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Commenting on student writing

Pamela Flash

Effective responses…

  • are made when and where they count. Students may regard comments written on preliminary drafts as information that will improve their writing, and comments written on final drafts as justifications for the grade.
  • involve questions, reactions, and suggestions rather than corrections, judgments, and mandates.
  • provide students with a limited number of specific responses and suggestions for revision.

Responding to works-in-progress

Before you begin:

  • Organize peer response workshops for first drafts.
  • Announce what you will/will not be commenting on (this should keep you from feeling obliged to comment on everything).
  • Require revision memos that allow students opportunities to articulate progress and specific queries.

Once you've sat down with your stack:

  • Review the assignment's objectives. They should guide your comments.
  • Decide how many drafts you will look at in one sitting.
  • Read a few drafts to get you started.
  • Comment in pencil.
  • Take frequent breaks.

In the margins, write specific comments and ask specific questions:

  • "Wow, this really surprised me…"
  • "This causes me to question…"
  • "Have you read what Sartre has to say about this?"
  • "How do you intend us to understand 'self-violence' here?"

In the end-comment:

  • Consider using a response rubric.
  • Consider voicing one positive comment
    • "This is a strong draft in which you…"
    • "I was interested to read…"
  • Identify one or two primary concerns.
  • Articulate one or two specific suggestions.
  • Note patterns of obscuring errors.
  • Suggest resources.

Responding to final drafts

Before you begin:

  • Consider asking students to complete reflective memos or cover letters on which they reflect on the draft's strengths and weaknesses, what they'd change were they to rewrite it, and specific questions or reflections on the process used to write it.

Once you've sat down with your stack:

  • Use a grading rubric that contains the criteria announced on the assignment.
  • Decide how many drafts you will look at in one sitting.
  • Read a few drafts to get you started.
  • Write final comments in which you make one comment of praise and, where relevant, one or two specific critiques, and perhaps a suggestion about future assignments.

Example

[Note to student]: I can really see and appreciate your compassion for the plight of the small farmer in Dakota County. This essay's tone is consistently sympathetic. However, your essay doesn't develop an analysis of the reasons why large farms are becoming more and more prevalent: What national and local factors have influenced this trend? Has there been any individual or collective resistance to this decline? From whose perspective might you glean some of the positive elements of this change? Probing some of these complexities in order to contextualize the local situation would have strengthened this article substantially. For the next assignment, you might try a variety of invention techniques in order to consider your topic from several different angles. Investigating the viewpoints of the corporate farmer (in text, pp. 256-90) might also allow you to address more than one side of the issue.