Responding to Student Papers

Writing Across the Curriculum

Two objections to implementing writing in content area courses are particularly frequent. First, responding to papers is always work, sometimes unrewarding work. Moreover, instructors not trained as teachers of writing often feel hesitant to comment on student writing because they feel they are outside their area of expertise. Neither of these problems will go away, but the burden of grading can be reduced. More importantly, judicious minimal marking can help students learn the course material and improve their writing at the same time.

A number of strategies can reduce the amount of time required for marking papers. For example, assigning several short sequenced essays should reduce the overall time involved because later papers will build on what has gone before. In addition, sustaining the writing over a longer time gives the student more opportunities for improving. Suggestions for short assignments appear in the previous section of this booklet, and the resources listed at the end contain more.

Sometimes the amount of time required to mark a paper could be spent more beneficially in a conference with a student. That may not be practical with large groups of students, but preparing a short list of concerns and putting the student(s) in touch with the Writing Center would provide a chance for more sustained feedback. (See Appendix A for more information about the Writing Center and its services.)

Grading Rubrics

Using a grading rubric can reduce the amount of time spent commenting on the papers themselves. Rubrics also highlight the objective criteria used in evaluating papers and may be used to advantage with drafts and completed papers alike. Categories vary according to the assignment, but the following are fairly common:

  • content (depth of coverage, thoroughness of development, quality of argument)
  • organization and coherence
  • readability
  • mechanical and grammatical correctness

Normally, the first category will be weighted more heavily than the others. Rubrics are often presented in the form of a table, something like this:

  Exceptional Strong Average Weak

A rubric should be used in conjunction with a summary comment addressing specific features of the individual paper. An explanatory sheet describing the qualities of each characteristic might also be supplied with a table.

Instead of using a generalized rubric, you can tailor one to the a specific assignment. Rick Wantz (Human Services) designed the one shown on the facing page for his courses on behavioral assessment. It identifies such assignment-specific requirements as a minimum number of sources and adherence to APA guidelines.

Rubric design is a frequent WAC workshop topic, and additional information about developing rubrics is available in the WAC office.

Download Written Assignment Grading Criteria (PDF)

Minimal Marking

You don’t have to mark every mechanical error in a paper in order to give good feedback. Attempting to do so is often counterproductive, in fact. Research indicates that studying the mechanical aspects of writing in isolation has little long-term impact on writers, whereas things learned in context are likelier to be retained and applied. Thus, you can best help students by responding primarily to subject matter and putting comments about their writing in that context. Asking writers to clarify ideas requires them to address writing.

Limiting marks to the most important concerns can also foster independent learning. The thorough marking of a representative passage or two can provide a useful model for other revisions; submerging a paper in a sea of red ink is likelier to result in the correction of surface error than real revision. Extensive marking of mechanical problems also may obscure much more important comments about content. In a draft, there is no reason to spend much time identifying individual surface errors if the writer is going to be making extensive changes to the text.

Some WAC specialists suggest avoiding grammatical terminology and relying instead on simple language and pointed questions to guide revision: “How does this evidence support your argument?” “Where do Brown’s findings fit in?” “No need to quote so much. Summarize instead.” “Better—your evidence is stronger here.”

To draw attention to mechanical errors that do not impede understanding, point out that errors distract a reader from the writer’s message. It is often effective to describe errors in terms of what is or is not acceptable in professional writing in the field. A reminder that career advancement is often linked to writing abilities may also have an impact on our highly pragmatic students.

Identifying things that interfere with reading does not require an extensive vocabulary of arcane terms. In “A Quick Guide to Lite Marking,” Ray Smith, Director of the Campus Writing Program, Indiana University, recommends using only a few symbols, abbreviations, and words in the margins:

  1. circles locating errors confined to one or two words
  2. wavy underlines noting larger errors
  3. checks praising good word choices
  4. straight underlines highlighting well-put phrases or sentences
  5. arrows and question marks pointing out puzzling connections of words
  1. AGR (agreement)
  2. FRAG (fragment)
  3. MM (misplaced modifier)
  4. CS (comma splice)
  5. REF (reference)
  6. PRED (illogical predication)
  7. //STR (parallel structure)
  8. Wordy
  9. Choppy
  10. Unclear
  11. Awkward
  12. Good

Even Ray’s short list may be more than is needed. The five symbols and items 8-12 in the second list are probably sufficient for most situations. It’s crucial that students know how to interpret the marks you make on their papers. If you use abbreviations, provide a key and some illustrations. Good ones appear in Ray’s article

What Students Want You to Know about Marking Papers

Working as a writing specialist in the Claude J. Clark Learning Center, SUNY College at Plattsburgh, Mary Dossin heard many comments about the way professors mark papers. She summarized her findings in an article printed in the October 1992 Composition Chronicle. She was surprised by students’ reaction to one teacher who was well known for his demanding grading. Because they understood most of his marks and comments on their papers, they were more likely to tell her how much they learned from him than to complain. They were likelier to respond negatively when they did not understand what their instructors had written. Here, briefly, are Dossin’s conclusions:

  • What students appreciate most is the opportunity to rewrite their papers after they have been marked or discussed.
  • Students respond well when instructors’ comments show that they have made a real effort to understand the student’s point and message.
  • Students are irritated by indecipherable handwriting and obscure jargon or abbreviations.
  • Students respond well when standards are clear.
  • Students are most frustrated by papers that are returned with only a grade.
  • Students complain most about professors who make only negative comments on their papers and don’t tell them what they have done well. They also need to be told what they have done well so that they can continue doing it.
  • Students resent what they perceive as condescension and sarcasm.
  • Finally, students like to receive their papers back as quickly as possible, certainly before the next writing assignment is due.