Responding to Student Writing: Developing Criteria

Teachers should make their values and expectations explicit to students early in the writing process. In responding to students' writing, teachers should be frank and tell students how they experience the text as readers. By demystifying our own processes of reading and responding to student writing, we help students to understand the relationship between particular discourse conventions and the values espoused by particular disciplines--and professors.

When you write an assignment, try to generate a peer response sheet and/ or criteria sheet for evaluation at the same time. Anticipate the kinds of papers that you will receive, and work to ensure that your assignment invites the papers that you imagine. When you sit down with a batch of papers, you might begin by asking yourself two questions: 1) What does my assignment invite students to do? 2) Why do I want them to do it?

Before you pick up the pen to begin commenting (or better still, the pencil!), generate some criteria to guide and limit your response. The best time to do this, of course, is when you write the assignment. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Where does the assignment fall within the WRIT course? Are you reading the first draft? Will students revise? Will they have peer response? How much time for revision will be allowed?
  2. How does this writing assignment precede and/ or follow others in the course? Will students have another chance to learn how to generate a thesis? If not, perhaps this is the most important thing for you to focus on as you respond. Is this the only chance for students to learn a particular genre? Is it the only lab report? The only annotated bibliography? If so, perhaps your criteria should focus on how well students learn the generic conventions, and style issues should be secondary.
  3. What's the disciplinary context? What should students learn about writing in this course to help them in their next English or Religion or Chemistry course? Such questions are especially important for FTS teachers. Consider your department's expectations or those of the FTS program. Are there some criteria that are non-negotiable in your discipline? Are you willing to see students challenge disciplinary conventions? If so, which ones? Do you believe that some criteria transcend disciplinary boundaries or seem to be properties of “good writing in general?”
  4. Consider students and their skill levels. Where were they when they began this WRIT course? What kind of feedback do they need most at this moment? What can you reasonably expect here?

Make a list of the criteria that you deem most important. If these criteria haven't yet been shared with students (on the assignment prompt, for instance, or in the syllabus), find a way to discuss them before the papers come in.

Working the Batch, Part I: Suggestions for Responding

  1. If you're using marginal comments, respond directly to a specific writer. Address this person by name and sign your comments. It's always nice to make reference to other writing the student has done over the course of the semester.
  2. Use marginal comments that are precise and specific. Don't simply say "awkward" to a student--she won't know what the heck that means. Refer instead to specific information from the student's text: respond to her argument, her style, her rhetorical strategies, and so on.
  3. Set a limit regarding the number of issues that you'll address in one student's text. A good number here is three. If you respond to more than three substantive issues, your students may find your comments overwhelming. Try to categorize the issues in order of importance.
  4. Offer students positive and negative feedback. When students do something well, tell them so. When students need to work on something, don't hedge.
  5. According to the Virginia Tech WAC team, we should "shift proofreading and copy-editing responsibility to the student: Correcting errors for students will not help them learn to correct errors themselves. On the first set of papers, you may choose to identify representative errors by means of labels, handbook references, or checks in the margins, but these props should rapidly fall away as students assume responsibility themselves for finding and correcting errors. A recent study found students able to identify and correct 61.1% of all errors on their own with careful proofreading."

See also

Working the Batch, Part II

Review criteria before grading: Know exactly what you expect of an A paper, and how you will differentiate among A, B, C, D, and F papers.

Locate range finders: Preferably with a peer, set aside one or two representative As, Bs, Cs, Ds which can act as touchstones if you lose focus or struggle with a given student's work.

Read through the writing once without commenting: Respond-as-you-go is a tough habit to break, but it can interrupt the flow of your reading too often, creating frustration and comprehension problems.

Separate problem papers: Agonizing over problem paper may disrupt your reading; deal with these papers later, perhaps calling upon a second reader for help.

Take breaks: Learn to read your fatigue signs and schedule breaks at strategic times. Don't read an entire batch of papers in one sitting.


"Grading Student Writing Efficiently"

© copyright 1997, University Writing Program at Virginia Tech - 1997-98 Informational Flyer
Series, Issue 4, Fall 1997.