Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing

Ways of Reading Student Papers

A good diagnostician of writing is, first and foremost, a sensitive and attentive reader, capable of reading a text in multiple and complex ways. Instructors who have a stack of papers in front of them may feel that a direct and critical response to "what's wrong with this paper" is the best strategy. This way of reading ignores two very important principles, however: first, it overlooks what's right with this paper; second, it overlooks the fact that a paper may represent someone's best effort. For these reasons, we recommend that instructors try to read differently. In addition to reading critically, instructors will want to read as what Virginia Woolf called a "common" reader—a person who is curious, responsive, and open to what lies on the page. Instructors will also want to read in order to get to know the writer and the writer's processes. Reading as a common reader and reading to get to know the writer will help you to more thoroughly analyze the argument and to gather the thoughts that will form your response.

Reading as a Common Reader

When you read as a common reader, you track your reading experience: Are you interested? Bored? Confused? Enraged? Are you satisfied, even inspired, by your reading? It's important when reading an essay to keep in touch with your responses as a common reader; these responses will point you in the direction of a paper's strengths and weaknesses. If you're confused, it's likely that the sentences or paragraphs have broken down; if you're moved, it's likely that the writer has written clearly and forcefully.

When you read as a common reader, make note not only of what you're feeling, but where you're feeling it. Then consider why. Reading in this way helps you to pinpoint the precise moment that a paper has gone awry. It also helps you to frame a response to the text that the student can relate to. Telling your students that you are confused by a certain paragraph or transition helps them to feel that a real, flesh-and-blood reader sits at the other end of their writing processes. They'll respond more authentically to a declaration of confusion than they will to remarks that are corrective.

Finally, keeping in touch with your "common reader" responses makes you less likely to jump too soon to criticism. Instead of looking at every word and turn of phrase to try to find what's wrong, you can allow the language and ideas of the paper to make their impression on you. Common readers are receptive to the writer's message. They suspend their disbelief, waiting until the end of the essay before they make up their minds. Keep close to your common reader responses; they will inform the more critical responses that you make later on.

Reading to Get to Know the Writer

When you read a paper, you will need to give some of your attention to thinking about who the writer is. After all, you are working with an individual person, not simply with an individual paper. The paper can give you a wealth of information, from which you can infer what is going on with the writer. As you read, ask yourself:

  • What is the writer's explicit purpose?
  • What hidden assumptions or prejudices are implicit in the paper?
  • What stance does the writer seem to be taking towards his audience?
  • What stance does the writer seem to be taking towards his content?
  • What does the writer understand (or misunderstand) about academic writing?
  • What does the writer understand (or misunderstand) about academic research?

These questions can prove very valuable. For example, consider the writer's explicit purpose—that is, the purpose that he declares in his thesis. Then consider whether or not the writer has another agenda—other purposes or assumptions that he never quite declares. Often the writer's hidden assumptions about his topic—or about the writing process itself—can undermine an essay. Be sensitive not only to what's on the page, but also to what's been left off.

Principles of Response

Most professors are competent critics of student writing. They can spot a weak sentence, or a confused paragraph, or a muddled sentence, and they are willing to spend time making thoughtful and thorough responses. However, they may not know how to fashion their critical response to facilitate students' learning. Consider this passage, from the seminal article by Knoblauch and Brannon, "On Students' Rights to Their Own Texts":

By making elaborate corrections on student writing, teachers appear to be showing the discrepancy between what the writing has actually achieved and what ideal writing ought to look like, perhaps with the conviction that any student who perceives the difference can also narrow it. But this correcting also tends to show students that the teacher's agenda is more important than their own, that what they wanted to say is less relevant than the teacher's impression of what they should have said...Once students perceive this shift of agenda, their motives for writing also shift: the task is now to match the writing to expectations that lie beyond their own sense of their intention and method. Therefore, far from controlling the responses of an intended reader, they are forced to concede the reader's authority and to make guesses about what they can and cannot say.

