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A Confession

posted: 6.18.13 by archived

One afternoon this semester in the Writing Center, I saw two different students from the same professor with essays vigorously and colorfully marked up, much like the samples Nedra Reynolds showcases in a recent blog post. To my mild expression of amazement at all of the feedback, one student groaned that she didn’t even want to read all of the comments, so discouraged by all of the “mistakes” she had made. As a tutor I felt similarly overwhelmed as I struggled to make out the unfamiliar handwriting apparently the result of numerous passes through the essay, and I wondered with the same guilty sense of recognition I felt reading Nedra’s post whether my students feel the same discouragement when I return their essays. I too am an over-marker.

So I thought it would be a good idea to spend a post reflecting on why and how I have been commenting on student work and how I might improve.

As I’m trying to construct my pitiful defense, I would offer as rationale a few motivations. My main goal in commenting on student writing is to make students more conscious writers, to bring them to the understanding that as they write, they are making choices and that revision is their chance to articulate and rethink those choices. Many of my comments are intended not as corrections but as possibilities. In addition, what I’ve come to see as over-marking is meant to be a demonstration of my engagement with their writing (which clearly backfires if, like the students I tutored, they see comments as critical attack).

My comments seem to have four or five different functions:

  • Conversation. Here I’m connecting to the ideas of the essay, by mentioning related information or noting connections or apparent contradictions within the essay itself.  (If students are expecting me only to mark “good” and “bad” things in their essays, they may not understand my intent.)
  • Appreciation. This involves pointing out praiseworthy aspects, typically such things as sharp details, clearly expressed or provocative general assertions, engaging leads or conclusions that go beyond summary.
  • Identifying writing “problems.” Here I’m thinking of typical writing-rubric concerns such as focus, organization, development, coherence.
  • Stylistic suggestions. For example, I may suggest ways to tighten prose, with what I hope are polite square brackets around words and phrases that could be omitted, or to combine or break up sentences.
  • Proofreading. I figure that part (a small part) of what I do involves helping students to write more correct Standard Written English, so I need some way of indicating errors or, better, patterns of errors.

My current practice does incorporate a few strategies designed to cut down on my over-marking tendencies. My students post rough drafts on their own blogs, which encourages (forces) me to focus my comments on global issues and keeps those comments respectfully (I hope) outside the boundaries of the students’ work. Also, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I’ve been using a minimal marking system for identifying grammatical and usage errors; I do this on “final” drafts, though, which may not match students’ experience with teachers whose rough draft comments are limited to errors to be fixed. (I do encourage students to revise these final drafts, though merely fixing grammatical errors does not usually result in a substantially raised grade).

As I recite the Writing Center’s mantra that our goal is to help create not better pieces of writing but better writers, I’ve been thinking about what other tactics I might use in my rehabilitation from a life of “criminal commentary. “

  • Using my voice. Hearing feedback rather than reading it may be less discouraging to students and give me the chance to use tone in my voice to convey encouragement and support. Because of time constraints I haven’t done much conferencing with students (outside of short in-the-classroom conversations), but I’m considering trying it out again, at least on a limited basis. For my online class this summer, I’m planning to try some audio commenting (which I’ve had on my to-do list for quite a while).
  • Personalizing feedback. I usually suggest that students write a Note-to-readers (both for me and for peer reviewers) if they have any information about future plans for the draft they’d like a reader to know or any specific questions they’d like a reader to address. Few take me up on it. It might work better to ask students, after the fact, to let me know how they felt about comments I (and peers) gave them, so that I could adjust comments in the future to more closely match students’ needs and personalities.
  • Asking students to read and reflect. I’m still working out the details of this option, but what I have in mind is a system where I identify for each student a key issue (or two or three) for them to work on in revision. I would then link them to some resources to read to help with those issues, both material I’ve written as well as web pages from Writing Centers or videos or maybe some tips from previous students. As part of the revision process, I’d require students to write a short response to the material they’ve read and a reflection on how they did (or didn’t) use that information to help in their revision.

How do you resist the tendency to give too much feedback on student work? If you’ve got any suggestions for me or my fellow over-markers, please share in the comments below.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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