Responding to student writing

What are the best ways to respond to student writing?

Slowly and thoughtfully.  Ideally, faculty in WAC courses should respond to students as supportive mentors, helping them reimagine and reshape what they have to say.  Though of course you can’t possibly work as closely with your students or respond as fully to their work as your dissertation director likely did when you submitted chapter drafts in graduate school, we think the most helpful responses to the work of student-writers emulate  the spirit of those readings, even if on a much smaller scale.  Ask yourself as you read, simply:  why do or don’t these ideas matter and make sense, and what can be done to sharpen and strengthen them? 

To this end we strongly recommend these four basic principles:

  1. Paraphrasing the student’s main claim at the beginning of your end comment.  One of the most effective formative moves good mentors make involves helping mentees find the language for what they’re trying to say, which is often discipline-specific.  Hearing your ideas paraphrased crisply by someone well-accustomed to the conversations around which they circulate is an important learning experience. 
  2. Referring to specific moments in the text and avoiding generalities.  The more focused on textual particulars an instructor’s response is, the more effective the advice.  To say that a student’s thesis is unclear is much less helpful than trying to establish what you think it might be and the specific discussions that seem irrelevant for that reason.  To say that the thesis shifts halfway through is much less helpful than to point out what it was at the beginning, what it shifted to, and when the shift seemed to happen.
  3. Offering both an endnote and brief, pointed marginal comments.  Marginal comments are one easy place to offer the sort of specifics that make general observations meaningful:   where do students do things both well and poorly, where do you think there could be further development, and especially where are you confused as a reader?  Developing the sort of running dialogue with a writer that notes in the margins make possible is a powerful way to really intervene in the development of an idea.
  4.  Remembering that comments on papers are worthless if students don’t read or understand them. Consider setting aside 10 minutes or so at the end of the period in which you return papers to require that students read your comments, conferencing about the papers you return if that’s possible, asking students to write a short note in response to your comments, or – particularly if students don’t find your handwriting legible – using some mark-up utility like the one available on Angel or like MS Word’s track changes feature. One good comment students actually read and understand is worth any number they don’t.  

How can I cut my reading and grading time?

Sometimes when faculty ask about the best way to respond to student writing, they really mean something more like “Can you tell me about some tricks, some good time-saving devices, that might ease the burden of reading all that student work?”  We understand this question entirely:  it’s easy to long for some better approach, even some magical shortcut, when you’re halfway through a stack of student papers and have to get up early to teach.  But we’re inclined to respond that in our opinion – sadly – there really aren’t any magical shortcuts.  Reading closely and responding honestly, in ways that will improve either a revision of the paper in question, future work, or a student-writer’s grasp of the ideas at hand in the paper, takes a lot of time.  This is why the WAC Guidelines are so adamant about restricting the class size of WAC seminars to twenty-five or fewer:  done well, a writing-intensive course involves working closely with student-writers.

Having said that, though, we’d acknowledge that there are a few things to keep in mind as you read student work that might help you avoid some common mistakes and read more efficiently:

  1.  Recognize that you don’t need to point out every shortcoming of every paper you read.  In fact, though most faculty don’t approach it, there’s probably a limit to what most students can hear about their work at any given moment.  Prioritize your comments with this in mind, maybe saving some for next time.
  2.  Recognize, likewise, that you don’t need to read every text your students write in the same way – or even to read everything students write at all.  Much of what students write in a good writing-intensive course may well be for them and not for you – notes, free-writes, journals, discovery drafts, etc.  (See Are There Other Ways to Use Writing in Courses Outside Formal Papers?)  And some pieces of writing will call for closer examination than others:  you may choose not to worry about fit and finish in a paper proposal, for example, where what students really need is to some response to their evolving plan for a paper.  And you may well not want to bother reiterating an explanation of where a paper contradicts itself in a final draft if you’ve already done so in response to an earlier draft.
  3.  If you find it helpful, use the Hacker handbook as a shorthand reference for common issues, especially connected to mechanics.  If you find yourself writing the same comment repeatedly – like plural possessives take the apostrophe after the s or lab reports never use first-person – consider referring students to the fuller discussions in Rules for Writers.  If you let students know what they mean, you can even use section numbers:  36a for possessive apostrophes and Appendix D1-7 for a discussion of disciplinary difference. 
  4. Don’t feel obligated to offer detailed support on grammar and mechanics – and by all means don’t proofread.  You’re more than welcome, of course, to commit yourself to eradicating all sentence fragments and subject-verb problems in your students’ work.  If you have time to offer this kind of support to students, that’s wonderful.  But recognize that this involves a significant commitment of time and energy, and that WAC doesn’t see it as a required part of the job (see Grammar and Mechanics).  Instead, consider referring students with recurring grammar difficulties to the campus Writing Center for help – and dedicating a much smaller amount of time instead to arming each student you refer with a list of the specific problems you see in their work:  comma splices, parallel constructions, misplaced commas, misconstructed which clauses, or whatever else you think happens repeatedly in their papers.
  5. Consider that responding to drafts can minimize the sort of comment necessary on final versions of a paper.  If you communicate your worries about a project to students in advance (either in writing or through conversation), it may well make the task of responding to the final draft easier – in part because you may help students head off problems that you’d have spent considerable time addressing in an end comment.  Consider, too, that you don’t need to wait until they’ve begun drafting to offer formative response:  we suggest that it’s time very well spent to help students develop initial responses to an assignment, either as a group in class or individually outside it.

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