Providing Feedback on Written Work

There are many ways to respond to students' written work, and no one method is best for every assignment, every student, or every instructor.

There are two extremes: completely covering a student’s completed assignment with comments, and placing only a few scattered notations on it. Both are equally frustrating to most students, no matter what grade they receive. Students want to know what you thought of their main points. In addition, students receiving A's and B's know that their work is not perfect and will appreciate constructive criticism; students who receive C's or below need to be told how to improve their work.

Responding to papers

  • Limit your comments.  Students benefit most from a mix of marginal notations and a longer comment at the end of the assignment. Resist the temptation to mark each instance of a repeated error. In general, over-marking frustrates students and hinders them from focusing on the two or three areas most in need of improvement.
  • Avoid extensive rewriting. You might want to heavily mark, edit, or rewrite one troublesome paragraph as an example for a student, but rewriting has several drawbacks. First, the student is liable to say something like, “Of course your version's better than mine! You're the professor.” Second, the student may feel that you simply have not understood the paper. Third, the student may not be able to deduce from your revision the reasons why you made the particular changes you did.
  • Explain the grade. Your comments at the end of the paper should include an explanation of why you gave the paper a particular grade. The following, for example, are possible comments on a B paper:While the sections in which you discuss X and Y are well reasoned, your discussion of Z is rather hasty. The underdeveloped argument in that section, more than anything else, keeps this from being an A paper. It is unwise, however, to mention that had Z been improved, the paper certainly would have received an A, since a revised version of the paper might present other weaknesses.
  • Comment on the general quality of the writing. In your final comments make some reference to grammar, usage, and style. To reinforce good habits and point out weak ones, you could write: The variety in sentence length and structure makes for lively reading, but your over-reliance on the passive voice produces some wordy and confusing patches. This will also reduce the temptation to revise every grammar/spelling/stylistic error.
  • Marking symbols. Some instructors mark grammar mistakes with symbols (for example, FRAG for a sentence fragment). They feel that their students can then refer to a master list of symbols and learn to correct their mistakes. Other instructors believe that marking symbols intimidate or mystify those students whose language skills are the weakest. These instructors prefer to write in a revision or a brief explanation of the error. Unless you have strong preferences, some combination of marking symbols and writing revisions is probably best. Use symbols for certain errors such as subject-verb agreement, and show the student how to rewrite more troublesome mistakes (such as misplaced modifiers or faulty parallel structure). Be sure to provide the students with a list of the symbols, along with their meanings, and strive to use the same set of symbols for all writing assignments in the course.

Reprinted from “Encouraging Student Writing,” Office of Educational Development, University of California at Berkeley.


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