The Art of Responding to Student Writing

I have something of a reputation among students for giving lots of written feedback on papers (sometimes writing more in response to student work than the student wrote to begin with). Indeed, by this semester's end I will have graded nearly 1,800 pieces of student writing. That's everything from a few paragraphs to full-blown major papers. I use no tests, no group projects, no presentations: it's write, write, write in my classes. So I feel that I have to write, write, write in response. It makes grading a slog, but there's just no way around it. It also pays off. At least that's what students tell me on my teaching evaluations.
My philosophy on writing comments has evolved over the years, but I've never formally laid it out. I'll admit, too, that I am not pedagogically virtuous all of the time, so what follows is only what I aim at, not always what I accomplish:

Affirm that you understood the content of what students wrote
. After all, the writers tried to communicate something. Make sure they know you got it. I always try to mention a point they made in my commentary, and compliment them on the insight (or respond to it in some way).

Use paper comments as a teaching tool. Despite what professors often believe, students do read comments closely. Think about it. Didn't you read your professor's comments closely (if only to see how how the old gasbag justified the grade)? I know I have their full attention in my comments, and that may be the only time I do. So why not exploit the opportunity? Paper comments are a great place to tie together large thematic strands of the course, to show them how an idea they surfaced in their work might tie into other material or issues. Paper comments can also provoke further thinking. My favorite phrase in writing student comments is "What think you?" I use it so often the students have begun to parrot it back at me in class.

Close with some strategy for improving the work
. This only makes sense. Don't hit them with everything. Give them one or two things to work on, and then follow up on the next paper with either "I am thrilled to see that..." or "Hey! Learning curves have to start curving." I have been to known to follow up on work that isn't improving this way: "Grrrrrrr!"

Don't be afraid to offer your own struggles, conflicts and frustrations with the material. Model the kind of reader and thinker you want them to be. I often admit that I have a problem with a text. It gives them permission to have a more nuanced reaction. Sometimes I confess to students that Plato scares the hell out of me. It's amazing how letting them know that you also struggle can change the student/professor dynamic.

Of course this is an enormous amount of work. My comments file on the freshmen honors seminar this semester is now 60-pages long (single-spaced). That's 20,288 words as of this morning. And that's just one section of 16 students. It doesn't include revisions or my handwritten comments on daily responses. Admittedly, I can re-use and cut and paste some comments, but this still takes time. Some days I think there has got to be a better way.

I just haven't found one yet.


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