A Clear Way Out:
The Responsibility of Responding to Student Papers
“Writing comments on papers and exams,” Peter Elbow argues, “is a major portion of the academic writing of most academics, yet it’s not the writing we really care about” (8). Why is such little attention paid to this critical activity? Perhaps part of the blame lies with the disparaging reports from the late 1970s and early ’80s that branded such time-consuming endeavors as futile and of little help. Understandably, such depictions may have discouraged many teachers from focusing on this aspect of teaching, but recent research suggests that these accounts may have been exaggerated. Indeed, current scholarship “indicates that most writing students read and make use of teachers’ written comments on their drafts” (Straub, “Students’” 91). Teachers’ marginal comments and responses to student papers play a vital, yet often overlooked, role in developing student writing. Although such a shift in belief about the role of teacher’s comments should be accompanied by a return of focus and effort in this area, that has not necessarily been the case. Regretfully, along with highlighting the influence of written feedback, current research has also shown a discouraging trend in this area of teaching, where too often teacher’s annotations and comments confuse rather than clarify, overwhelm rather than encourage revision.
In the winter of 2004-05, in order to uncover findings more close to home, Beth Hedengren directed a small research experiment to assess teacher evaluations here at BYU. I was able to participate in this experiment, analyzing and codifying the results. In this experiment, twenty-seven teacher assistants were asked to respond to two student papers in their discipline. The papers were created to present common errors in student writing. After ensuring anonymity to the responder, each teacher assistant’s commentary and annotations were collected and coded according to their mode and topic of response. The results, though naturally not conclusive, were engaging in their echo of conclusions drawn from larger research (Hedengren 7-8). For less experienced teachers who strive to teach writing within this university particularly, the data acts as a useful mirror. I will draw from our data throughout this paper in order to better illustrate the shortcomings of and suggest changes pertinent to the ways we respond to writing.
The marginal communication that occurs between teachers and students provides a one-on-one opportunity to work on writing, a potentially powerful opportunity many are not using. When a teacher’s comments are unclear or point out problems with no guide toward solutions, students feel overwhelmed and frustrated, and they will often shut down. In order to be effective, comments need to be developed and need to guide the student toward revision. Through an increase in constructive praise, prompting questions, and specific advice, teachers’ responses to student writing can better clarify concerns while empowering their students in the revision process.
Of all the modes of commenting, praise is the aspect that teachers seem to use most stingily. After all, it could be argued, while teachers should try to be kind in their responses, the real value of such critiques lies in pointing out problems, not strengths. You don’t go to the doctor to hear about your good health. But such thinking reflects a general ignorance about the value of praise in creating environments where writers actually learn and have a desire to improve. Part of the reticence teachers feel about praising students can be linked to a misunderstanding of how to use praise constructively. To be most helpful, praise must be specific and linked to advice for revision techniques.
Out of sixteen pages of responses, our research found only seven instances where a teacher praised the student’s writing, a mere 2.67% of all comments made (Hedengren 8). Of this tiny number, most comments were vague and did little to either teach the students what their strengths as a writer were or to aid them in plans for revision. Unfortunately, these types of responses seem too often to be the only ones many teachers associate with the role of praise in response. Such vague commendations contribute to some students’ (and teachers’) struggles to see praise as very useful commentary. But as Burkland and Grimm and Straub and others note from their studies on the topic, such ambivalence does not mean students do not like or need praise, but that the praise needs to be more specific in order to be most helpful (Straub, “Students’” 95). Examples from our research illustrate this common shortcoming: “You have some good ideas,” “Good organization overall,” and, of course, “Good job” (Hedengren Study). While such comments are not bad, they certainly still fail to capitalize on the power of specific praise linked to a trail for revision.
Peter Elbow illustrates this point nicely when he explains that teachers are “most likely to cause learning and least likely to do harm if our [the teacher’s] response is, in effect, ‘please do more of this thing you are already doing here’” (10). This kind of praise is pertinent to the author’s future attempts to revise. It is empowering to the student because it specifically and clearly identifies strengths while leaving a way out for improvement that is visible in the student’s mind. In contrast to such praise linked to revision advice, most teachers fall back on the common negative evaluation linked to a suggestion for revision. For example: “This paragraph is off topic, match it to your thesis.” It is here, however, Elbow believes we are “least likely to cause learning and most likely to do harm,” sending the student the overwhelming message of “Start doing something you’ve never done before” (10). If the student can’t see a way out of their hard spots, they will become frustrated and lose desire to improve their writing. This is especially sad because often the tools needed to improve student mistakes are often encoded in their own strengths. After pointing out problem spots, if the teacher could direct the student to parallel places where they were successful and simply say, “Do more of this,” the student would see both his or her mistakes and strengths more clearly and move with more confidence into the revising process.
