Help Me With My Essay Comments

 

I have a confession to make: I am terrible at handing back papers. That sounds silly, right? I mean, you literally just hand the paper to the kid whose name is at the top.

But teachers everywhere know how disheartening that small act can be. (It can’t be just me, right?)

There are the eye rolls and the whispering to each other of “What did you get?” and “She gave me a ___.” Next thing you know, the paper you spent so long reading and marking has been shoved into the abyss of the backpack or tossed carelessly in the recycle bin.

Wow, glad I put so much time into that assignment, said no teacher ever.

I honestly got to a point where I would just wait so long to give things back, the kids would kind of forget, and then so would I. Oops.

In English I ask my students to write a lot. I don’t grade everything they write, but when it comes to the “big essays”—the graded, polished drafts—what grade they will receive becomes the sole motivator for their writing. This frustrates me, and, in my opinion, distracts them from what they should actually care about: writing.

This intense focus on the all-important grade was my least favorite part, and it was definitely what kept the stack sitting on the counter behind my desk…for an embarrassing amount of time. It really bothered me that kids didn’t care about the feedback I put on their essays, not just because I took the time to do it, but because I did it to help them. I want them to grow as writers, and most of them do throughout the year, but so many only seem to care about that number.

I won’t lie: It made me angry. Not only did I feel like I had wasted my time, I felt like they just didn’t care. And then the snowball of thoughts would start: How will they survive if they don’t care about feedback? What’s going to happen in college? Or when they get jobs? Ugh! I’m done!

After dealing with this for about nine years, I couldn’t take it anymore. I either had to get over it or fix it. Since I’m not usually one to give up, I set out to find a way to get my students to actually read their feedback and care less about the grade.

The Fix for Ignored Feedback

The solution was remarkably easy and accidentally originated out of my laziness (score one for being a little lazy!). Last year, kids had turned in essays on Google Classroom, but rather than pasting a completed rubric into their essay as I usually did, I made hard copies of the rubric and wrote on them. This meant that I could return papers with comments but without grades.

And from this a whole new system was born: Return papers to students with only feedback. Delay the delivery of the actual grade so student focus moves from the grade to the feedback.

The simple act of delaying the grade meant that students had to think about their writing. They had to read their own writing—after a few weeks away from it—and digest my comments, which allowed them to better recognize what they did well or not so well. The response from students was extremely positive; they understood the benefit of rereading their essays and paying attention to feedback. One boy said, “Mrs. Louden, you’re a genius. I’ve never read what a teacher writes on my essay before, and now I have to.”

The Plan

1. Grade the Papers
After collecting student papers, grade them (hard copy or electronic) as you usually would with comments on the written piece, but keep the rubric separate.

2. Plan Independent Work
Plan accordingly by creating opportunities for students to do independent or group work for a few days when it’s time to return papers to students. This is probably the most vital part of the process, because it will give you time to conference with individual students.

3. Return Papers
When you finish grading the papers, return just the written work to students, not the completed rubric. When I first tried this with students, I put the following directions up on the board when I returned the essays:

  • Read over your whole essay, including what you wrote and my comments.
  • Write THREE observations based on your reading and TWO follow-up questions to discuss with me at our conference. Ask about comments, how to improve things, how to do things differently, etc.
  • Use the rubric (posted online) to grade yourself.
  • Be ready to discuss all of this.

I now incorporate these instructions into the student copy of the rubric. Below is one page of that rubric, which includes the reflection section.

 

Student Reflection Form (get a blank copy here)

 

4. Time to Reflect
Return the essays during class, allowing time to explain, time for kids to read their essays, and time for them to clarify if needed. Encourage them to go slowly. (Bonus step: Walk around and listen. Hear the difference. Honestly, you probably won’t hear a lot of talking or comparing. If they are talking, it will be to themselves about what they are noticing.)

5. Conference with Each Student
This step is where the magic happens.

Since you’ve planned for independent work, you will have time to meet with each student individually. I do my conferences on a large whiteboard-painted table; I have found that since moving these from my desk to this table, our conferences are more productive. I’m not distracted by the stuff on my desk, kids are able to spread out (Chromebook, reflection, essay, etc.), and as a bonus, we can use the surface of the table when we need to do some planning. These meetings don’t have to be more than a couple of minutes per student.

