What’s in a Grade: A New Approach to Student “Re-vision” and Independence

What’s in a Grade:

A New Approach to Student “Re-vision” and Independence

Mallory Dickson

As a student, my teachers followed the usual practice of handing back a paper at the end of class. Immediately after the papers were returned we would flip through our final drafts frantically, ignoring any marginal comments or the end comment because we only had eyes for the final grade. These kinds of students populate every classroom, and this leaves us as teachers at a loss as to “what students actually do with our comments, or why they find some useful and others not” (Sommers x). As I was planning how to hand back grades to my students, I was worried that they would do the same thing most students usually did: race to the grade, and only then maybe skim through the comments of the paper. If I received a high grade on a paper I didn’t usually consider revising it. I hadn’t yet learned that the revision process consists of “a sequence of changes in a composition—changes which are initiated by cues and occur continually throughout the writing of a work” (“Revision” Sommers 380). Because revision is something I value so highly and want my students to value as well, I knew I needed to approach handing back grades differently to how I had received them from teachers in the past. This paper will explore the evolving process I took with my class on how to handle revision, where I attempted to empower students to be self-driven and independently revise.

Student revision has a long and troubled history: although teachers stress the importance of revising, students often believe that there is nothing wrong with their papers, or that revision is simply changing certain words or sentences. Revision often doesn’t happen because students “don’t really think there is anything wrong with it…this is at heart an assessment problem” (White 212). They haven’t learned that revision is literally “re-seeing” a paper and changing the paper globally: moving entire paragraphs, adding new ideas, changing the thesis statement, or even completely rewriting parts of the paper. However, “because students do not see revision as an activity in which they modify and develop perspectives and ideas, they feel that if they know what they want to say, then there is little reason for making revisions” (“Revision” Sommers 382). Many students believe that “‘a good writer either shouldn’t make major “mistakes” or should be able to see them themselves and know how to fix them’” (Dean 148). Other students may “identify failures or shortcomings in their approach, [but] there is no guarantee that they will adjust or try more effective alternatives” (Ambrose 199). This is where we play an important role as teachers. Because our students are still learning to “re-see” their papers, it is our responsibility to open our students’ eyes to global areas of their papers that need reworked or “re-seen.” It is our comments on student drafts that “create a motive for revising: Without comments from teachers or peers, students might assume that their drafts are finished, complete, and ready to be abandoned” (Sommers xi).

As I thought about how to encourage students to revise I remembered reading “The End Comment: Maximizing the Teaching Moment in Teacher Response” by Andrew Merrill. He talks about how “control over student writing should be returned to the students” (1). I knew that I wanted my students to focus most on my end comment and treat their papers as works in progress instead of finished products, but I wasn’t sure how to accomplish that. While grading the first paper—an opinion editorial—and writing end comments, I had made sure to point out a couple things each student was doing well, as well as a potential revision plan, regardless of the grade the student had received. I felt that my end comments could “serve rhetorically to persuade [my] students to revise their ideas as expressed in writing,” if they took the time to even read them (4).

One of the comments I wrote to a student, called Matt in this paper, went like this:

This is an extremely well put together paper! It reads through easily and persuasively. Your example was specific and made the more complicated topic of socialism easier to grasp. To revise, my main suggestion would be including more personal pronouns and opinion. Your paper is well written and researched, but I find myself as a reader wanting to know more of your personal stance. Great job on this paper.

I bookended the comment with positive statements to help Matt’s overall impression of his paper be positive. I made it a point with each end comment to begin with strengths within the paper. I mentioned a global success of the paper, clarity and persuasiveness, and a specific section that was done well: the example used. After stating the paper’s strengths I turned to revision suggestions. In the end comment I invited Matt to allow more of his personality to come through in his paper. I also mentioned my reaction as reader, although I didn’t do this in all of my end comments.

Other comments I wrote for this first paper were more dictatorial, telling students where the “problems” were and what they needed to fix. This kind of feedback wasn’t helpful, because revision makes things worse “if you change just for the sake of changing” (Bishop 1). I needed to find a balance between pointing out global ideas for revision and allowing students to analyze their own papers and discover weaknesses for themselves. Regardless of the individual comments, overall I followed the structure of strengths followed by ideas for revision, ending with a positive declaration that showed students that I appreciated the work they had put into their papers.

