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Tips for New Teachers #5 – On Responding to Student Writing

posted: 6.2.11 by Andrea Lunsford

The legendary Ross Winterowd, who founded USC’s program in rhetoric, linguistics, and literature, used to say that he would have surely been a hopeless drunk had it not been that he had to spend every evening and weekend responding to and grading student writing:  he didn’t have time to go out and party!  Ross was exaggerating to make a point (and a joke)—but many teachers of writing know exactly what Winterowd is talking about.  Responding to student writing is the kind of work that expands to take up all the time available.  Unless we resist.

I often tell this story when I am working with new teachers, because their desire to give as much as possible to their students often leaves them exhausted after every set of essays comes in.  They need to learn to resist that lure . . . in a reasonable and responsible way.

Here’s how to begin.  First, I’d make a distinction between responding and grading—and put most of my emphasis (and time) on responding.  Grading is just the final act of assessing the state of the draft, comparing it to the criteria you have established for the assignment, and then giving the appropriate grade or the number of points: this part of the process shouldn’t take long at all.  Responding, on the other hand, means engaging with the student’s ideas as well as the structure, syntax, and style of an essay.  This is where all the time goes.  But there are some things you can do to make responding as efficient as possible.

  • First, block out some time on your calendar as soon as possible after the drafts of essays come in.  I favor marking off time to do one very quick read through of the entire batch of essays—straight through, just to get an overall sense of them, and then another block of time to respond in writing to them.
  • After my first read-through (about 90 minutes to read between 15 and 20 drafts), I make a few notes on common threads I see—difficulty with integrating sources, perhaps, or lack of clear thesis statements, or the kind of confused syntax that often signals confused thinking.
  • I use a course management system that allows my students to submit their essay drafts to a “drop box” to which I have access.  So when I am ready to respond to the drafts in writing, I look for five or six hours of time I can devote to it—if I have no more than 15 or 17 students.  (I try to devote no more than 20 minutes to any draft, so that’s how I know how many hours I’ll need.)  I have found over the decades that I am more consistent and fair if I respond to all the essays at roughly the same time, and I am careful to tell students this fact:  I don’t accept late papers because I know I will be responding to that late paper in a different way than I would have if it had come in with all the others. (Students tend to take me at my word!)
  • I like to respond to drafts in a comfortable place—usually the desk in my office   when it is quiet and I won’t be interrupted.  I pull up each student’s essay and turn on Track Changes before skimming quickly through the draft.  Then I begin to read, not marking or noting errors but taking quick note of them so I can mention them in my final comment.  I read for ideas and structure and “flow,” inserting comments that pose questions, give praise, ask for more information, or suggest other sources or ideas.  I keep my focus on the thread of the argument throughout.  What I do NOT do is allow myself to get caught up in writing long discourses to the student:  they may make me feel like I am doing a good job but chances are students won’t understand them very well.  So I keep comments brief and to the point.
  • At the end, I sum up my sense of the draft—pointing out its strengths, stating its major idea or thesis, and noting what needs to happen to support it better.  Here is where I mention any errors – and direct students to their Handbook to study and learn about them.  I end this comment with a short action plan – a list of two or three things the student needs to do to improve the draft.
  • If I get very tired when I’m reading, I take a break to go for a walk.  I need to clear my head and get my energy back!

This should get you started! Next week, I’ll write more about moving from drafts to final papers.

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