  • When kids get to my table, I start with “What do you want to talk about?” and let them guide the conference. It is so cool to hear what they have to say. So many of them make comments like “I can’t believe I did <insert careless mistake>” or “I’m sorry I turned it in like this” or “I’m embarrassed; I see so many mistakes!” Or my favorite: “You specifically told us not to do this.” The level of reflection is deeper than any I’ve ever encountered. I assure them that it is fine and I don’t expect perfection, but on the inside I’m so excited that they’re seeing the things I see.
  • Next they usually ask questions. This is exciting because some of their questions make perfect teachable moments! I have watched many students grow this year from these conversations. Take Alex, for example. He writes the wordiest sentences I’ve ever read, but he’s gotten to the point where he puts his own comments on his essay as he writes so we can discuss while he’s still in the writing stage. At least half of these are related to wordiness. I’m excited that he’s learned to identify it, if not quite how to fix it yet.
  • Finally, I end by asking students how they graded themselves according to the rubric. I enjoy this part because more often than not, they were much harsher on themselves than I was. I then share the rubric with the grade and the rest of my general comments. For once, kids are usually happy about their grade because it was higher than they expected, contrary to the old days when they’d say “she gave me C” but they thought they deserved an A.

6. Revision
I always offer students the opportunity to rewrite their essay. Above all else, my goal is to help students become better writers. If this means they have to do it a couple of times, then so be it. Depending on the assignment, these are the usual requirements:

  • The student must meet with me 1 to 3 times (depends on the student and the essay) before it is due. These meetings are quick “check-in” style meetings: What are you planning to do? What have you done? What questions do you have?
  • The student must make substantial revisions, not just grammatical edits.
  • The student must turn in the original and the updated draft on time.

 

And that’s it! Okay, looking back over what I said, it sounds like a lot, but really it’s very easy for you. I think this is the best change I have made to the writing process in the last few years. Students have become more reflective (and sympathetic of how long it takes me to grade—haha!), their writing has improved, and I return papers much more quickly—and happily—than ever before. ♦

 

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Instructors who require their students to write papers dedicate many hours each semester to reading, commenting on, and grading student writing, and they often wonder if the time they have spent translates into improvements in their students’ writing skills. For their part, students want constructive feedback on their writing and often express frustration when they find their instructors’ comments on their papers to be mysterious, confusing, or simply too brief.

The following tips can help you improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which you respond to your students’ writing. These tips focus on the process of writing comments on students’ papers (whether on rough drafts or final drafts), rather than on the process of grading papers. Grading and commenting on papers are certainly interconnected processes. However, while instructors often think of writing comments on papers as simply a means to justify grades, that purpose should be secondary to helping your students improve their writing skills.

These tips are organized under four categories:

Course Planning
Writing Comments in the Margins
Writing Final Comments
What Else Can You Do?
Sources and Recommended Reading


Course Planning

Before the course begins, think about what kind of writing you will assign, and how you will respond to that writing.

1) Design each writing assignment so that it has a clear purpose connected to the learning objectives for the course. Craft each assignment as an opportunity for students to practice and master writing skills that are central to their success in the course and to academic achievement in your discipline. For example, if you want them to learn how to summarize and respond to primary literature or to present and support an argument, design assignments that explicitly require the skills that are necessary to accomplish these objectives.

2) Sequence your writing assignments to help students acquire skills incrementally, beginning with shorter, simpler writing assignments to longer, more complex papers. You might also find it helpful to develop a sequence for writing comments. In other words, decide ahead of time which aspects of the writing you will focus on with each assignment. For example, you may decide to focus your comments on the first assignment on the writing of the thesis statement, then focus comments on later papers on the success with which the students deal with counter-arguments. Sequencing your comments can help make the commenting process more efficient. However, it is essential to communicate to students before they turn in their papers which aspects of the writing you are going to focus on in your feedback at which points in the semester (and why).