In our research, one responder stood out in her effective use of praise coupled with advice. Though related, the paper’s strengths and weak spots were covering two different issues. Even when the student’s strengths and weaknesses do not mirror each other, however, praise can still prove an effective tool in scooting the student towards learning and revising. At the end of the page, our responder writes: “Your paper is well- researched with excellently documented sources. You may, however, want to expand upon the influence Paracelsus had on modern science. Your thesis is good, and you do explain the qualities he had, showing that you have researched, but it would be nice to see more examples of areas of science influenced by his qualities” (Hedengren Study).
This response is successful because of its specificity. The teacher here is careful to flesh out her praise, explaining that the paper succeeds in showing the student has researched the qualities Paracelsus had; however, the teacher also couples this praise with specific suggestions on how to revise. Note that she does not simply say, “It would be nice to see more examples,” but rather adds the focused advice, “It would be nice to see more examples of areas of science influenced by his qualities.” This second response is superior because it leaves the student with a clear idea of how he or she can revise. Moreover, the advice is linked to the preceding praise, demonstrating to the student that he or she has already set the foundation for improvements. In this case the student has already succeeded in researching and developing Paracelsus’s qualities. Such a response leaves students feeling like their task is to build on what they have already done, and they can remodel rather than start from scratch.
Not all questions are created equal when it comes to aiding students. Like praise, the questions we ask must help the students understand clearly what we mean while leading them in a direction for revision. While our study showed that questions were a highly used mode of response (17.59%), it also concurred with other studies, finding that sloppy and vague questions are hardly helpful (Hedengren 8). One of the easiest ways to fail is to ask underdeveloped questions. Ronald Lunsford cites a few common examples, where cryptic comments such as “Do we? All people? Tone?” are juxtaposed with developed questions such as “What’s your main point here? If it’s that you disagree, put that idea up front and explain” (92).
In our research, developed questions proved successful in their ability to both communicate clearly what the reader was thinking about the text and open the door to the task of revision. One teacher commented, “Narrow and redefine thesis. Exactly which events and people and places do you want to discuss?” A few lines down the teacher echoes this structure again: “In what ways? How was he a good teacher?” (Hedengren Study). In both of these cases, the couplet is key in making each statement cohesive and clear to the student. In the first comment, for example, if the teacher had stopped his or her comment, as is too often the case, after the imperative “narrow and redefine thesis,” the student would only have had a vague idea of 1) why the teacher thought that correction was necessary and 2) exactly how he or she should go about such revision.
In their 1987 study of student responses to teacher comments, Land and Evans found that “one message was strong—students wanted reasons” (qtd. in Straub, “Students’” 94). Yet teachers must balance their expression of why they think some aspect of the paper is faulty with sensitivity to the level of authority a comment asserts. In his study of student reactions, Richard Straub highlights students’ awareness and response to the power roles and attitudes of authority reflected in the framing of teacher comments, concluding, “The way a comment was presented made a difference” (Straub, “Students’” 111-12). Specific questions are one mode of commentary that can keep both of these needs in balance.
Questions are a teacher’s greatest tool in giving direction to students without taking ownership of the needed corrections. Ronald Lunsford employs the metaphor of not taking “the steering wheel out of the students’ hands” (96). It seems safe to assume good questions are not backseat drivers either. In fact, good questions nudge the student in the prescribed direction, directing but never limiting the answers they may find there. Often, the student already has the answers, but hasn’t succeeded in communicating them. In this situation, questions let the student know, in a non-threatening manner, not only that they have left their reader hanging, but also the important information of from where the trouble came.
One teacher from our study illustrates this principle: “You explain some of his relationships—but how exactly did those relationships/influences help lead to his discoveries?” (Hedengren Study). How much more helpful is this question than a more common scribbling of “so what?” or “can you expand?” Especially following a sea of negative evaluations, a specific question that highlights which direction to think in order to overcome a shortcoming acts much like a lifeline thrown to one treading water.
European exit signs differ from America’s in a fun way. Ditching the block letters for an image, their exits depict a man running through a door with the slightly altered wording “Way Out.” Good advice is like this. Quite literally, it provides a way out for students trying to picture an exit from their paper’s failures. If suggestions and specific words of advice seem so helpful to students in their development as writers, why are teachers hesitant to use this tool? Second to praise, this mode of commenting was the most underused technique in the samples we collected (5.35 %) (Hedengren 8). Is it that we are too afraid of “giving the answers away?” Are we afraid that by suggesting what the student should focus on specifically, we are doing the work for them and robbing them of discovering it on their own? Peter Elbow counters such fears with the delightful commendation that teachers “write suggestions for revising rather than just an autopsy” (Elbow11). Identical to the principles of constructive praise and developed questions, advice too must strike the balance between being specific in its guidance yet open in its scope.
Advice, like developed questions, is best when it fully explains what prompted it. One responder in our research illustrated this simply with this marginal comment: “Consider rewriting this phrase [advice] . . . it makes strong generalizations [why the advice was prompted]” (Hedengren Study). The same teacher ended his response with a piece of very specific advice following a negative evaluation: “Is this claim founded? There is little support for that in your essay. You could try putting it at the beginning and using it as part of your thesis” (Hedengren Study). That last piece of advice changes the feeling of the entire critique. Leave it off and the message the student receives is “that sentence is bad.” With the advice, the student recognizes the idea is good and could even be used as a guide to revise the entire paper.
