A Little Light Reading: commenting on papers

Michelle Perry asks: How do your students react to the type of grading/commentary you provide on their papers? (please provide specific examples if possible)

We spend some time talking, my comp students and I, usually near the end of the semester, about how they have learned what they have learned. I see four main ports around Paragraph City where the learning disembarks, and students usually favor one of these.

  1. The model essays we read and the class discussions around them.
  2. The textbook instruction and the accompanying class discussions.
  3. The essays they write the comments on the essays, and their revisions.
  4. Peer group reviews of drafts & essays.

Students occasionally choose the model essays as the most instructive piece of the class, and the textbook instruction, of which there’s admittedly little, is never their choice. Maybe a fifth of the time, in classes where the student small groups really click and the chemistry is right, students choose the peer group reviews as most instructive. And of course sometimes the class is split in all directions, but more often than not the students point to the writing and re-writing and the instruction in between as the place where the most learning happens.

Of course, maybe they are just telling me what I want to hear, for they certainly know, sometimes before I do. Still, their response is one reason why I put such effort into the comments on the papers. In those comments I am trying to:

  • Estimate what they were trying to say, what the best thought at the core of the paper was.
  • Identify where they succeeded.
  • Guess at where they can change, point to prior lessons and prior papers and parallels in the model essays, and like that.

But Michelle also asks how students react to my comments. It’s difficult to capture the spectrum of responses, from the infra-red (take everything that isn’t praise to my squirming place of pain and sorrow) to the ultra-violet (comments, there were comments?).

I think most students who give a piece of writing a serious shot have an emotional investment in their work that makes the comments hard to read. I don’t mean emotionally strenuous; I mean that in terms of reading ability, their investment degrades their capacity to make sense of language. It’s the same thing that happens when a stressed student reads instructions on an exam and misses the underlined and capitalized instructions to respond to just three of the following five items, and writes five essays in fifty minutes.

Reading ability drops as stress increases.In the classroom I try to counter this: sometimes with free writing on my comments or an exercise with our tutorial center where students explain my comments to a tutor and they build a plan for proofing the next paper. I’ve also had students build error logs and weakness logs gleaned from the feedback (of all sorts) they get on their papers. The free writing seems to work the best.

So to return to the question of how students react: I think it’s a moderately  standard bell curve, with about half the students swinging on the clapper, pretty much getting what I say and making some attempt at applying it in their revisions. At one lip of the bell students ignore what I write; at the other lip they personalize it to the point where it’s incomprehensible. Everyone would like more praise; the folks on the clapper diminish the praise and emphasize the criticism; everyone would like fewer critical comments.

But let’s end with a story, just to emphasize the dangers of generalizations such as these. DW was one of my students, an on-line student. Here’s what I wrote to myself one day

….I do know she’s mad, though, when she sends me this message:

I think as a teacher you should give more positive feed back ..not as much rude critizism. It only makes the students feel like crap. It would help if you gave advice on how they could make a paper better rather than tear it apart. The kind of comments you gave made me feel like i cant do any better….now if you gave me advice on how to make it better…maybe my work could become better!
Just some food for thought!

DW is in the second in our required sequence of writing courses. Usually I can assume some solid basic skills by the time students reach this course, but DW is struggling with the basics: popping out little rambles with no thesis, fumbled tenses, mismatched pronouns, missing words. She invents her own source citation format and redesigns assignments. And all these errors are Teflon; regardless of my comments on returned papers, each one has the same problems.

My first response is to do a little rant. Doesn’t DW realize those errors I mark are so she can fix them, so she can stop doing them next time? Or that no matter how much I could praise her paragraphing, that won’t help her learn how to cite her source? How am I to state in positive feedback that she has not followed the directions of the assignment? Where is the positive spin I can put to “I don’t know what this sentence means”? What does she think my closing remarks about revision are if not “advice on how to make it better”?

Just as I’m deciding how to reduce her to toast and ashes, reason kicks in. “Old fool,” he says familiarly, “what she’s really saying is underneath the words. Look there.”

“Like a dung beetle under a rock” is my reply. But I look anyway. Suppose she’s as lost as a puppy can get, I think. She really doesn’t understand that my comments are not designed to hurt but to correct; she really does think that it’s rude for a teacher to point out errors; she perhaps can’t learn from comments that are not sugar-coated; and schooling for her is about how she feels, not what she thinks. Maybe her past has spoiled her for learning. Certainly her freshman composition course has conspired with her inability, passing her along without marring her expectation for feel-good education, and my college should bear some of that blame….

The urge to scorch has passed and I sit down to explain myself to her. Yet what good will that do, and do I want to initiate a debate about my “critizism”? Actions will have to speak for me, not words. Either DW will improve and pass or simmer in her present state and fail. It has much more to do with her than me, and for her it is going to be about much more than this one course.

“Just some food for thought!” she wrote, tossing one of my comments back to me. I see she was right about that.


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