One of the major requirements of W courses is that instructors provide feedback on students’ writing. Responding to student writing is time-consuming and challenging; yet, it is also one of the most useful ways to help students become better writers. Below are some best practices, drawn from the field of rhetoric and composition (and English studies largely), for responding to student writing.
Time Management and Organization
Managing your time when you are grading a lot of writing can be difficult, and sometimes just knowing how to begin tackling a set of papers can be a challenge. There really is no right or wrong way to manage your time when grading, but the following strategies and tips have been touted as useful by writing studies practitioners:
- Design a clear assignment. While this advice may seem obvious, it’s easy to create an assignment that is missing key components or that is not clear to students. Spend a good amount of time designing a clear, focused assignment so you avoid a lot of student questions or papers that don’t do what you expect them to. Consider workshopping a draft of the assignment sheet with your class or having a colleague look it over.
- Review the assignment and grading criteria. Briefly reviewing the assignment and grading criteria before you sit down to grade a stack of papers usually helps you avoid having to revisit the assignment sheet and rubric multiple times while grading.
- Skim multiple essays to get a sense of average class performance. Some disagree with this approach, but it can be useful to get a sense of how students, on average, seem to be performing on an assignment. Skimming the essays before commenting on them may help you find common errors, for which you can prepare “stock comments.”
- Set a timer. Some writing teachers find it useful to give themselves a time limit (think: 15 minutes for a 5-page paper) and set a timer to limit the amount of time they spend writing feedback.
- Pre-determine the depth of feedback. Prior to leaving comments, decide on not only how much time you’ll spend leaving comments but also how in-depth your comments will be. For example, if you are grading a final draft, you might decide to mark up one page for grammar and leave end comments with three major items that needed revision. Making these decisions ahead of time will keep you from getting in the weeds and spending too long on a paper that needs a lot of work.
- Give general feedback to the whole class. If you identify common errors during skimming or commenting, consider collecting them in a Word document. For example, if many students have sentence fragments in their writing, consider writing the word “fragment” on a student’s paper but then sharing a Word document with the whole class, which explains what a fragment is and offers an example.
- You can also talk to students beforehand about common errors and provide them with a list of those errors with accompanying codes. For example, a run-on can be “RU,” and you can use only that shorthand when commenting on a student’s work. Alternatively, you create a numbered list of common errors and write the number on a student’s paper, near the line where the error occurs. (See our Resources page for an example).
- Be selective about sentence-level errors. While proper grammar is important, it is arguably not as important as a student’s ability to construct a coherent argument, for example. Resist the urge to correct every error. See “Some thoughts on error correction” in the following section for more details about how to correct grammatical errors.
- Create a digital file with stock comments. If you find yourself making similar comments on papers (and you grade electronically), consider creating a list of common comments that you can copy & paste into each student’s paper. Be sure that the comments are phrased in a general way so they will apply to any student’s paper. Because I don’t like to write vague comments, I often highlight a spot in a comment that I tailor to each student’s paper. Example:
- Remember to also link your analysis of strengths and weaknesses to the audience. For example, would this particular audience be more or less persuaded by these strategies? ßHere, I might fill in the highlighted space with a phrase specific to the student’s paper, such as “your audience of young sports enthusiasts.”
- You can create macros in Word or use Turnitin’s comment function, or you can just copy and paste common comments from one Word document to the student’s paper. In the workshop, we will learn a bit about these strategies.
While I’ve never tried it myself, composition studies scholar Doug Hesse (n.d.) has suggested giving students “vouchers” in classes with multiple writing assignments. These vouchers are good for one detailed round of feedback per semester, during which the instructor commits to reading the paper as he or she would read a manuscript submitted to a journal. This is another potential approach for managing feedback expectations and ultimately your time.