It’s the end of the term and the air is thick with student papers and bluebooks waiting to be graded. Here’s some food for thought while we sift though the onslaught: What does the amount of ink we spend commenting on each kind of writing task say to students about our priorities for their learning, and our reasons for assigning them grades. At this time of year I always think about Mike Rose’s take on our commenting habits:
“The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process …Students come to see the writing process itself as a matter of framing a thought in correct language… to believe that what counts is not the thought they give to a topic but how correctly that thought is conveyed.”
He’s talking about writing teachers here, but I think the critique is applicable to instructors in disciplines across campus. We all tend to obsess over grammatical errors because they are the most clearly wrong and most easily explainable. While it’s easy to identify a dangling modifier and provide a student with the rule that would teach them how to avoid the mistake in the future, trying to articulate why a thesis is weak, or how a student could have better used the text is much more difficult. We tend to point to these more complex issues, by underlining them and scrawling “awk”, “not clear,” or “explain.” Sometimes we fix these errors, rewriting sentences without explaining to the student how they might avoid the mistake in the future.
This may be because when we are looking at student writing, it’s tempting to think of the paper as the central object of assessment. We approach it thinking “What needs to happen to make this paper better?” But really, the paper isn’t going to be published anywhere. So fixing the document isn’t doing anyone any favors. The paper is really an indicator of the student’s ability to think critically about the course material; a symptom rather than the patient. So what kinds of comments will use the assignment you’re grading to teach a lesson applicable to the next paper?
How can you structure your comments so that students will learn and be able to apply that learning to future writing? Besides, students rarely speak as incoherently as they write, so it’s unlikely the cause of their formal issues is that they don’t understand the rules of the English language. Many students will self-correct when asked to read their papers out loud. It’s much more likely that they are having trouble expressing their ideas, so why not address those first?