Less Happy New Year? Responding to Student Writing

Carolyn provided the inspiration.  I’m providing the reality check.

A lot of your work this semester is going to be a waste of your time–especially when you’re responding to student writing.

  • Some students will not read your comments, or read all of them.
  • Some students will not understand your comments, or understand all of them.
  • Some students will read and understand your comments and still blow them off.  Revision is not for the lazy or faint of heart.

BUT, and this is a big “but” (almost as big as my guinea pig’s butt), some of your feedback will matter enormously to some students.  Think of conception.  Think of war.  You have to fire off a lot of … whatever to hit a few targets.

First, some sobering thoughts.  A lot of common practices–yes, even the ones we’ve belabored in WI workshops–fizzle.  Give some students a rubric and they will rise to expectations.  Give others the same rubric and they will write to the grid.  As education critic Alfie Kohn notes in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” “just as standardizing assessment for teachers may compromise the quality of teaching, so standardizing assessment for learners may compromise the learning.”

One size of feedback does not fit all student writers, agrees Texas A&M emeritus professor Richard Haswell. In “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess,” an exhaustive survey of literature about commenting on student writing, Haswell searches for an answer to the efficiency question:  can a rubric or checksheet achieve the same (or better) effect as time-consuming paragraphs of prose?

Haswell has a vested interest in the topic since he long championed his own “minimal marking” strategy. (In a nutshell, put an X by a line with a mistake and challenge the student to figure out what’s wrong and how to improve it.) Yet over time he found students correcting mistakes badly and even correcting nonmistakes, leaving the text in worse shape.

Is anyone doing any better?

Haswell has fun characterizing “responding types,” among them

  • the sharp-eyed editor, who catches every little grammar mistake,
  • the supportive parent, who pats arms during repeated hallway chats,
  • the real reader, who reads aloud and gives an off-the-cuff response,
  • the involved co-creator, who writes half the paper through e-mail back and forth, and
  • the judicious lawgiver, who cites precedents for grades.

No one type emerges a clear winner, however.  Students want lots of feedback, but they often misinterpret it.  Professor labor, like professor warmth, does not directly translate into student learning.

Yet Haswell finds wisdom in the “smaller task-specific, problem-specific, and learner-specific method” of “craft wise responders.”  Instead of enumerating all the faults in a piece of writing, they “hone in on the main problem” and suggest improvements within the student’s reach.  Less–but not too little–is more.  While easy to consume, such feedback is hard to produce, but the time it demands is more conceptual than mechanical.

In the end, Hasswell remarks, instructors have to go with what works for them.  But they should keep checking in with their students, he says, asking for response to their responses.


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