3) Develop and communicate clear grading criteria for each writing assignment. These criteria will help you be as consistent and fair as possible when evaluating a group of student papers. Developing and using criteria is especially important when co-teaching a course or when asking TAs to grade papers for the course. Distribute the grading criteria to students (or post the criteria on the course Web site) so that they will know how you will evaluate their work.

While there are shared criteria for “good writing” that apply across academic disciplines, each discipline also has certain standards and conventions that shape writing in the discipline. Do not expect that students will come into your class knowing how to write the kind of paper you will ask them to write. For example, a student who has learned how to write an excellent analytical paper in a literature course may not know how to write the kind of paper that is typically required for a history course. Give students a written list of discipline-specific standards and conventions, and explain these in class. Provide examples of the kind of writing they will need to produce in your course.

4) Develop a process for writing comments that will give students a clear idea of whether they have or have not achieved the course’s learning objectives (and with what degree of success). Students should be able to see a clear correlation among 1) written comments on a paper, 2) the grading criteria for the assignment, and 3) the learning objectives for the course. Thus, before you start reading and commenting on a stack of papers, remind yourself of the grading criteria, the learning objectives, and which aspects of the writing you want to focus on in your response.

 

 Writing Comments in the Margins

1) The first time you read through a paper, try to hold off on writing comments. Instead, take the time to read the paper in its entirety. If you need to take some notes, do so on another piece of paper. This strategy will prevent you from making over-hasty judgments, such as faulting a student for omitting evidence that actually appears later in the paper. (In such cases, it may be appropriate to tell the student that you expected that evidence to be presented earlier–and the reason why). While you may expect this strategy to take more time, it can actually save you time by allowing you to focus your feedback on the most important strengths and weaknesses you want to bring to the writers’ attention (see “Writing Final Comments,” below).

2) Respond as a reader, not as a writer. Do not tell students how YOU would write the paper. Instead, tell them how you are responding to each part of the paper as you read it, pointing out gaps in logic or support and noting confusing language where it occurs. For example, if a sentence jumps abruptly to a new topic, do not rewrite the sentence to provide a clear transition or tell the student how to rewrite it. Instead, simply write a note in the margin to indicate the problem, then prompt the student to come up with a solution.

This strategy is especially important to follow when a student asks you to respond to a draft before the final paper is due; in this case, your aim should be to help the student identify weaknesses that he or she should improve and NOT to do the student’s thinking and writing for them. Of course, in some instances, it is necessary and appropriate to give the student explicit directions, such as when she or he seems to have missed something important about the assignment, misread a source, left out an essential piece of evidence, or failed to cite a source correctly.

3) Ask questions to help students revise and improve. One way to ensure that your comments are not overly directive is to write questions in the margins, rather than instructions. For the most part, these questions should be “open” rather than “closed” (having only one correct answer.) Open questions can be a very effective way to prompt students to think more deeply about the topic, to provide needed evidence, or to clarify language. For ideas on how to phrase open questions, see Asking Questions to Improve Learning.

4) Resist the temptation to edit. Instead, mark a few examples of repeated errors and direct students to attend to those errors. Simply put, if you correct your students’ writing at the sentence level, they will not learn how to do so themselves, and you will continue to see the same errors in paper after paper. Moreover, when you mark all mechanical errors, you may overwhelm your students with so many marks that they will have trouble determining what to focus on when writing the next draft or paper.

5) Be specific. Comments in the margin such as “vague,” “confusing,” and “good” do not help students improve their writing. In fact, many students find these comments “vague” and “confusing”–and sometimes abrupt or harsh. Taking a little more time to write longer, and perhaps fewer, comments in the margin will help you identify for students exactly what they have done well or poorly. Information about both is crucial for helping them improve their writing.
Here are some examples of specific comments:

Rather than “vague”

  • “Which research finding are you referring to here?”
  • “I don’t understand your use of the underlined phrase. Can you rewrite this sentence?”
  • “Can you provide specific details to show what you mean here?”

Instead of “confusing,” “what?” or “???

