covered in corrections and cryptic comments such as “vague” or “needs more detail” is not as effective as fewer, more detailed comments. Explaining what kind of detail is needed, for example, is more helpful to students. Also, students report that the comments they find most helpful to their writing are those that point them forward to how best to revise the next draft (or complete the next assignment) by suggesting new ideas, strategies, or questions, rather than only making criticisms on the current draft. Finally, pointing out to student how and why a piece of a draft or paper is effective also helps the student learn to recognize and potentially replicate the writing in future assignments.
Different comments can serve different functions in response.
End commentscommonly take the form of a letter written to the student about overallor more holisticstrengths and weaknesses of the writer’s paper, as well as what productive directions for revision the responder would recommend. Marginal commentsare your chance to point to specific places in the paper. These places could be anything from a thesis statement that needs work, to an unclear sentence or paragraph, to a quotation that needs more explanation. End comments can also be a chance to explain how marginal comments play into the bigger picture of the response. In other words, try to refer to some specific marginal comments in your end comments as examples for what the student can work on in a revision.
It helps to distinguish in comments between higher- and lower-order concerns.
Higher order concerns, like overall organization, whether a paper has a clear argument, what kinds of examples the writer is using for evidence, etc., are the most effective places to begin in responding to student writing, as these conceptual issues are much more challenging for writers to address in a revision. Although problems with grammar and style can be frustrating to read, correcting those errors for students is not an effective approach to either revision or teaching grammar and style. Instead, respond to these issues by telling the writer what patterns of error you are noticing in their writing (for example, run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement, or comma use) so they can be more conscious of them in the future.
Explain to students your approach to response.
Different instructors can use very different approaches to responding to student writing. Comments can vary in emphasis, length, and detail. It can be helpful to students to explain how you approach reading their work and what you will emphasize in your comments. Such explanations can be included in the assignment if you wish. In addition, it can be helpful to have students respond to your comments, both to ensure they have read them and to engage in a more dialogic process. For example, if you have commented on a student drafts you might ask students to send you an email in which they explain their plan for revision based on your comments. You can check such email quickly and see if the students plan to address your concerns.
Use other forms of response such as conferences or audio comments.
If time allows, try conferencing individually with students to discuss your written comments with them as well as give them the opportunity to ask you questions if any of your comments are unclear to them. If this isn’t possible, try to dedicate the last ten or fifteen minutes of a class meeting for your students to read your written comments and ask you questions or raise concerns. Some instructors also find success using audio comments that can be recorded digitally and even attached to student texts. For an example of how to use audio comments, see this link.
Try responding at different points in the writing process.
Responding at different stages in the writing process can both save time and offer students clearer direction as they work on the writing. For example, asking for a brief proposal for a paper, or responding to the first two pages, can help catch issues of focus and analysis early in the process and takes less time than reading longer papers.
Read the paper first, before commenting.
Jot down some notes on a separate piece of paper instead, focusing on common themes you notice that you might want to address in your response. This will keep you from commenting too much and will allow you to prioritize what you comment on when you read through the paper the second time. Also, if you are handwriting your comments, try not to use a red pen if you can help it. Many students associate this color with past negative responses to their writing in school and it may cause anxiety for them.
Encourage students to visit the University Writing Center
We often work with students to help them plan how to revise assignments based on instructor comments and would be happy to work with your students.
Here are some links that might also be helpful when thinking through how to respond to student writing: