WRITE ON — Fall 2016 — Week 5

Responding to student writing: Commenting

Engaging students’ work at the level of their own language by commenting directly on their writing serves them well as developing scholars. When we comment on student drafts, it gives students an opportunity to see how and where their rhetorical work successfully reaches an authentic (and expert) audience, and it primes them to think about their writing as a process, their draft as one version of a piece of writing that can (and probably should) be reworked a few times. But commenting on student drafts is time consuming, and it can be hard to know how much to comment on and what is most important to call attention to in students’ writing. Below are some research-based tips excerpted from our quarterly “Effective Responses” workshop to help you as you move with students through their drafts.

  • Less is more. Researchers have found that excessive commenting on student drafts can overwhelm students and reduce their critical agency as revisers; as a coping mechanism for handling the number of comments on their drafts, students may treat those comments like items on a checklist instead of thinking holistically about their authorial choices and the consequences of those choices.
  • Use endnotes and marginal comments together. According to studies, students find comments that connect global principles to local examples throughout their text most useful when they revise. Craft an endnote that defines one or two primary aspects of the paper that need attention during revision, explain why attending to those aspects can improve the draft, and use your marginal comments to flag places in the essay where students should apply those endnote observations.
  • Don’t get too bogged down by grammar. Reading student work with an eye out for error can cause us to miss out on students’ ideas or interesting rhetorical moves they may be making. Research has found that, in addition to distracting us from our students’ work, commenting primarily on grammar has negligible positive effects on subsequent drafts. Unconventional grammar can distract readers and undermine the ethos of a writer, and it may be useful to talk to students about patterns of error in terms of their rhetorical consequences, but line-editing grammar comments may prove frustrating and unproductive for both you and your students. If you suspect a student needs more grammar help, consider sending them to the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication for some expert assistance.

For citation information about this research or for more tips, drop us an email and do consider visiting us at our Effective Responses workshop next quarter.