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Thoughts on the “Paper” Load

posted: 10.13.11 by archived

It’s about a month into the semester, and as usual I’m starting to feel buried by the by the pile of essays that are waiting for my comments. It is the most essential part of my work, but oh-so-time-consuming as any two writing teachers, in conversation for more than thirty seconds, are sure to remind each other. Over the past week or so, I’ve talked to several colleagues about their practices, and it’s prompted me to reconsider how I’ve been handling the load, both of papers and of guilt for what I see as my chronic tardiness.

I see each student’s essay at least twice, in rough draft and final (i.e., to be graded) form. In the past I’ve had students set up individual blogs to post their rough drafts, so they receive both peer review and my feedback as comments to the post. This ensures global comments (appropriate for the way I’d like to see students approach revision), but these comments are not always easy for students to apply to the rethinking (and not just “correcting”) that I try to encourage. And on my end, the global comments take some time to formulate, compared to more immediate sentence-level scribbles. At final draft stage (which up until this semester has been in paper form for face-to-face classes and electronic files for distance learning), I provide, along with the requisite grade, closer comments on style and sentence-level issues; for issues of grammar I follow Richard Haswell’s minimal marking approach.

After talking with colleagues, though, I wonder if a little cost-benefit analysis is in order. At least three colleagues claim that they no longer look at rough drafts. Most rely on peer review at the rough draft stage; they read and grade only final drafts, though most allow students to revise further at that point, either averaging the two grades or taking the final, presumably higher grade. They argue that, since many students spend little effort on revision, this method saves them from duplicating their efforts reading and responding to two close-to-identical drafts, and allows them to give time to students who are truly motivated to do substantial revision. Another colleague combines peer review with a full-class discussion of each student’s draft, with students required to read their work out loud. Students bring three copies of their essay to class: one to read aloud, a second for the teacher to mark during the reading and discussion that follows, and a third for another student to write down notes from the discussion.

It’s important to note that we teach at a community college, with a 5-5 teaching load, so that time constraints are a significant factor, as is the trade-off between prompt and complete feedback.

So as usual, instead of coming to conclusions, I’ve been posing some questions as I examine this issue:

  • To what extent are the response practices of writing teachers a matter of ingrained habit vs. our moral sensibilities of what we “owe” our students vs. our time limitations vs. our judgment of best pedagogical practice?
  • How do our methods correspond to the Writing Center mantra to “create better writers, not necessarily better writing”?
  • What do students actually do with the comments I make? (It would be instructive—if I had the time!—to track and code the amounts and types of revisions made and to collaborate in a comparative study with instructors who choose different commenting methods.)

As class sizes and course loads have increased, have you adjusted your way of handling the paper load? What do you consider to be your obligation to students in providing responses to their writing? Where is the middle ground between not enough feedback to earn our keep and so much that students are overwhelmed? Any secrets for helping the rest of us cope? I’d love to hear your suggestions or reflections—or even a few more questions!

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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2 Responses to “Thoughts on the “Paper” Load”

  1. Lauren Says:


    After struggling with buddy press this semester, I switched to canvas, a comprehensive online teaching management system, by Instructure to manage the paper load. I love it because the students can turn in papers there, I can comment, grade, and send them back, and we are all happy.

    If you are interested: ( I am doing this from memory, but I think this is right).

  2. Holly Pappas. Bristol Comm. College Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Lauren! Just wondering how this compared/contrasted to Blackboard or some other standard CMS? And I bounce back and forth between a paperless classroom and some mix of paper/screen hybrid. Students seem split in their preferences, and I get screen-fatigue when I try to go completely paperless. So many factors to consider!