When they lose authority, students also lose a sense of authorship and authenticity: they write as an exercise, trying to fill in the blanks by guessing what the teacher expects. They don't see these expectations as rooted in the conventions of academic discourse; rather, they see them as idiosyncratic, the pet peeves of a particular instructor. Students therefore move from class to class with the aim of unearthing the idiosyncratic requirements of individual professors rather than learning what it means to write for an academic audience, within an academic discipline.

To help keep authority where it belongs—with the student—Knoblauch and Brannon propose that instructors adopt a facilitative posture in responding to student papers. Instead of directing the revision with comments like "Omit this," or "Not relevant," instructors facilitate the revision by asking "How is this relevant?" or "What's the connection to the argument here?" These questions encourage students to think about what they've written. Instead of following instruction and crossing out a seemingly irrelevant idea, the student writer will work to make the idea relevant—a far more valuable exercise.

Types of Response

Facilitative Responses

Making the shift from directive to facilitative remarks is a matter of habit rather than skill. Facilitative remarks are most often phrased as questions, carefully crafted so that they encourage students to consider ideas and their expression more fully. These questions might be general—for example, "Where is your thesis sentence?" More often, however, they are specific, addressing a weakness in very particular terms.

The idea behind the facilitative response is that students best learn to write when they are made responsible for their own writing and re-writing decisions. The facilitative response permits students to retain this important responsibility by locating authority and authorship with them. Instructors who respond facilitatively do not give their students easy answers, nor do they provide them with explicit directions for revision. Rather, they raise questions that encourage students to sift through the instructor's remarks in order to develop revision strategies on their own, and to retain responsibility for their own writing processes.

If you are interested in responding more facilitatively to student writing, examine your response style. If you find that you are too often directing your students in the writing process—or, indeed, that you are rewriting sentences for them—try to determine ways that you might transform your remarks into facilitative questions. For example, instead of simply asking a student to omit a paragraph, raise the question of the paragraph's purpose or relevance. Instead of noting that a paragraph lacks coherence, ask a student what the main idea of the paragraph is and if she thinks that each sentence in the paragraph contributes to that idea.

Types of Response

Directive Responses

Sometimes, facilitative responses are not desirable—not for the instructor, who deems that the student needs explicit writing advice, and not for the student, who wants to know precisely where he went wrong and why. In these cases, instructors make more directive remarks, telling students to move a paragraph, to omit a sentence, or to change a word. However, directive responses—such as "omit"—are most instructive when they are accompanied by some explanation: Should the student omit a sentence because it is redundant? Because it is irrelevant? Because it doesn't make sense? The directive response is also effective when combined with facilitative remarks—for example, "This sentence disrupts the paragraph's continuity by introducing a new idea. Still, the idea is interesting. Where might it be most useful to the argument?"

Types of Response

Corrective Responses

The third category of remarks that instructors make on student papers might be classified as corrective remarks—typically copy-editing remarks that point out errors in syntax and grammar. Instructors have various approaches to dealing with grammatical errors and stylistic clumsiness in student writing. These approaches include:

  • Labeling all errors using specific grammatical terms (agreement problem, comma splice, etc.).
  • Circling all errors (with the aim of bringing students to labeling errors on their own)
  • Marking all errors according to a particular code, which corresponds with the course's grammar handbook
  • Correcting or rewriting a phrase or sentence (with the aim of modeling a correct and/or eloquent style)
  • Labeling an error the first or second time that it occurs, and then instructing the student to find subsequent errors of that kind in their papers
  • Looking for patterns of error, and noting the two or three most common patterns in the summary comments (a method that works well for ESL or other troubled students who are making many different kinds of grammatical errors in their papers)
  • Referring students to RWIT, the Student Center for Research, Writing and Information Technology, where they will work with a tutor on grammar and style
  • Referring students to Joe Williams' Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, commonly used in Writing 2-3 and Writing 5.

