After I spent a great deal of time thinking (and writing) about the best way to comment on papers, I decided to try something novel: I asked my students what helped them most.
We did a portfolio reflection last week and the last question was this: “I’d like you to think back to the ways you have been given feedback in this class and your other English classes. As you look at the feedback you received, what helps you the most to improve? Is it having your papers really marked up? Do you require more confidence boosting than anything else? A few targeted comments on specific things while downplaying other errors? A mix of these?” I was not only surprised by how much they thought about this question but also by how they debunked some of my assumptions about what they needed.
It is probably important to keep in mind that all of my students are seniors in AP Literature in Composition. Their responses may not be typical of everyone, but I think there are lessons here for all. So here are the important things that my students taught me about commenting on their papers:
1. They don’t mind having all of their mistakes noted.
I believed that receiving a paper back with several comments would be intimidating, when in fact, it isn’t. My students like to know what they did wrong so that they can learn from it. The other thing they don’t like is when they receive points off and don’t know why. The bottom line is my students were much more open to criticism than I thought, and I think they really appreciated that I took the time to read through their papers so thoroughly regardless of what I said.
2. The comments need to be on the paper.
Going along with what I stated above, this year I tried putting all my comments on the rubric, so that I protected the integrity of their work. I wanted their papers to remain theirs and not put my writing all over it. As it turns out, this wasn’t very helpful because my comments became vague suggestions rather than targeted criticisms. If my comments weren’t directed at specific parts of the paper, they weren’t all that helpful, and like I said before, they didn’t mind that they were there.
3. Point out the good stuff, but be specific.
My students liked to receive support that they were doing some things right so that they could build on that for the next paper. However, unless I pointed out specifically what they did well, it wasn’t helpful. I tend to write “good” or “great” next to things that I liked in their papers; however, I didn’t mention what worked and assumed they would know because they did it correctly. That wasn’t the case, so now I will tell them specifically what they knocked out of the park.
4. Give them one big thing to work on for the next time.
It’s tough to manage all the comments on papers, and some are worth tackling while others aren’t. They don’t mind having the errors pointed out, but what they really like need is one thing they can really work on for their next writing.
What I really came to understand is how you grade isn’t as important as the spirit in which you approach it. If the students feel like I am there to help them no matter how many mistakes they made, the comments I put down will be taken in a positive way. If I give the impression that I’m out to get them and prove how much they still have to learn, then I have set them up to be resistant to anything I try to teach them. A graceful classroom is one in which kids aren’t afraid to make mistakes because they know that the teacher will be there to help them do better the next time. A teacher shouldn’t be an enemy, there to point out students’ shortcomings, but rather an ally in their quest to master the arduous task of writing.