The day before I returned the papers to the students I had an idea. I had done all of my grading on a separate sheet of paper, instead of on each individual’s paper. Because the grades were not currently on the students’ papers, I decided to intentionally not include the grade. I entered the grades into the electronic gradebook with a timer so that they wouldn’t be visible for students until after the class period where I would hand back the papers. Many teachers agree “not to return drafts at the beginning of class—otherwise, there goes the class” (Sommers xi); I decided to intentionally hand back student papers at the beginning of class, breaking one of the cardinal rules of teaching, and then make their daily rushwrite specifically about both my end comment and their subsequent plan for revision. This would force students to not only read my end comment, but also to come up with a revision plan, all without knowing what grade they had received. Instead of allowing my students to write for the grade, I hoped by not giving them their scores until after class that I would help them value their writing and develop a desire “to explore ideas and to learn” (Merrill 5).

I applied this plan the next day in class. As students walked into class, I handed back their papers. Many of them started frantically flipping as I predicted, looking for the big red “A” or “B” or “C.” However, they were disappointed in their searches, flipping to the back of their paper only to find my end comment without any indication of a grade. One of my students, upon receiving her paper and rushing to find the grade, looked panicked and shot her hand up. I asked her what the problem was; when she told me I had forgotten to put her grade on her paper I smiled and told her it was intentional, and that we would talk about it as soon as class started.

Once class began I explained that I had finished grading all of their papers, and that they would be able to see their scores online at the end of class. I also explained that I had intentionally left off their grades. This led straight into the rushwrite portion of class. I asked students to take the time to read through my end comment and then come up with a revision strategy. After they did so, I asked students to get in small groups and discuss their plans for revision. I hoped to create a classroom environment where “reflection through the term” could happen, instead of waiting until the end of the semester (Yancey 67). Although people are more likely to overestimate “their abilities relative to their actual performance,” before the end of class I had two students come up to me, asking when my office hours were so they could talk to me about their revision plans (Ambrose 195). This, for me, was the clearest indication that my focus on the end comment had succeeded. One of the students, unbeknownst to him, had received a high grade on his paper, yet still wanted to revise. The other student, who had received a B but was unaware of such, also came up to me before class and asked when she could meet with me.

This first exercise helped students to value the end comment and the process of revision more than they would have if I had simply handed back papers at the end of class with no explanation or mindful period for reflection and revision planning. This exercise did annoy some students and frustrated most of them initially. I explained to them that I intentionally wanted to invoke a feeling of frustration because I wanted them to focus on ways to revise rather than only their grade, remembering that no paper is ever perfect. By being upfront with my motives and intentions for handing back final papers this way, students were more willing to take my end comments seriously.

While grading my students’ second papers, their rhetorical analyses, I decided to change my methods slightly. Instead of handing back the entire paper at the beginning of class with only my end comment, I decided to type out my end comments individually and hand back only those comments at the beginning of class. On the actual papers I included some marginal comments, as well as the rubric with the traditional grade and score (these were returned to students at the end of class). When I met with the student who received a B on her paper she had wanted to know my justification for her grade. Thankfully I had followed the rubric religiously and had reasons to back up every aspect of her grade that were directly attached to the sections within the rubric. Because she came and met with me, I circled on her rubric where she had scored for every section. As I graded the second paper I realized that students were making some of the same mistakes that they had lost points for on their first paper, and that I could prevent these patterns or errors if I gave each student their rubric back with each section marked according to their grade. I hoped by handing back the marked-up rubric that students could “use the grading rubric as a way to reconsider revision” (Dean 150). Because I saw students making the same kinds of mistakes on both of their papers, I realized that my “students do not know how to assess their writing” and so “much of [my] seemingly helpful feedback may not necessarily help them to critically assess their writing” (Beach 128).

I had also wondered after the first paper if my end comments had been too specific and commandeering of the revision process. I had intentionally given each student some ideas for revision, regardless of their grade. Although my intention was to inspire students, regardless of their grade, to come up with a revision plan, I wondered if students saw my comments only as ways to “justify a grade or to correct their mistakes,” knowing that if they read my comments this way that they wouldn’t read my “comments with any sense of agency or engagement” (Sommers 9). Just because I had students reading my end comment and writing about it didn’t mean they were actively engaging with my comments or claiming the responsibility to “re-see” their papers. I knew that I need to do more than just have students read my end comment and come up with a revision plan. I realized that my goal for my students and for my class was not only to get students to revise their papers, but to become more mindful and intentional writers. The types of activities and writing exercises I held in class needed to invite my students to not only write better papers, but to become more successful writers among a community of people they worked with often and had created bonds with. My goal is to build better writers, not only better papers, and my end comments needed to reflect that.

