Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Responding to written assignments

I spend a large part of my time responding to written assignments of all sorts in all of my classes. I'm guessing most academics do, no matter what we teach.

What I'm looking for is strategies that will help me respond more usefully overall, while spending less time writing respones. Part of that means targeting my responses at the more engaged students, and spending less time responding in depth to minimally engaged students.

I often feel as if I'm writing responses to justify the low grades essays earn; instead, I want to write responses aimed more fully at helping students do solid revision work and do better on future assignments.

I know from studying composition research that marking up lots of grammar or proofreading problems doesn't help most students, so I generally put a tic in the margin, and a note to come talk to me about this grammar issue. The benefit is that I can usually explain the grammar issue in a few minutes, and the student may actually learn something (if I write an explanation, most students won't really read or work through it) because they've chosen to come to learn, and so are ready at that moment. Then you also have the benefit of one on one communication, which is important both to teaching and my own job happiness.

I've started taking to making bulleted lists on the work of students who are most minimally engaged. Usually the lists start with the need to address the assignment, lack of a thesis, and so forth.

Happily, the vast majority of my students are relatively engaged and interested in their studies, and do try to write a good assignment.

What are the most helpful responding strategies you've found?

What are the most helpful responses you've received for your own writing? Is there a way to transfer that sort of helpfulness to my students' work?

(The single most helpful response I've received from a professor came from a professor who let me turn in a dissertation chapter for a pretty unrelated seminar. It was helpful because she was able to help me visualize the overall structure of the chapter argument and rethink it totally, which made the whole chapter stronger. She may have been genius [well, yes], but I'm guessing it took her a couple hours. Admittedly, the chapter was 30 some pages, and I was a pretty engaged student. So I hope I was worth her effort and repaid it with my own in class.)


  1. I fing global comments to be most helpful for my students, followed by that one-on-one session. Sometimes I say that they can revise for a new grade but that they must see me first.

    Because I am compulsive, however, I tend to make too many marks on the page, tend to edit sentences, etc.

    In one-on-one sessions, I find questions help a lot--what were you trying to say? Is there other evidence? What part doesn't quite fit here? Can you see why that sentence has a problem? Depending on the student, I may intervene--try to help outline, may show some sentences that could be improved, may discuss logic or devleopment, etc.

    I have also taken to using rubrics. I know that sounds rigid, but it actually helps students identify their problem areas; I use a four column format--left column lists the area and the subissues within the area (which can be circled), the next column has total points for that area, the third column has the total points the student scored in that area, and the last has space for my comments.

    Despite my hopes, this method doesn't help me grade faster, but it helps me frame thoughts and provides structure for a conferecne with the student as well as guidance for revision.


  2. I agree that questions are helpful, and I find that to be true whether they are about the sentence structure/grammar ("Why use this awkward phrasing?") or content ("What is it about X that makes Y?"). I have a professor who is excellent at giving this kind of feedback, and I always find her comments thought-provoking and productive.

    My advisor is also a very astute editor, and the best comments I've received from her have been those that point out some of my writing tics (failure to signpost effectively, repeated use of certain phrases or structures that I'd never been aware of, but I can now see are embarrassingly common in my writing).

    As you say, though, only the most engaged students will, well, engage with this kind of feedback. Unfortunately I have to agree that rubrics can be useful for focusing attention on common issues: I've found that when students see the rubric themselves, given with the assignment, it cuts down on certain problems by making them aware of it (and, of course, the fact that they'll be graded on it). I'm not someone who enjoys that style of grading, but I must admit it does seem to work with a generation of students who have been trained to work toward narrow, clearly defined goals a la standardized testing.

  3. I am almost certainly the worst possible person to be responding, since I typically typae around 3/4 of a page single spaced for each paper (longer comments for longer assignments to some degree, too). FOr me, though, typing speeds things up, because if I type a long endnote, I don't feel bad about omitting margin comments. Students can focus on the global issues and I can cite specifics when I type, which I d much faster thna handwriting.

    Sometimes, I'll even take a walk with 2 papers: reading one while walking away from my computer, turning around and reading the other while walking back, and then typing two end comments. THat moves pretty quickly, and then I don't feel like a slug at the end of a grading day.

  4. I have been moving increasingly to conferences, especially for those grammar & usage issues you mention. I do try to write comments that challenge the better students to think critically about their thesis, or consider that they have let their thesis deform their use of the evidence. This can take some time. Gotta go, I'm in the middle of a set of essays.

  5. Thanks for the great suggestions, folks. Using a rubric might help me a lot if I could cut down on marginal comments. But my students really seem to feel that comments are important.

  6. My department shifted to a grading rubric about 3 years ago and though we are still refining it, I used it and another prof's checklist for essays (listing things about the thesis, development, kinds of major and minor errors) as models to create a checklist (actually, a series of checklists for different classes and types of papers) that I use in composition classes. I mark the first one or 2 types of grammar or mechanical errors then only check those off on the checklist. On the paper, I focus on short comments and questions concerning clarity, paragraph unity, support, etc.--more global issues. An often-used comment is "huh?" Students ask about those things, if they have the guts and concern to ask anything. I still write some comments, but mostly on C or lower papers, advice on what to work on or requests to see me and/or visit the writing lab. The checklists seem impersonal at first but they tell the student in a glance why s/he got the grade s/he did, which areas (idea development, elaboration, organization, mechanics and grammar) were weakest or strongest and points to what needs more focus next time. If a revision is allowed, the checklist points to what aspects of the paper to strengthen. Students usually know what's wrong with the paper but don't know how to fix it. THEN I "come to the rescue." I am an obsessive editor and proofreader and still mark too many errors but over the years, with the help of the checklist and its permutations, I've managed to cut my written comments by 3/4. And students never complain to the chiar about their essay grades--it's too clear why they got the grades.

  7. Wow, it sounds like your rubric is really useful for you. Would you mind sharing it?

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