While too often teachers fear taking control of a student’s paper by being too specific, thus leading to such poor suggestions as “reword” or “needs revision,” it is the specificity of the advice that gives it power to help the student. While it is good to be open-ended and leave ownership with the writer, the mode of accomplishing this is not to make suggestions vague. Rather, advice should be clear, specific, and still leave room for the student to fill it with their own flare. One such example from our research is the open-ended advice, “Expand on voyage on the beagle as if we hadn’t had exposure to what that was” (Hedengren Study). This advice could go even further, perhaps suggesting a few ways the writer could do that expansion.
Improving the Chances of a Good Response
The margins and end spaces of student papers provide a powerful venue for individualized communication and “ah-hah” moments of learning, yet too often it becomes space shrouded in misfire and miscommunication. As the importance of teacher responses become better understood, the shortcomings in this area become more frustrating, and we may find ourselves asking, “What is a good response?”
A good response helps the student understand and respond (Hodges 78). Specifically, teacher comments need to help the student understand the “what” and “why” about both their weaknesses and strengths. They should underscore the rhetorical situation of the text; they should reflect a reading. Importantly, the comments should aid the student with revision, helping them to see their writing as a process, and not necessarily a painful one. Such a process-oriented goal seems to point to a tangent tenet: teacher comments are most helpful if they are on drafts or on papers that will have the chance to be revised (Lindemann 239). There are many different techniques that work for this, but one that seems particularly well suited is a portfolio system. In my own class, I grade my students’ papers at due dates during the semester, but I comment on those “final drafts” in a manner that focuses on their chance to revise 1.) for a better grade on that assignment and 2.) as the portfolio aspect of the final. Through this method, I encourage my students to give their best efforts on their papers throughout the semester while still emphasizing the revision process and extending our dialogue through my comments and their reflection letters. Such a system works especially well for a student- teacher who may not have the time they would like to devote to numerous readings of earlier drafts.
Lastly, any discussion aimed at improving teacher response should also note the impact of the classroom on the successful reception of their written feedback. In their study of student responses to teacher comments, Peggy O’Neill and Jane Mathison Fife urge teachers to “look beyond teacher written comments, broadening the focus to include other important contributions to the response context, such as classroom communications” and one-on-one interactions (40). Richard Straub echoes this advice in his book, The Practice of Response, where he highlights the importance of using the same vocabulary in both classroom and written dialogue (247-48). Such counsel seems especially important to effective written response when viewed in light of O’Neill and Fife’s conclusions of the three key ways students interpret written teacher comments:
1) Comments are read in the context of previous teachers’ comments.
2) Comments are read through the student’s perception of the teacher’s ethos.
3) Comments are interpreted as just one facet of a broader framework for response that the teacher sets up in the class. (43)
Of these top three contexts that affect a student perception of teacher written comments, we are in control of the last two. Such evidence suggests that any teacher desiring to improve the effectiveness of their written feedback should also attend to the context in which they write their responses (O’Neill and Fife 48). While somewhat overwhelming, this data only furthers current scholarship’s conclusions that effective teacher response is a skill where improvement is possible, one that has potentially powerful results.
Far from being “an exercise in futility” (qtd. in Straub, “Students’” 91), more effective teacher comments on student papers is a responsibility and opportunity we should all embrace. Specifically crafted and directive, focused feedback can emphasize the rhetorical situation of writing and serve as a powerful aid in revision. Through more and better use of the tools of praise, questions, and advice, we can help transform the margins of our student’s papers into places of learning without doing harm (Elbow 10).
Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69 (1997): 5-13.
Hedengren, Beth. “Commenting Practices of Teaching Assistants Across the Curriculum.” Unpublished essay, 2005.
Hedengren Study. Brigham Young University, 2003-04.
Hodges, Elizabeth. “Negotiating the Margins: Some Principles for Responding to Our Students’ Writing, Some Strategies for Helping Students Read Our Comments.” New Directions For Teaching and Learning 69 (1997): 77-89.
Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
Lunsford, Ronald F. “When Less is More: Principles for Responding in the Disciplines.” New Directions For Teaching and Learning 67 (1997): 91-104.
O’Neill, Peggy and Jane Mathison Fife. “Listening to Students: Contextualizing Response to Student Writing.” Composition Studies 27 (1999): 39-51.
Straub, Richard. The Practice of Response: Strategies for Commenting on Student Writing. Cresskill, NJ.: Hampton Press, 2000.
—. “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 31 (1997): 91-120.
 As of yet, Ms. Hedengren’s study has not been published, although it has been presented at numerous conferences. Data cited that does not appear specifically in her presentation notes will be referenced as “Hedengren Study.” All data cited is in the possession of both the author and Ms. Hedengren and is available upon request.