Commenting on Student Writing

Traynor Hansen
January 2017

One of the most common reasons professors give for not assigning more writing in their classes is the amount of time it takes to comment on and grade student writing. With these common concerns in mind, I want to spend a few minutes discussing strategies for responding to student writing efficiently and effectively.

To begin with, it is worth noting that different commenting strategies are appropriate for different situations. For writing that will not be revised—including essay exams and final papers—it is not worthwhile to provide marginal comments or to spend time marking sentence- or paragraph-level errors. While there is an understandable pedagogical impulse to draw students’ attention to mistakes they have made, a significant amount of research has demonstrated that most students do not pay attention to marginal comments, especially when they are not required to use those comments to revise the draft. With that in mind, I recommend writing only a brief end comment on writing that will not be revised. For most assignments, this can range from a couple of sentences to a short paragraph of 150–200 words. The purpose of the brief end comment is simply to provide some context for why the writing has received a particular grade and, in some cases, to situate what the student has achieved with her writing within the greater goals of the course.

For the rest of this post, I will focus on providing feedback for drafts that are expected to be revised. What follows are four strategies for responding to student writing in ways that help students’ writing to develop and help professors to manage the time they spend grading.

Look for Recurring Problems  Before beginning to work through a stack of papers, it is a good idea to skim briefly through a randomly selected group of four or five papers without providing any written feedback. I always think that my prompts are clear, but more often than not I discover that several students misinterpret or misunderstand what a particular assignment is asking them to do. If I notice two or three problems that seem to occur in several papers, it can be much more effective to address those particular concerns in class and save myself the work of having to rubber-stamp the same feedback on dozens of drafts.

Use Limited Marginal Comments It is important for professors and students alike to keep in mind that marginal comments should not be exhaustive. I try to limit myself to one comment per paragraph or, in some situations, one per page. The best use of marginal comments is to engage with the ideas and structure of a paper. The goal of these comments are to draw the writer’s attention to those parts of the writing that work well (such as an interesting idea that could perhaps use more development) and those places where you, as a reader, get lost or struggle with a particular direction that the draft seems to be going. In my writing classes, I explain to students that marginal comments usually indicate what a reader’s journey through the draft looks like. Many of my marginal comments either ask questions of the writer (e.g., “Can you clarify how this new point makes us think differently about what you said in the last paragraph?”) or describe my reaction as a reader (e.g., “I like this idea; I’d be interested in hearing more about it”). When I provide marginal comments, then, I want to be strategic about pointing writers to those parts of their draft that most deserve attention in revision.

Point Ahead with End Comments If marginal comments are a record of the reader’s journey through the draft, end comments provide an opportunity to focus on the big picture of the draft. In my writing classes, I explain to students that the end comment is always the starting point for revision. In a revision-oriented commenting strategy, then, feedback can focus on next steps the writer might take rather than dwelling on all the ways the draft fell short. Put another way, if I want my students to recognize that drafts are unfinished by definition and will therefore always require revision, I can focus my energy in end comments (and their energy in revision) on the future of the paper rather than on the problems of the draft. How might the student rethink the structure of this particular piece of writing? What ideas, or arguments, or texts are most worth digging into and developing more fully in the next draft?

Don’t Edit Student Writing This last point is somewhat separate from the first three, but it raises one of the most hotly-contested debates about responding to student writing. I don’t have the space to get into the controversy in this post, but John Bean provides a good overview of the debate in Engaging Ideas Chapter 5, “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness.” (If you would like a free copy of the book, contact our Director of Campus Writing, Peter Wayne Moe.) The short take here is that pointing out errors of conventions (including grammar, spelling, usage, and even, unfortunately, citations) has little effect on whether students continue to make similar errors in the future. Rather than being encouraged to treat their professors as copy editors, students should be held accountable to locating and addressing these types of errors on their own. I would argue that, with few exceptions, professors should not have the expectation that these errors will be addressed until a final draft in the revision process. The next Teaching Writing blog post will address strategies for addressing error in student writing.

As these strategies become more familiar, you will find that the process of providing feedback on writing is less stressful. More importantly, this type of feedback will help students to engage deeply with the subject matter of your course by encouraging them to participate in the conversations of the discipline.