  • “I lost the thread of your argument. Why is this information important? How is it related to your argument?”
  • “You imply that this point supports your argument, but it actually contradicts your point in paragraph 3.”

Rather than “good

  • “This excellent example moves your argument forward.”
  • “Wonderful transition that helped clarify the connection between the two studies you are summarizing.”
  • “An apt metaphor that helped me understand your argument about this historical metaphor.”

 

Writing Final Comments

1) Begin by making positive comments; when pointing out weaknesses, use a descriptive tone, rather than one that conveys disappointment or frustration. Give an honest assessment, but do not overwhelm the writer with an overly harsh or negative reaction. For example, do not assume or suggest that if a paper is not well written, the writer did not devote a lot of time to the assignment. The writer may have in fact struggled through several drafts. Keep in mind that confusing language or a lack of organized paragraphs may be evidence not of a lack of effort, but rather of confused thinking. The writer may therefore benefit from a few, targeted questions or comments that help them clarify their thinking.

2) Limit your comments; do not try to cover everything. Focus on the 3-4 most important aspects of the paper. Provide a brief summary of 1) what you understood from the paper and 2) any difficulties you encountered. Make sure that whatever you write addresses the grading criteria for the assignment, but also try to tailor your comments to the specific strengths and weaknesses shown by the individual student.

While you may think that writing lots of comments will convey your interest in helping the student improve, students–like all writers–can be overwhelmed by copious written comments on their work. They may therefore have trouble absorbing all the comments you have written, let alone trying to use those comments to improve their writing on the next draft or paper.

3) Distinguish “higher-order” from “lower-order” issues. Typically, “higher-order” concerns include such aspects as the thesis and major supporting points, while “lower-order” concerns are grammatical or mechanical aspects of the writing. Whatever you see as “higher” in importance than other aspects should be clear in your grading criteria. Whatever you decide, write your comments in a way that will help students know which aspects of their writing they should focus on FIRST as they revise a paper or write the next paper. For example, if a paper lacks an argument or a main point in an assignment in which either an argument or main point is essential (as is usually the case), address that issue first in your comments before you note any grammatical errors that the student should attend to.

4) Refer students back to comments you wrote in the margins. For example, you might comment, “Your argument loses focus in the fourth paragraph (see my questions in margin).” You might also note a frequent pattern of mechanical error, then point them to a specific paragraph that contains that type of error.

5) Model clear, concise writing. Before you write final comments, take a moment to gather and order your thoughts.

 

What Else Can You Do?

1) Provide opportunities for revision. If you want students to improve their writing, give them an opportunity to apply what they have learned from your comments to a new, revised draft. Note: You should decide before the course begins whether you will allow students to revise their papers and, if so, when such revisions must be turned in (e.g., one week after papers handed back) and how you will grade the revision (e.g., average the grade of the revision with the grade earned on the original paper). If you decide not to allow students to revise papers, consider rewarding improvement from one paper to the next (e.g., the grade on the second paper is worth a greater percentage of the final course grade than the grade on the first paper).

2) If students are struggling with their writing, suggest a meeting during office hours. Often, students who are struggling to write clearly are also struggling to clarify what they think about the course material. Ask questions that help them figure out what they think and how to put those thoughts into a well organized, effective paper.

3) Recommend that students seek tutorial help at The Writing Center. At The Writing Center, students can meet with writing tutors who will read their papers and provide feedback. Writing Center tutors are trained to provide students with feedback on the clarity of their writing in a general way and will not necessarily be familiar with the criteria you are using to grade papers, unless you or the student have shared those criteria. However, seeking such feedback can be very helpful to students as they learn to write for academic audiences.

 

Sources and Recommended Reading

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gottschalk, K. and K. Hjortshoj (2004). “What Can You Do with Student Writing?” In The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice.Studies in higher education31(2), 199-218.

“Responding to Student Writing.” (2000). Harvard Writing Project Bulletin. The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Straub, Richard. (2000). The Practice of Response: Strategies for Commenting on Student Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial​​​-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. © 2009, Washington University.

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