Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

How can I effectively and efficiently respond to student writing?

Even for faculty who do not consider themselves well prepared for this task or who do not have much time to spend on it, there are several options for responding to student writing. Three of these are discussed below: commenting on student work, creating rubrics, and using peer review. In addition, it is important to note that designing effective assignments in the first place – ones that state clear goals and explicit grading criteria – is a key component of effectively responding to students’ writing.

Commenting on student work

One thing many faculty do not realize is that there are many approaches to commenting on student writing, and they differ in terms of the effect they have on students and the time they take faculty. In the ideal case, commenting on students’ writing offers constructive feedback to students without being burdensome to faculty. Research on commenting (adapted from Walvoord, B.F. & Smith, H.L., (1982). “Coaching the Process of Writing,” in Teaching Writing in all Disciplines, ed. C. Williams Griffin (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass); and Palmquist, M. & Young, R. (1992). “The Notion of Giftedness and Student Expectations About Writing”, Written Communication, Vol. 9, p. 137-168) indicates that:

Novice teachers of writing

  • Read to find fault.
  • Frequently stop reading, even in mid-sentence.
  • Comment at all levels.
  • Give attention to surface details.
  • Make suggestions for stylistic revisions.

Experienced teachers of writing

  • Read to understand.
  • Read in large units of text.
  • Comment on major strengths and weaknesses.
  • Give attention to meaning and organization.
  • Make suggestions for major reorganizations and expansions.

There are several points to keep in mind when responding to students’ writing.

Making comments is a skill that improves with practice.

So, what may seem difficult and time-consuming at first can and should become easier and faster over time.

Feedback is intended to help our students improve their own writing.

So, even if it is tempting to do so, it is usually a bad idea in the long run to correct students’ papers for  syntax and grammar errors: (1) It takes more of our time, and (2) it takes away a practice/revision opportunity from students. If a paper contains many syntactic and grammatical errors, one option is simply to return the paper to the student, so he or she can revise. Another option is to circle the errors without making corrections. A third option is to give grammatical help on a sample paragraph rather than on the entire paper.

Not all assignments require the same level of detail in grading and feedback.

For instance, low-stakes writing typically warrants minimal commenting. For example, an overall comment about a specific issue that jumped out at you suffices, e.g., “your thoughts are unorganized, so I had difficulty seeing your argument” or “your prose clearly and concisely articulated your position/perspective.” Or, you might make it clear to students in advance that on Assignment X they will only receive feedback on the strength of their argument and evidence but not on any other aspect of their writing. This helps students focus on one aspect of their writing at a time.

Detailed feedback throughout the document may actually diminish the student’s ability
to use the feedback effectively.

Students can be easily overwhelmed by too many comments. Moreover, they may not be able to distinguish high-priority comments (where we feel a change is definitely warranted) from lower-priority comments, and hence they spend their revision time on the quick, detail-level fixes without addressing more important structural problems. So, instead of making extensive margin comments, focus on “end comments” that address one or two substantive issues in the piece of writing. Note that focusing on one or two issues does not mean that we have to accept poor grammar, sentence structure, etc.; by simply pointing these out to students and giving them the responsibility for finding and correcting problems, they are encouraged to do more self-assessment while writing. If students need help with mechanics, direct them to Academic Development (for all students) and/or to the ICC’s Writing Clinic (specifically for non-native English speakers).

Comments we make on earlier drafts of papers are more likely to be read and used in revision, whereas comments on a final draft are most useful if they connect to a future writing assignment, e.g., “In your next paper, you’ll need to state more clearly how the minor points support your major claim”.

Creating Rubrics

When creating a larger or more formal assignment, it is often worthwhile to create a performance rubric (or scoring tool) that specifies the performance expectations you have for a piece of work. A rubric identifies components of the assigned work (e.g., organizational structure of the paper, logic of the argument, grammar and syntax of the writing) and for each component provides clear descriptions of various levels of mastery exhibited in the work (e.g., features of a well organized vs. poorly organized paper). The rubric can then be used as a way of communicating to students what level of performance their work has shown for each of the components you are evaluating. In addition, the rubric can be shared with students in advance (e.g., when the assignment is distributed), so students have an even better sense of the goals and grading criteria and hence can better self-assess their work and revise accordingly. See more on rubrics and samples of rubrics developed for various writing assignments.

Using Peer Review

Peer review is a process in which students read and comment on each others’ work as a way to improve their own and their peers’ writing. Reading classmates’ work can help students become better at diagnosing their own writing problems. However, conducting effective peer reviews requires careful planning on the part of the instructor because, if done poorly, it can cause more harm than good. For a full explanation of peer review with advice on incorporating it and sample materials, see the University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center.