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A low-tech solution to canned comments?

posted: 11.16.12 by archived

In the midst of mid-semester grading, I catch myself writing the same thing over and over: what’s the main idea here? add a topic sentence to focus this paragraph, semicolon requires a full sentence on each side, in-text citation needed.  I’ve already seen these essays in rough draft form on student blogs, where end-of-post commenting helps me to keep my feedback global, but on final drafts this semester I’m marking paper copies and trying to model there the close reading I’m trying to encourage as part of their revision process. But these canned comments cost me not only time but more importantly focus, as my attention is shifted away from grappling with the deeper problems I’d like to address of logic and organization and development.

At the back of my mind are the usual questions of how useful these comments will be for students. As a writer I’d welcome someone’s careful attention to my writing, but for many of my students I fear my scribbles are only overwhelming or discouraging or superfluous to the grade I attach to the end. Ideally I’d like to be able to tailor the depth of my comments for individual students, but that seems to be impossible on a practical level with 100 students’ preferences to keep straight.

I’ve been reconsidering my decision this semester to go hybrid (electronic rough drafts, paper final drafts). I know I’d have some options with electronic grading to streamline some of my hyper-marking:

  • Most often, in semesters I’ve gone paperless, I’ve used the comment feature in Word, but I also use the highlighting tool as a quick way to mark usage issues, with a summary comment at the top listing types of error present.
  • Occasionally I’ve used publisher-provided platforms, which often provide the capability to link to handbook content for grammar resources or .
  • Though I’ve never used it, I’ve read about and considered text-expansion software such as George Williams writes about on ProfHacker: “Using text-expansion software to comment on Student Writing.”

I’ve been tallying the reasons I decided not to go all-e-grading. On an immediate, practical level, I do so much online reading that it’s a welcome break to look at paper for a while. I “get into” the text more fully on paper contrasted to the largely in-the-margins commenting on Word. On paper I can be more expressive, moving and marking chunks of text, using squiggles and arrows to efficiently convey information. (I know there are possibilities for using a stylus to do this on pdfs, but I haven’t tried this much.) On the paper vs screen continuum, I’m still more comfortable doing some doodling and listing on paper before I approach the keyboard, so it takes me a while to get started with electronic comments, and I sometimes feel “e-commenting” conveys an authoritative tone I’m not always comfortable with. As I’m feeling my way between paper and screen in both reading and writing, so are my students. Though they have the advantage of spell check on the screen (if they’d learn to pay attention to those squiggly lines!), I hypothesize that they can do more careful proofreading on the page (does anyone know if this has been tested?)

So I keep on with my fine-point gel pens (green or purple or blue—never red) and push through the aggravation that accumulates at seeing the same issues over and over. As I scrawl for the sixteenth time “Generally avoid ‘you’ in academic writing unless you’re addressing a specific reader or writing instructions,” I decide that what I need is a set of rubber stamps. I’d start with a bold YOU slashed with diagonal line. For paragraphs that lack unity, I could use the image of a light bulb with a question mark. I use the image of stepping stones across a brook for sentence-to-sentence coherence, so maybe an outstretched pair of legs as visual representation of my normal symbol of squiggly line with “connection?” or maybe three closely spaced stones with a fourth uncomfortably far away.  I’m not sure of the visual representations, but I’d also like ones for “citation needed,” “evidence?” and “use a signal phrase to integrate quotation more smoothly.”

Please play along. What stamps would you like for your collection? On a more general note, whether your solution is high- or low-tech, I’d love to hear how you handle the issue of oft-repeated comments, and how your comments might differ on paper vs. screen.



Categories: Holly Pappas
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One Response to “A low-tech solution to canned comments?”

  1. Karl Schnapp, Bristol Community College Says:

    I know teachers who grade student writing with stamps — lots of them — many of which are text-based, often abbreviations (i.e., “frag” or “C.S.” or “sp” or “T.S.”), or simple responses (i.e., “huh?” and “OK” and “?” “Yes!” and “No!!!”).

    But I don’t know of anyone using iconic images. If you do that, you will probably need to include a glossary, the kind of thing you can often find inside the back cover of a collegiate English handbook.