Information Sheet #27


In the Spring '89 issue of Freshman English News, the lead article by Joseph M.  Moxley summarizes several important recommendations from recent composition research studies on the subject of teacher responses to student writing. While most of this research has concentrated on English composition courses, the findings should be applicable to those of us working in a writing-across-the-curriculum program. How we respond to students' compositions is perhaps the key issue in determining what, if any, positive directions their writing will take. Given the significant frustration that any teacher experiences when working with student writing, those of us dependent on writing assignments might benefit from pondering and discussing Prof.  Moxley's suggestive, perhaps even challenging, list of goals and methods.


Provide "formative" as opposed to "summative" evaluations.

Our purpose is not to justify a grade or commit a "character assassination. " Instead, we need to decipher the writer's intentions and propose, when pertinent, several alternatives for realizing these intentions. Ultimately, our concern should be more with teaching a student to ask the critical questions that writers ask when revising than with the quality of any one particular manuscript.


Require multiple drafting.

According to over thirty years of research, students benefit from our responses to their writing only when we respond to several drafts [Note: several drafts really can mean "several" drafts, not just a first draft and a revision].  To transform grading papers into a learning process, we must allow students to revise their work in light of our criticism.  Otherwise, they tend to ignore our commentaries, no matter how wise our responses may be.


Place students in small groups and teach them to evaluate each other's work.

Allowing students to evaluate each other's work in small groups promotes critical thinking and leads to the development of essential editorial skills.  Peer reviews also help students to better understand the needs, interests and expectation of audiences other than the teacher.  Discussing various topics and treatments helps students better understand assignments and alternatives, and shy students can ask questions that they might not otherwise ask.  [Note: because of limited class time, group work is not feasible for most classes; however, we can find other ways for students to read and respond to each other's work.]

Avoid "appropriating" students' texts and simplifying students' roles to that of army privates following orders.

"In other words, 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")


Encourage students to view revision as an opportunity to clarify and discover meaning.

We should encourage students to perceive revision as an inevitable and important aspect of composing, not punishment for not getting it right the first time. Revision is not simply the retyping of the faculty's corrections inserted in a text.


Avoid overburdening students with advice.

Don't identify more than one or two patterns of error at a time. [Oh, how painful this restriction can be!] We also need to distinguish between when the student should focus on conceptual problems and when sentence-level errors have priority. Students often are confused because we simultaneously send both signals, causing a cacophony of messages with nothing clearly heard.


Praise positive attributes in each paper.

Like everyone else, students respond to encouragement. When papers are smeared with red ink, even the hardiest ego can be slow to recover. The work of learning theorists supports the assumption that we are most inclined to learn more when we are rewarded for positive behaviors as opposed to being punished for negative behaviors. Some preliminary research has suggested that responding primarily with praise improves students' attitudes about writing and results in more writing on the students' part than traditional fault-finding grading.


Avoid abstract, formulaic textbook comments.

Research indicates that markings such as "edit for efficiency!"; "transition?"; "v/ag"; and "p/ag" are consistently ignored (or not understood) by students. Teachers should provide comments that are text-specific and not simply rubber-stamped red flags, applicable to any and all papers.


Omit grades on working drafts of individual papers.

Grades often transform the effective coaching role of a teacher to that of a judge and gatekeeper. As much as is possible and practicable, keep the two roles separate.

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Email Dr.  Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.