Which of the above methods works best? Different methods work best in different situations. For example, labeling errors familiarizes students with the vocabulary of grammar. Circling errors encourages students to puzzle out what mistake they made. Noting an error the first or second time it occurs and then instructing students to find subsequent examples encourages them to be closer, better readers of their own texts. Isolating patterns of errors may help students understand the general principles of our language, while sending students to RWIT provides them the opportunity to "talk out" their grammar issues with a peer.

Types of Response

Evaluative Responses: The Grade

The last category of response to consider is the evaluative response—a response that usually includes (or maybe is summed up in) the grade. Grading student writing can be tricky. Instructors tend to grade student papers focusing primarily on content: Does the student explore his topic fully? Does the student grasp the nuances of the intellectual position he is taking? Is the position presented in the paper adequately supported? If the student has done a good job of dealing with the content end of the paper, he can typically expect high marks from his instructor.

For some instructors, however, a grade on a paper also reflects the student's writing. By "writing," we don't mean simply that all the commas are in the right place and that no modifiers are misplaced or dangling. Rather, we mean that a student has written clearly and eloquently. In order to achieve clarity and eloquence, a student must have a sound and coherent structure, focused and cohesive paragraphs, a solid sense of the sentence, and good grammar. If any of these elements is lacking, the content of the paper also suffers. A poorly developed paragraph, after all, likely mirrors a poorly developed idea. When evaluating a student's paper, consider the ideas and their presentation. In short, make writing count.

Some instructors grade papers by giving two grades: one for the content of a paper, a second for its style. This method allows instructors to reward good thinking without inflating the entire grade. It also allows instructors to motivate a student to address her writing issues: for example, if a student fails to do well in a course because her writing has consistently received a C, she might take her writing problems more seriously.  Still, there is a drawback in this method of grading, in that it fosters the notion that form is separate from content. Student writing tends to be stronger when students are convinced that their ideas cannot be good if their expression is poor. Instructors can nurture this understanding by giving a single grade that incorporates both an evaluation of content and an evaluation of form and style.

If the matter of giving a grade is difficult, the matter of receiving a grade is equally hard. The grade, after all, has buried in it a great deal of information about a student's writing. (Think of all the considerations that have gone into grading.) Students often have no way of accessing this information. Why is this paper a "C+"? What does it need in order to become a "B+"? It's important that you give your students a sense of what your grades actually mean.Sometimes instructors provide students with rubrics explaining what their standards for grading are. Other times, instructors will formulate rubrics with their students, so that students can help determine the values and elements of good writing.

As regards grading drafts: Some instructors grade first drafts; most don't. Those who do grade drafts typically use the grade to motivate students, marking first drafts more harshly than final drafts in the hope that students will be moved to revise substantively. Those who don't grade drafts argue that grades distract students from the "real" process of exploring an idea because it's interesting, and not simply because it's required. Learning theorists support the second position, noting that extrinsic rewards are far less effective than intrinsic rewards when it comes to learning.

Margin Comments vs. End Comments

Instructors often think of their responses as falling into two categories: the remarks they make in the margins of a paper, and the summary remarks they make at the end. It's interesting to note that instructors make different kinds of comments in different places in the essay. Corrective remarks, facilitative questions that challenge very particular points (or sentences, or vocabulary), and praise for an idea or turn of phrase are likely to be found in the margins. Larger, more global problems might also be addressed in the margins, but typically instructors prefer to deal with global matters in their closing comments. The comments that we have been looking at thus far (facilitative and directive) would normally be expressed as margin comments.

Closing comments tend to follow a somewhat predictable pattern. Instructors often begin their closing comments with praise for something well done: an interesting "take" on a topic, a particularly strong moment in the argument, or a readable prose style. Instructors then turn their attention to the essay's themes and ideas, asking students to consider certain points more deeply and thoroughly. Next, they comment on the argument's structure: Is the organization of ideas clear and efficient? Is the idea presented in a manner that is logical? Are there gaps in the logic that must be attended to? Finally, instructors address matters of grammar and style.

