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How do I create, support, and grade writing assignments?

Responding Productively to Student Writing

While it may seem that students show the most interest in the grade you put on their final paper, research suggests that students do recognize the value of instructors’ comments but are often uncertain about how to act on their suggestions. The good news is that there are strategies for responding to student writing that can get their attention (and provoke a response). Effective comments can help students: You may have additional goals, depending on the type of writing you assign and the goals of your course. It is important to approach any set of student papers with these goals in mind. Here are some strategies that can help you to make the time and effort you put into commenting on student writing beneficial for student writers.
  1. Give students feedback before the final paper is due
    Yes, this is very difficult, especially in large classes. But it can be done, and it will pay dividends when it comes time to assign grades to final drafts (most notably, you should be able to finish your grading more quickly because you have already seen some of the students’ writing). There are some strategies that can help make this possible.
    • Consider using peer review . Peer review can help students learn how to analyze and critique writing, which can ultimately help them to read their own writing more carefully. Ask students to make some basic judgments about a peer’s draft:
      • Does it demonstrate a plan for development?
      • Does it include information from outside sources?
      • Does the writing make sense?
    • Type up a single set of comments for the whole class. As you skim through a set of drafts, look for patterns to emerge and type up a single set of comments that you distribute to all students.
    • Leverage the power of technology. If you don’t want students to spend class time conducting peer review, have them exchange papers electronically (via Blackboard Learning System or even just email). Similarly, you can share your comments in electronic form.
  2. Focus your comments on no more than 3-4 broad concerns
    Research shows that student writers become easily overwhelmed by too many comments and have difficulty categorizing and prioritizing them. This is especially true for very inexperienced writers, who can’t tell the difference between major and minor concerns. The result? They will spend their time responding to the items that they see as “fixable,” most often the editing errors that an instructor has pointed out and/or corrected for them, and ignore the larger problems. For instructors, this often means learning to respond to student writing in an entirely new way. This can take some time, but here are some strategies that will help.
    • Put the pen down and read through an entire paper before you start writing. This will allow you to think about the paper as a whole before you start to work through the details. Initially it may seem that this will take longer, but it will actually save you time as you will find yourself less tempted to comment on every minor error you see.
    • Look for patterns—both positive and negative—in students’ writing. Note the pattern and mark a couple of instances, suggesting that the student him/herself look for other examples.
    • Resist the urge to edit students’ papers. For students who have serious problems with grammar and mechanics, try carefully editing a small chunk (maybe a paragraph) of the essay with clear marks and then challenge them to go through the same process for the rest of the essay.
    • Limit the amount of time you spend on each paper. Decide how much time you can reasonably spend on each paper and set a timer. This can help prevent over-commenting.
    • Clarify what the most important concerns in your comments. Present your comments in order and explain to students what that order is. You might even consider presenting a numbered or bulleted list to demonstrate where the students’ priorities should lie.
  3. Make sure your comments are legible
    This seems very basic, but it’s amazing how differently students will respond to your suggestions when they can actually read them! If students have to struggle to read your comments, they are likely to ignore them. You might even consider typing your comments for students. If you are used to doing more typing than writing (and many of us are these days), you just might find yourself commenting more eloquently and extensively. An added benefit is that students tend to respond positively to printed comments because they believe it indicates you have taken their work very seriously.
  4. Don’t forget to point out what students do well
  5. This can be difficult, especially with a very poorly-written paper. But it is very important that students know what works in a piece of writing so they can repeat it. It may be as simple as saying, “This sentence (or paragraph, or phrase…) is a good example of ______.” This helps students to be able to use something from their own writing as a model for future work, and it also has an important impact on their attitude. Too often students believe that writing is a talent instead of a learned skill, and receiving only negative comments can reinforce this belief, convincing them that they just don’t have “it” and can’t improve their writing.
  6. Give feedback in a timely manner
  7. As with any feedback on student work, timing is essential in responding to student writing. The longer students wait to receive a response, the more irrelevant that response becomes to them.
  8. Questions can be a powerful form of response
  9. Don’t be afraid to share big (or even small) questions with students. Challenge their thinking by asking them to consider other possible points of view.

Additional resources about responding to student writing:

Harvard Writing Project Bulletin, Special Issue on Responding to Student Writing

Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, Responding to Student Writing

Writing Across the Curriculum at Manhattan College, Ten Tips for Evaluating Student Writing

Brandeis University Writing Program, Responding to Student Writing

Writing Across the Curriculum at Coe College, Minimal Marking

For more tips on writing from ITLAL, see these pages: