Information Sheet #139

November 20, 2002


Each year about 80% of Coe’s faculty teach at least one Writing Emphasis course–which means that each year about 80% of Coe’s faculty struggle with the problem of how to respond to students’ papers:

      Should we schedule conferences with each student? 

      Add marginal notes on student papers? 

      Correct spelling and grammatical errors? 

Compose letters of response with suggestions for revising?

      Write some remarks at the end of each student’s paper? 

      Adopt a minimal marking system? 

      Construct a scoring rubric to systematize our responses?

As we think about these options, many of us will also be wondering if any response practices are salutary. Is there any evidence that our comments and suggestions help students become better writers?  Are we spending meaningless hours inserting corrections and comments that will have negligible impact on the students’ competencies?

Most research studies examining the impact of teachers’ response practices offer rather bleak conclusions.   For example, composition scholars in the 1960s and 1970s discovered that marginal, terminal, and mixed marginal-terminal comments on student papers had no demonstrable impact on students’ writing.  Even intensive marking produced no improved writing skills.  Reviewing several decades of research,  C. H. Knoblauch and L. Brannon in 1981 concluded that “We have scarcely a shred of empirical evidence to show that students typically even comprehend [instructors’] responses to their writing, let alone use them purposefully to modify their practice.”  The following year, Nancy Sommers published an article in College Composition and Communication (1982) describing a similar landscape: “We do not know in any definitive way what constitutes thoughtful commentary or what effect, if any, our comments have on helping our students become more effective writers.”

Although composition researchers of the last twenty years have begun to suggest practices that may prove beneficial, we are not operating in a world where a simple, one-size-fits-all strategy will suffice.  Faculty-student dynamics create a multitude of rhetorical situations with innumerable variables.  Each class, each instructor, each assignment is unique.  Nevertheless, there are some reasonably defensible principles about what to do–and what not to do–that can help us choose productive, time-efficient practices for responding to student papers.  Hidden in this list are probably several gut-level faith statements that I believe simply because I want to believe in them.  But to the best of my ability I have tried to construct a list supported by current composition theory.  This list definitely does assume faculty are yearning for well-developed, well-edited papers.  I would be happy to share my files on this topic with anyone who would like to continue the investigation. –Bob Marrs

Proposed Principles for Responding to Student Texts

• Determine purpose of assignment.  Everything faculty do in response to student papers is driven by an answer to one basic question: what is the purpose for the assignment?  An understanding of the assignment’s intent and objectives should drive all other considerations.

• Initiate a real conversation.  Students are more likely to attend to an instructor’s written comments when these responses treat the students’ ideas seriously.  Many students appreciate a conversation, an earnest exchange, a give-and-take dialogue; they are less likely to respect faculty comments when the apparent purpose of the assignment is primarily a means for testing and grading.

• Serve as friend and collaborator.  Most students appreciate instructors who adopt the role of the friendly reader, mentor, guide, fellow inquirer.  Students respond less favorably when the instructor adopts the role of examiner or magistrate.

• Written comments define student/teacher relationship.  When reading an instructor’s comments, students sense the attitudes, tone, and power relations created by these responses.  Consider, for example, the different implicit relationships conveyed by these five possible responses to the same paragraph:

○ The paragraph is crossed out, accompanied by the comment “stupid paragraph”

      ○ “Delete this paragraph”

      ○ “You might consider cutting this paragraph”

○ “Why is this paragraph here?  How does this point fit with your argument in the previous paragraph?”

      ○ “I wonder what you gain by having this paragraph here”

The choice of language constructs an implied student-faculty dialogue that can profoundly influence how students will respond to the instructor’s comments.

• Help students rethink their ideas.  Student writers typically are hesitant about any substantive modification of their ideas.  In a study conducted by Richard Straub, “the students were wary about comments on their ideas, but they were especially wary about comments that looked negatively on or somehow worked against the ideas that were already down on the page.”  Students saw these efforts as an attempt to force the teacher’s views into their writing.  On the other hand, Straub’s research indicated that students were more responsive to open questions that helped students develop ideas already in a draft.   For those instances when instructors want students to adopt a different agenda or thesis, such guidance is probably best provided in conferences, not written comments on a draft.

  Require multiple drafting.   If faculty want students to develop insightful, well-edited papers, they can not expect all problems to be taken care of in one revision.  Even when our best students are working on papers they care about, good revising may require the instructor’s detailed responses to a series of sequential drafts.

• Treat revising and editing as separate drafting stages.  If faculty want students to revise their papers, then responses should focus on such global issues as content, meaning, audience, purpose, and organization.  Editing issues (spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, grammar, etc.) should usually be left for a later stage of drafting.  An instructor’s premature obsession with editing issues diminishes the likelihood that students will engage in substantial textual revisions. 

• Concentrate on one or two issues per draft.  Student writers can easily be drowned with suggestions. A teacher should help students prioritize what’s most important, what needs to be done next.  Other problems may need to wait, although helping students define and solve their primary problems may enable them to solve other secondary problems without any further guidance.

• Focus on patterns of editing errors.  With editing errors, it is probably most effective to address a few recurrent errors rather than to deal with everything at once.  Most students are receptive to assistance with sentence structure and grammatical correctness (though no research studies I’ve seen indicate that faculty comments will lead to the elimination of these errors in future papers); however, students are less open to adopting changes in word choice, recommendations which they typically view as the instructor’s personal taste.  When dealing with phrasing and stylistic issues, faculty should probably resort to personal conferences rather than written commentaries.

• Don’t waste time marking or correcting every editing error.  On the futility of correcting errors, the empirical evidence is consistent and overwhelming.  Of course, the student may eliminate the marked error in the draft at hand (and thus everyone gains the illusion that the instructor’s corrections have been a successful pedagogical move), but numerous research studies--expertly summarized in George Hillocks Research on Written Composition--demonstrate that students rarely adopt those corrections in future drafts.  It is easy to forget that what counts is not the current assignment but future assignments.  Are students learning strategies that will help them become better writers and communicators by the time they graduate?

• Cryptic, one-word, formulaic comments are rarely helpful.  No research study has demonstrated any value in employing marginal red flags such as AWK (for awkward) or CS (comma splice) or FRAG (fragment) or ORG (organization).  These abbreviations mean nothing to most students and are frequently misinterpreted.  In fact, students are often put off by such markings, thereby decreasing the likelihood of any serious revising or editing.  Recent research, however, has demonstrated that students can benefit from fully developed, text-specific comments.  Students are more likely to read and accurately interpret faculty comments when the instructor quotes a brief excerpt from the text under discussion, explains the problem, and identifies possible ways to improve the passage in the next revision.

• Give reasons.  Students do not just want the bad highlighted.  They expect explanations and may ignore comments when explanations are missing or incomplete--which explains why faculty-student conferences can be a more effective technique for working with student writers.

  Provide "formative" as opposed to "summative" evaluations.   The instructor’s task is to interpret the writer's intentions and to propose possible alternatives for clarifying or realizing these intentions.   Responses should encourage students to attend to the key issues in a text.   A premature, summative evaluation of a draft is often irrelevant or counterproductive.  Grades can quickly transform the teacher from an effective coach to an oppressive judge.  Assigning grades is time-consuming, prone to misinterpretation, and focuses on evaluating a product when we want the student to be thinking about revising and editing.  In this respect, I think we can learn a lot from other teaching traditions.  For example, this fall my wife has been working with two music students in preparation for vocal recitals.  At the end of each rehearsal, Margie is not telling the students what letter grade their recitals will receive if no further improvements are made.   Her responsibility is not a grader and judge but a coach and collaborator, someone who can help students find ways to reach their full potential.  When working with students on their writing, I want to maintain a similar focus on the thinking and preparation process.  One reason why the Writing Center can often be so effective with students is the writing consultants’ freedom from summative evaluation.

  Avoid appropriating students' texts.   "The teacher's proper role is not to tell the student explicitly what to do but rather to serve as a sounding board enabling the writer to see confusions in the text and encouraging the writer to explore alternatives that he or she may not have considered.  The teacher's role is to attract a writer's attention to the relationship between intention and effect, enabling a recognition of discrepancies." (Brannon and Knoblauch, "On Students' Rights to Their Own Texts")   This issue was poignantly dramatized earlier this term when a student came to the Writing Center, hoping to discuss a four-page composition covered with an instructor’s comments and revisions.  Every sentence had been deleted or rewritten; in many passages the student’s words had been replaced with completely new phrases and ideas.  The student sought my help because he wanted to “regain ownership” of his paper.  Although he could reprint all the instructor’s corrections, he told me “it would no longer be my paper.”

• Praise and commend.   Student writers need and deserve periodic encouragement.  A smear of red ink can deflate the enthusiasm of even the most robust ego.  Learning theorists would remind us that rewarding positive behaviors is more effective than punishing inappropriate behaviors.   Students do not learn well when faculty comments are snide, insulting, condescending, cynical, sarcastic, or rude.  If we want students to hate writing, all we need do is constantly condemn their writing.  Effective responding depends on respect for the student.  A reasonable rule of thumb is that 50% of the comments on a student paper should be positive.  Periodic compliments can have a powerful impact on students’ attitude toward writing.  Even when I am trying to convince a student to revise a badly crippled text, I look for positives the student can build on.   A balanced mixture of criticism and praise can reduce a writer’s apprehension and inspire more writing–and more fluent writing.

This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.