Responding to/Evaluating Assignments
Donald Murray wrote, “Not correcting papers may be the hardest thing for a writing teacher to do. The errors are there and so is the virtuous feeling of a job well done as the mistakes are speared on the page [. . . ] The English teacher may have as much trouble not correcting papers as a drunk not taking a drink. It’s so easy to slash through a student’s paper, so fulfilling, so much fun. It does fine things for the teacher, but little for the student.”
Students learn to write by writing, getting knowledgeable feedback, and writing again. Correcting and line-editing students’ papers is like picking up teenagers’ dirty laundry off the floor and making their beds for them. All they learn is that if they wait long enough someone else will come along and tidy up their rooms – or their writing – for them. Composition teachers are experienced and knowledgeable readers; they can give specific, focused feedback that will enable students to revise, using their own intellects and imaginations, and improve their control of their own writing.
Cynthia Lewis, in “The Rhetoric of Responding to Student Writing,” reminds us that we need to consider audience and purpose in our comments just as students are told to do in their writing; we should employ the same level of specificity in our responses that we expect from our students in their writing. Here are some suggestions, based on research by Sommers, Brannon, and others, about responding to students’ drafts and papers:
- Be constructive and aim toward revision. Writing is a process, and most student texts we see are still in process.
- Be honest. If something is bad, say so in a way sensitive to the needs of the individual writer and useful to the text’s revision.
- Be generous. If something is good, say so. Student writers need praise as well as criticism.
- Be firm. Set high standards and help students reach them.
- Be selective and consistent. Whatever criteria you have stressed in a particular assignment, stress also in your comments. Try not to overwhelm the student with too many issues, and do not penalize writers for not doing what you did not ask them to do in the assignment. Creating an assignment-specific rubric with your class may help improve the focus of the student work.
- Beware of confusing cryptic codes. Shorthand scribbles like “awk” or “frag” do not tell the writers why the writing does not work, nor do proofreader’s symbols or citing page numbers of handbook rules.
- Avoid using only lengthy end-notes. Your response needs to come in the text where you, as a knowledgeable reader, stumbled over the problem. General comments at the end, unless intended to encourage or to summarize a general tendency or pattern in the writing, often lack the specificity needed to direct the writer in revision.
- Engage in dialogue. Though brief, your comments and questions can be thought of as messages to the student, who will respond to them in the next draft, thus putting the responsibility for changes in the writing back on the writer where it belongs. Ask questions (“Do you think…?”) and offer affirmation (“I know how you feel…”) as part of this dialogue.
- Return papers promptly. Because students will want to incorporate your suggestions in subsequent drafts and assignments, you should attempt to return papers as soon as possible, ideally within a week of receiving them.
Every assignment need not be graded. Feedback can take many forms, including self-review (referring to a rubric or set of guidelines provided by the instructor) peer review (partners or small groups/large groups review one or several drafts and respond, guided by a rubric or set of guidelines) and conferences (individual or small group meetings to address holistic or specific writing issues.)
Many composition instructors find that a rubric enables them to tailor their feedback and their grading to particular rhetorical elements. Within a course, rubrics may vary considerably from one assignment to the next. While rubrics emphasize the requirements of each assignment, some items may remain as constants for the course. Some teachers choose to develop an overall class rubric based on general principles and goals of the department -- note that department grading standards are available on a link to the right -- as well as one for each assignment, perhaps in collaboration with their students. Some rubrics, particularly for the goals specified in SLO #3 and for the Annotated Bibliography assignment, have been developed by veteran writing teachers in our department and are available for adaptation in every class. Having these criteria enhances the continuity of instructor response across the department.
With practice and guidance, peer reviewing can be one of the most beneficial aspects of the course because it gives students a truer sense of what is meant by audience. They realize they are not writing for one person - an instructor - but for a broader audience. They receive reactions to what they’ve written from several individuals rather than one. Reading other students papers also gives them fresh ideas about improving their own. While initially they may feel shy about sharing their writing, once they receive helpful criticism that results in a stronger paper, their attitudes change. They learn to look forward to working with their peers for support and constructive advice. They learn to read closely and work hard to help each other, as writers, fully articulate ideas. Their objective is always the same: to show the author how to improve the working draft.
Different instructors will use peer response groups differently, but in every case, training must be done before the task is undertaken. In teaching writing, we are also teaching close reading, and nowhere is that more apparent than during peer response sessions. Many students feel uncomfortable about peer response, some because they are afraid their comments will be taken personally, but most because they are not certain what they are supposed to write. They doubt their ability to help. When the instructor provides a limited number of specific guidelines, tailored to each assignment, and rehearses with the class ahead of time on an essay saved, perhaps, from an earlier class, students can see what is expected of them and lose some of their apprehension.
Some instructors employ the “portfolio” approach - evaluating a collection of work done by their students over the course of the semester rather than providing individual grades on each assignment. While teachers using the portfolio system provide ample written feedback on each individual writing assignment draft submitted, they do not label it with a final grade during the course of the semester. The advantages of portfolio grading are several: students have an opportunity to become more astute about their own writing strengths because they have a choice over which pieces will be evaluated for a grade. Students can write in a wide range of writing disciplines, and they often create diverse imaginative, interdisciplinary portfolios that are creative and fun to read. Students can take more responsibility, ownership, and pride in their writing. They see revision as an opportunity, rather than “more work,” thus reflecting the attitude of most professional writers, one that many new writers do not know exists. The instructor who asks students to compile a portfolio sees the outcome of an entire semester’s work and is able to judge the students’ progress as demonstrated by a collection that showcases their growth and versatility.
Students can be very confused by this system if they have never experienced it, however, and by the lack of grades on papers returned. This absence of a grade can produce anxiety in some students who want to know how they are doing, grade-wise, at all times. These students may frequently request feedback, not on the writing, but on their grade to date. Instructors who choose to use portfolio grading should be aware that they will need to calm the apprehension of students used to the familiarity of regular grading.
Time should be scheduled for at least one set of individual and/or small group conferences to discuss writing. Many teachers meet with their students two or more times during the term. It is appropriate to cancel class for a week to free time for these conferences. It is generally advisable to confer at least once before the deadline for withdrawals.