Instead of specifically telling students a couple points of their paper to revise, I tried to word my reactions to the paper as a reader, taking on a more observant and less dictatorial view. I pointed to parts or aspects of the paper that I had enjoyed as a reader,and to sections that had confused me. I wanted to make it clear to my students that “the purpose of responding is not to show students how smart or clever” I, their teacher, was, but “to promote students’ authority and authorship by giving them feedback about their strengths and limitations as writers” (Sommers 4). I did make comments with the phrase “moving forward” to provide a sense of continual movement and continual revision, but I avoided saying “for revision you should.” I think it was beneficial for students to receive more explicit ideas for revision on their first papers, but throughout the class I have tried to relinquish my control over the classroom to my students, empowering them to become independent writers and revisors.

I decided to compare my end comment for Matt’s opinion editorial to my comment for his rhetorical analysis. My end comment for the second paper looked like this:

I can tell you really care about your topic and that you connected to this talk! I liked how you successfully talked about the audience Elder Holland has in mind, and how successfully he caters to that audience. You also had a powerful concluding sentence that extended a nice call to action. Your introduction had a great hook and you clearly introduced your talk and author. However, as a reader I was left wondering what rhetorical devices or tools you would be using throughout the paper. I didn’t really know what devices you were using until your conclusion, and the mentions of rhetorical devices throughout the paper were sometimes vague. You included some good quotes and scriptures, but as a reader I wanted to see more of your analysis breaking up such long quotes/scriptures. Good job on this!

Again, I started with the paper’s strengths, specifically hearkening back to points we had covered in class like audience awareness, calls to action, and introduction hooks. I did a better job on the second paper of critiquing with the eyes of a reader, pointing out moments of confusion instead of just telling students exactly what to revise and focus on. I was practicing commenting as a responder, “dramatiz[ing] the presence of a reader, reminding students that their writing is actually intended for a reader and for a particular purpose” (Sommers xi).

I wasn’t able to completely break away from giving advice, but I tried to limit suggestions as much as possible and give more reader insights. When I did give advice I tried to avoid overly general suggestions, realizing that “knowing in general that there’s something wrong with a draft doesn’t exactly inspire revision”; instead, “knowing that this page is flawed for this reason because of how this reader will probably react invites revision, rewards it immediately” (Bishop 34). I tried to give students specific reader reactions in my marginal comments, saving the more global edits for the end comment. However, I recognized that students are more likely to skip my marginal comments, and only those students intent on revising would take the time to read anything but my end comment.

My students didn’t seem surprised when I handed back only a slip of paper with their end comment instead of their papers. Before introducing the rushwrite for the day, I announced to the class that I had graded their rhetorical analyses and would hand back the paper at the end of class. I explicitly explained that I had included the rubric and my justification for every portion of their grade on it; I also included not only their point grade, but their percentage grade, letter grade, and the grade of their previous paper down below for easy comparison.

After explaining my methodology and being transparent with my students I introduced the rushwrite prompt: “Read through my comment and come up with a revision plan for your rhetorical analysis.” Many students had already read through my comments before class started, but I provided five minutes for students to finish reading my comment and write out their revision plan. After students finished writing down their revision plans I asked them to get with two other people and share their plans for revision, paying attention to whether their revision plans for their second paper differed from their first. I knew that my students needed to “combine their knowledge and adapt their understanding of concepts that they learned from previous units to related concepts in the current unit,” so after these small group discussions I asked students to each write one of their plans for revision on the board (Engle 225). Once all of the ideas were written I asked students how we could apply these kinds of revision ideas, like more analysis or a better introduction, to our next paper: the conference paper. Because I had students consciously connect their rhetorical analysis to their conference paper, I hopefully helped students “develop an expectation that they will need to transfer what they are currently learning into the future, which then encourages them to prepare for that future use” (222).

I hoped by framing revision not only in terms of already graded papers but also of future papers that students would begin to see revision as a continual process. Although my class has an open revision policy, I explained to students that they would have less time to revise their conference papers and would need to do the bulk of their revision during the actual writing of the paper. This exercise of writing up revision ideas on the board and applying them to our next paper also hopefully showed students the many things they had already learned. I did notice that some of the revision ideas written on the board were things I had specifically pointed out as parts of their paper that had confused me as the reader. I’m not sure if some of the comments were self-generated or not, although students seemed to clearly understand what needed revision and how they could apply these revision ideas to their next paper.