A Word about Praise

Several studies of instructors' responses to student texts indicate that instructors devote considerably more time to commenting on a text's inadequacies than they do to commenting on its strengths. One study, held at Texas A&M (Sam Dragga 1985) found that only 6% of the comments on a sample of student papers praised something well done. Another study (Harris 1977) found that praise tends to be more sparse in margin comments.

Many instructors are hesitant to praise papers that are not truly excellent. It is certainly important not to praise students for poor work; nor should instructors provide false encouragement. Still, in neglecting to praise students, instructors lose the opportunity to note and to nurture what skills their students do possess. We encourage instructors to praise their students for work well done. And use the margins! There you can point to specific examples of competence and excellence.

Managing Time

Most instructors report that they spend a good deal of time responding to student papers, taking anywhere from twenty minutes to one hour per draft. First drafts typically take longer to respond to than final drafts: on the first drafts, instructors find themselves raising more questions and making more suggestions than they do on the final papers (where they tend to make brief evaluative remarks, to justify the grade). Complicating the matter is turn-around time: instructors of first-year writing classes must return drafts to students promptly, so that they have ample time to revise.

For these reasons, instructors are continuously looking for ways to respond efficiently to student work. Seasoned instructors have developed systems that work well for them. We offer a few here:

  • Don't comment on everything. Tell students that in your responses to a particular paper you intend to focus on their thesis sentences and introductions, or their overall structure, or their use of sources, etc. This method works particularly well in courses that require students to do several papers. Instructors can, as the term progresses, focus on different aspects of student writing.
  • Space or stagger deadlines so that you are not overwhelmed by drafts. If the thought of grading eighteen essays in two or three days is daunting, divide the class in half or into thirds and require different due dates for different groups.
  • Use peer groups. Ask students to meet outside of class (or virtually, on the Canvas discussion board) to talk with one another about their papers. Peer groups work best when you've modeled the critiquing process in class, and when you provide students with models or guidelines for critiquing. See our page on Collaborative Learning for a fuller discussion.
  • Ask for a Writing Assistant. The Writing Assistant reviews drafts of papers and makes extensive comments. Students benefit by having an additional reader; instructors benefit because they get better papers. If you'd like more information about using a Writing Assistant in your course, contact Nick Van Kley, Director of Student Writing Support.

Conferring with Students

Conferences provide instructors and students an opportunity to develop the kinds of relationships that promote good writing. First, conferences assist the instructor in seeing the student as a "whole person," providing a space in which the instructor might find out what sorts of tangential issues might be interfering with a student's work. Conferences also help students to see their instructors as "real people" who have a genuine interest in their education and their ideas. When students are comfortable talking to their instructors, they are more able to take criticism constructively and to entrust themselves to an often frightening learning process.

Most writing instructors confer with their students at least twice a term, individually or in small groups. Conferences tend to last twenty to thirty minutes (a full hour for group conferences). They work best when the professor doesn't enter with too full an agenda and instead allows the student to co-direct the discussion. Let your students know what you most want to talk about (Research questions? Organization? Style?), but also ask them to come with specific questions for you. This ensures that they will have reflected about the paper before arriving at your office.

Group Conferences

Many instructors have discovered the benefits of holding conferences in small groups. These instructors assign students early in the term into editing groups. They work with all their students, modeling how to diagnose and respond to one another's writing. They ask students to meet outside of class to talk about their papers. They require students to post their work on Canvas and to respond to their peers' papers there.

To enhance/support these collaborations, instructors also meet with the groups to talk about their papers. Instructors will ask all the members of the group to read one another's papers and to come to the conference with comments and questions. Depending on the size of the group (three works best, but four is good, too), instructors will spend fifteen or twenty minutes on each paper. Because of time constraints, group conferences work best when the discussions of individual papers follow predictable patterns. For instance, ask each peer commentator to "react" to the paper, noting something that they like and then commenting on what they found problematic. The instructor should listen carefully, asking questions that clarify the peers' perspectives. When they've finished, the instructor can offer her perspectives and then give the writer a chance to respond. Having a method that students are aware of will help contain the conversation so that everyone's paper will get equal time.