Techniques for Responding
Like many instructors, many students have been trained by past educational experiences to think of all written comments on their papers as negative and evaluative. Comments on final drafts often serve to justify the grade; even if we do not intend them to, students will frequently read comments with this purpose in mind.
Students also have assumptions about the ways teachers respond to them. Even helpful questions can be read by students as being sarcastic or critical. Therefore, it is a good idea to discuss or demonstrate your responding strategies in class before students receive their first written responses.
Good Responding Strategies
Constructive comments aim at helping writers not only to understand their problems with the specific text in question, but also to develop a critical approach and strategy that can be used in future writing situations.
- Talk about “the essay” not the student: When explaining problems in the text, avoid using “you.” “You do not explain well enough” can be read as a personal attack, but “the text doesn’t explain well enough” locates the problem in a more detached manner.
- Ensure your comments reflect your priorities: Respond with the assignment’s primary goals in mind, using a hierarchy of priorities for responding to various elements. If 80% of your comments are about grammar, the message this may send is that grammar is more important than other elements.
- Advise future action: Comments should also provide guidance for future revision or learning, even if it is a final draft. In your terminal comments, you may wish to give students a few things to revise or pay attention to next time. Instead of just telling them what to avoid in the future, try finding positive verbs for the same action (organize, look up, create transitions, introduce, explain, remember, include).
- Positive comments: It is important to praise the text for what is done well. When revising, a student who has received no positive comments is unlikely to know what is worth keeping in the draft. The student may actually revise portions of the text that needed no correction if they receive only negative comments from their instructor.
- Explain good elements: Positive comments also function to support the students in their learning, and reinforce good writing strategies. The word “good” may give students a nice feeling, but if the comments do not explain why, they may think it is only your personal preference.
Negative or Inappropriate Comments
Negative responding strategies offer little concrete direction for the writer and may exist simply to justify a grade or explain why something does not work well. These comments do not encourage the student, but may actually serve to confuse and frustrate them in the absence of positive statements.
- No comments: Offering no comments other than the letter grade is comparable to giving punishment or reward without telling a person why. In many cases good and bad writers alike may feel that their grade was due to luck or the teacher’s mood or personality. They may wonder whether you actually read the paper.
- Vague and sparse comments: Other instructors try to save time by writing a few single-word comments on the margins or a few checkmarks. This leads to confusion for the student as they are left to puzzle over your purpose, tone, and the implications of these fragmented words or symbols.
- Too many comments: Presenting students with an overwhelming amount of information about their texts can lead to discouragement. Students do not know which comments to address first.
- Changing the student’s text: As experienced writers, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to rewrite certain sentences of a text because we may feel we can think of a better way to make a point, a more fitting word in a particular passage, etc. It is more educational for students, however, to work through problematic sections of text, even if it takes them several attempts.
- Grammar only: Looking only for grammar errors, and assuming “good writing” is synonymous with “correct grammar,” can lead students to learn nothing about more global aspects of writing. If instructors continually correct these errors for the students, they do not learn how to find, understand, and self-correct them. Using codes such as “awk,” “sp,” or “frag,” is problematic when many students, do not know what these mean. It is more helpful and educational to identify patterns of grammatical mistakes in a student’s writing and provide explanations to them as to the ways in which to fix the particular issue.
- Negative only: Confronted solely with explanations or comments on negative aspects of their essays, students may wonder if they have done anything right. If anger, frustration, or sarcasm appears in comments, students may easily become discouraged and wonder if the instructor has a personal bias against them.
Marginal vs. Terminal Comments
Marginal comments are either written in the margins or directly in the text of an essay, whereas terminal comments are usually lengthy and are written at either the end of the essay or on a separate page. Marginal comments are more suited for feedback on specific sections of the text and terminal comments are usually saved for more global concerns affecting the whole essay. It is important to provide a writer with both types of comments because their physical positioning allows you to provide different types of feedback. Although marginal comments are more suited to feedback on specific sections of the text, terminal comments are usually saved for larger concerns affecting the entirety of the essay.
- Responding as a Reader: You experience the reading as a person, not necessarily as a teacher, meaning that your primary concern is reading and not evaluating.
- Asking Questions: The most effective comments to help students revise and develop a critical sense are comments worded as questions. Questions can refer to content, organization, or even grammar and word choice.
- Noting Patterns: Although our first tendency as graders is to mark every error, this is overwhelming for the writer. It is more helpful for students to note patterns in organization, grammar, or punctuation. Normally it is preferable to explain an error at its first occurrence and to note its recurrence throughout the paper. Obviously, you cannot do this for every error, but try to note those that seem to intrude most on your ability to read the paper smoothly.
- Positive Comments: Tell the student what you liked about the paper first.
- Priorities: Do not try to comment on every problem. Limit your criticisms to a few key concerns so that students are not overwhelmed.
- Specific Suggestions: Offer suggestions for how the student can address the concerns expressed in the comments.
- Notation of Patterns: Note patterns here if you have not already done so in the margins.
- Suggestions about Resources: Point out resources students can refer to and/or invite them to come and see you if possible. Resources might include The Writing Center, peers, yourself, a grammar handbook, or a content-specific reference.
Unfortunately, there is no formula for the most successful types of comments, consequently each teacher needs to articulate a conscious rationale and philosophy for commenting in the way he or she does. In other words, many different types of comments can work as long as you understand why you comment in the way you do and how you believe these comments will help students in the future.