Reflecting on the methods I had implemented for revision, I decided to give students even more control over the revision process. Instead of going through as the professor and “grading” students’ rough drafts of the conference paper or give them feedback, I had students grade a classmate’s paper, using the rubric to justify the grade; I also had students write an end comment to their peer. By inviting students to think about revision in the middle of the writing process I hoped to show students that “good writing disturbs; it creates dissonance” and that “students need to seek the dissonance of discovery, utilizing in their writing, as the experienced writers do,” a successful way of revising (“Revision” Sommers 387). Because students often “have great difficulty recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses” I led students through the process of first “re-seeing” their peers’ papers before asking them to “re-see” their own and come face to face with their weaknesses and strengths in their conference paper end comment.

When returning the conference paper to my students I intentionally choose not to write end comments for my students. Throughout the semester I had been slowly turning over responsibility over to my students; this culminated in a rushwrite where I handed back the student’s papers without rubric or grade and asked them to write their own end comment. Whereas at the beginning of the semester I’m sure many of them would have looked at me with either utter shock or confusion, my students were quick to begin flipping through their papers and writing their own end comments. I had noticed when holding meetings with students prior to revision that all of their plans for revising came from my end comment and suggestions: nothing was self-produced. By not writing an end comment I hoped to encourage my students to reflect on their paper and come up with things that needed to be revised and changed. After the students wrote their end comments I asked them to list as a class their collective strengths and weaknesses in writing the conference paper, as well as what it was like writing their own end comment. Students had no problem listing their strengths and weaknesses, and one student mentioned that he enjoyed writing his own end comment because it allowed him to both praise and criticize his own work, looking at his paper with professorial, rather than student, eyes.

Through exploring different methods of encouraging student revision and turning over responsibility to the students to “re-see” their work, I thought about my own revision practices. I had to step away from “how can I get novice writers to see the obvious value of revision?” and ask myself, “what do all writers need to see, think, and do to improve their attitude toward revision?” (Bishop 1). Exploring revision in my classroom had to involve me and my processes as well. If I wasn’t practicing what I was teaching, I wouldn’t be able to teach revision as effectively. In my personal writing I make it a point to write my papers at least a week before they are due, giving me time to “re-see” my paper and make major changes before turning it in. By viewing my students more as colleagues and less like high school students, I hope I was able to foster an environment of revision and “re-seeing.” I didn’t have time “to get stuck on the question of whether [my] purpose in the classroom [was] to help students write better or to develop writers” (Yancey 51). Instead, my goal was to strengthen both my writers and their papers. Students and their papers are connected, and ignoring the growth of one will damage the whole. I knew I needed to treat student work as part of the student’s growth as a writer. Students can’t become better writers if they do not write better papers.

Through slowly relinquishing control over to my students, I tried to support both my students’ identities as writers and their work.  I am sure that there are still better ways to encourage and support self-driven student revision, but I am beginning to “re-see” revision and its possibilities. By asking the question “What are you learning?” instead of “Are you learning?” (Yancey 60), I will connect each paper and each opportunity for revision during the semester to each other, slowly opening students’ eyes to the possibility and fruits of true “re-vision.”


Works Cited

Ambrose, Susan A., et al. Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Beach, Richard. “Showing Students How to Assess: Demonstrating Techniques for Response in the Writing Conference.” Writing and Response: Theory, Practice and Research, edited by Chris M. Anson, National Council of Teachers of English, 1989, pp. 127-48.

Bishop, Wendy. Acts of Revision: A Guide for Writers. Boyton/Cook Publishers, Inc, 2004.

Dean, Deborah. Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English Classroom. National Council of Teachers of English, 2006.

Engle, Randi A., et al. “How Does Expansive Framing Promote Transfer? Several Proposed Explanations and a Research Agenda for Investigating Them.” Educational Psychologist, vol. 47, no. 3, 2012, pp. 215-31.

Merrill, Andrew. “The End Comment: Maximizing the Teaching Moment in Teacher Response.” Locutorium, vol 5., 2010.

Sommers, Nancy. Responding to Student Writers. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 1980, pp. 378-88.

White, Edward. “Using Scoring Guides to Assess Writing.” A Sourcebook for Responding

to Student Writing, edited by Richard Straub, Hampton Press, 1999, pp. 203-19.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Reflection in The Writing Classroom. Utah State University Press, 1998.