CSULA Department of English | Responding to Student Writing

Instructors in all disciplines recognize the importance of writing to learning. In most surveys, three-fourths or more of instructors respond that students learn more in courses where writing is required, and nearly all say that good writing skills are important to success in their fields. Why then do nearly two-thirds of instructors report that they do not have time to assign or respond to writing?

As any experienced instructor knows, this survey data is not contradictory. Designing effective writing assignments requires much time and thought. When most instructors report not having time to assign writing, however, they are probably referring to not having time to respond to student writing. Careful reading of and commenting on student writing can be very time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be. 

Here are a few simple changes that can dramatically reduce the time required to comment on student writing:



Focusing on Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing Low Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing Effective Assignments

Responding to Student Writing

Dealing with Grammar

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading Rubrics

  1. Instructors can incorporate more low-stakes writing in their courses, where students gain the benefits that come from increased writing without instructors suffering the burden of increased "grading." 
  2. Instructors can create more effective writing assignments that help students identify the purpose, audience and genre of the assignment and therefore produce better work.
  3. Instructors can develop clear grading criteria that help students understand how their work will be evaluated, and help instructors evaluate that work.
  4. Instructors can read more "rhetorically" and less prescriptively (see below). 

Incorporating only some of these changes can dramatically reduce the time spent responding to student writing. 

Reading Rhetorically

Arguably the most controversial of the above suggestions is the last, and yet adopting it would probably have the greatest positive impact on instructor workload and student writing. For many instructors much of the time spent responding to student writing is really time spent editing someone else's text. (This subject is taken up in detail in "Dealing with Grammar" and "Emphasizing Style.") While instructors should pay some attention to correctness and clarity, usually the student's greater need is rhetorical.

To read rhetorically is to read as the audience, to assume the position of reader for the writer and respond accordingly. The shift is subtle but powerful. The teacher is the authority and pronounces on correctness and incorrectness. The reader is not the authority (the writer is) and can only comment on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the presentation. In short, by commenting on student writing as a reader (and not as the teacher), the discussion about student writing shifts from rules and prescriptions towards purposes and choices. 

Emphasizing the rhetoric of student writing focuses attention on the effects (intended and unintended) produced by the writing. The instructor reads the draft and responds as a reader would. In general, the kind of questions readers ask can be divided into the following categories:

Focus: What is the text about? Does the writer tell me early on or do I have to hunt around to find it? Do I always know what the focus of the text is or are there places where I'm unsure? Has the writer neglected to discuss other aspects implied by the main idea(s)?

Development: Is special and detailed knowledge required to understand what the writer is saying? Does the writer (incorrectly) assume readers possess this knowledge? Is the evidence or description adequate to the task? Am I persuaded by the evidence? Is the description detailed enough for the writer's purpose?

Organization: Is the organization of the material effective given the writer's purpose? Does the writer recognize and effectively employ the conventions of this genre? 

Three Levels of Response

If responding to a rough draft, most instructors provide only short marginal and end comments and refrain from marking grammatical and stylistic errors. When responding to final drafts, instructors often offer more considerable responses. Usually more is better than less, but research on student writing suggests that more is not always more. According to numerous studies, detailed written comments are often ignored or misunderstood by students. While the instructor might believe that the comments clearly direct the student's attention to specific flaws, students often are unable "to see the forest for the trees," and become discouraged by what appears to the student to be a morass of contradictory advice.

A common approach used by writing instructors is known as the "triage" model. Triage, from the French word meaning "to sift," refers to the system used in hospital emergency rooms to assign priority to patients based on the urgency of their condition. Ignoring if we can the characterization of student writing as an accident victim, this model provides a helpful way of thinking about the longer time scale of writing instruction. Instead of marking and commenting on every problem found in a student's essay, the instructor identifies the most serious problems and uses comments and/or conferences to direct the student's attention to them and to provide strategies for fixing them. As the student's writing improves, the instructor directs the student's attention to the less serious problems that perhaps have always been present in the student's writing, but which were not noted because of the urgency of other problems.

The Triage Approach

The following procedure has been adapted from writing tutor training materials developed by Dr. John Edlund, now at Cal Poly Pomona.

Skim the draft quickly to find the major problems or areas of possible improvement. The instructor should try to avoid falling into the practice of reading the paper sentence by sentence and marking errors as they are encountered. 

Respond to the draft by identifying problems at the global level, the sentence level, and the grammatical level.

Global/Rhetorical (the paper as a whole)

Considering the audience and format required by the assignment or the purpose for the writing:
  • Do the content, organizational scheme, tone, and other characteristics serve the writer’s intention?
  • What fairly simple changes could be made in the paper that would immediately improve its readability or effectiveness? (Such changes might include supplying missing information, deleting irrelevant information, sharpening a thesis, reorganizing a paragraph, or writing a conclusion.)

Syntax/Style (Readability or sentence-level negotiation of meaning)

  • Is the text “readable” (easy to process)? If not, what is the problem? (You may find problems with pronoun reference, missing relative pronouns, phrases that don’t fit together grammatically, word order problems, etc.)
  • Are any sentences awkward, unclear, or incomprehensible? (Here you can comment, “I don’t understand what you mean here.”

Grammatical Systems (Long-term language development)

  • What consistent language problems appear that are likely to be problems in future papers?
  • Are there consistent problems with particular grammatical forms?
  • Can “consciousness raising” facilitate acquisition of these forms?
  • What would you put on a “personal proofreading checklist” for this student?
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