Monday, October 22, 2012

Early Thirsty: How We Grade.

I am currently burned out on grading papers, it being midterm and all, and a question has occurred to me.  In graduate school, lo these many years ago, I was yelled at by my mentor for being "too blunt" and "not respecting their ideas," on papers.

Since then, I try to say something "nice," but more and more it's becoming hard to do that and remain authentic.  So my comments are starting to fade back into "This is wrong.  Fix it this way.  Rewrite this by moving it here or there.  Split this paragraph where you change topics."  Blunt, brief criticism with very little sugar coating, in other words.

I'm kind of afraid those "nice" comments might end up making their writing worse.  I strongly suspect some well-meaning teacher said "I like this rhetorical question" at some point, so they make every third sentence into one.  So, I thirst:

Q: Do you try to find something positive to say about every paper, or do you just give direct, blunt suggestions for improvement (or mean, cruel sarcastic comments)?  How do you go about finding nice things to say when it's clear that the student started writing the paper ten minutes before the due date?  Do you think there's any real value in "nice" comments if they're not authentic?  Am I just being a jerk by being business-like in commenting on papers?  Are these too many questions for a thirsty?


  1. Have a look at this paper--the title pretty much sums it up.


    From the abstract:
    Contrary to predictions, the D and F students
    got worse as a result of self–esteem bolstering and students in the other conditions
    did not change. These findings raise ethical and practical questions about the wide-
    spread practice of bolstering self–esteem in the hope of improving academic

    You are doing the right thing. Telling them anything that could possibly interpreted as "you're doing fine" is doing them a huge disservice.

  2. I always say something nice, well positive any way... like, "Your paper shows good use of rhetorical sentences, but could be made stronger by...".

    I have students critique the work of their classmates on occasion, and I always request that they state what is good about something and what could be done to make it stronger. So it's framed in a positive light, but not at all sugar-coated. If something appears rushed, I say so. And should a student come to me and claim they spent hours on it, I respond by saying, it appears rushed. So you need to look at what you're doing and be more thorough about it, then it won't appear rushed. Even though you know they did it in 10 minutes.

    Sometimes I'll say, "good concept, poorly realized", or "unremarkable". I break projects down into concept (did they think about and understand what they are trying to communicate; is it well supported), creativity (is it just a book report, or there something that approaches original thought or a reflective approach), and craft (grammar, spelling, following directions).

    I do fairly well with this approach. I am not warm & fuzzy, students dislike the rigor in my classes, but I stand firm.

  3. I used to be more mechanical and formulaic about end comments, but I've been working on changing that.

    I don't make insincerely nice comments, and I don't try to pad the sharper end comments with fluff. But usually there's something decent to say about every passing paper (not so for failing papers), even if it's a little backhanded, like "This was a good follow-up analysis of the example and a good model to follow for the other, less successful examples you provided."

    I struggled even as an English major and through my master's studies not really knowing what my profs wanted from my writing. I was mostly successful winging it, but the occasional critical comment didn't help without also knowing what I'd done well or successfully. Even a simple "Yes" or "Good example" was helpful.

    My critical comments tend to describe what I think the student is trying to do (if I can tell, or telling them I can't tell), describing why it failed for me as a reader, and suggesting alternatives. That sounds like a lot, but the focus is largely on a few higher-order concerns and, so far as I can tell, I'm spending the same amount of time grading per essay as I did when it was more mechanical.

    It helps also that I have transitioned into giving these comments earlier in the drafting process rather than at the end with the final product. I find it worth the effort because I tell them (and remind them ... again and again) that in their final draft I will look for the ways they responded to and incorporated my suggestions. Afterward, I also have them do reflective writing about problems they had during the writing process and how they went about addressing those problems. The grading process of the final essay is a zip.

  4. It's funny that you ask this today, as I wade through the dross of the first major essay assignment. I collected them electronically, and am using track changes and comment bubbles for the first time, in addition to the rubric. For some reason I am having an easier time being blunt than I used to. I am not mean, because I don't see the point in that, but I have been pointing out sentences that are particularly bad. When something is particularly good I will point that out too.. Little nuggets of gold amongst the dross, as it were. But I am never needlessly mean. Which is not to say that students will not be upset when they see their grades, but between the rubric and the comments I upload with the graded draft, they know why.

  5. Years ago, a colleague put it best: "How can I respond with care and concern to something that's been done without any care at all and with no concern for even the most basic conventions of academic writing?"

    I also think we English teachers spend 'way too much time marking papers. There's a large literature on the subject of effective marking, and lots of it says that students--especially unprepared students--have no way of distinguishing between relatively minor errors, like spelling mistakes and typos, ard much larger problems related to content, logic, or organization.
    I really don't think that putting lots of red ink (liberals grade in green) helps students a great deal. Most of them have seen plenty of red ink on their high school papers, so if did any good, it would have done so already.

    Since I'm tenured and have an office, I can eliminate much of the grading load by requiring students to get a "ticket"--three trips to our Writing Center--before they see me. When they do come to my office, I can get a whole lot more done in a 15 minute appointment than I can by commenting on the same paper for 30 minutes. A few students spend a lot of time at the Writing Center and a lot of time in my office working on revisions. They're the ones who get As and Bs. Of course, other students, almost always the majority, don't go to the Writing Center and don't make office visits. They get Cs and Ds. Of course, that's the point--but I do not spend huge amounts of time grading.

    1. If you're not in composition (and not teaching a class that's explicitly writing intensive/designed to teach writing skills)(and you have a well-staffed writing center), your approach makes sense. For those of us who are actually supposed to be teaching writing, we can send students with particular problems to the writing center (since I teach a junior-level writing course, I generally ask students with system sentence-level errors to work with a writing center tutor on those), but we do also have to teach what we're supposed to be teaching.

      I agree that overmarking errors can be a problem, and definitely agree that students may have trouble telling the difference between significant and less-significant errors (heaven knows they can't seem to tell the difference between a point earned -- or "lost" -- on an assignment worth .0001% of the final grade and the same on an assignment worth 20% of the final grade).

      However, making fewer marks on a student paper does not necessarily mean less time spent grading/commenting on the paper. Minimal marking can actually take more time. Ideally, it requires reading all the way through the paper once before making any marks, then making at least one more pass to make comments (or, for those of us who have difficulty concentrating on content until we've identified which sentence-level problems represent repeating errors, and commented on the first of each of those, while telling the student to look out for other instances of the same error, two more passes). As with many things (including producing writing), shorter does not necessarily mean quicker/easier to do. It's the old iceberg phenomenon: the bit that shows floats because of the invisible foundation.

      It does help a great deal, I've found, if the paper if basically error-free; that eliminates one of the passes mentioned above. I think it's also easier to think quickly and clearly when one isn't trying to hold two (or more) different levels of commentary in one's head (or maybe that's just my brain). That, of course, is why teachers in other departments wish writing teachers could somehow manage to teach their students to write correctly (of course we wish that, too, but as you point out, if there were methods that worked easily, the elementary/junior high/high school teachers would be using them already, and we wouldn't be dealing with the problem in college).

  6. I still balance endnotes, starting with strengths and moving on to weaknesses/areas for improvement (I don't usually end with more strengths, however, since I think that can be confusing. I am, however, as kind and constructive as I can manage to be throughout).

    But I'm spending a lot less energy on end/summary notes these days, and more on well-chosen marginal comments, and/or much shorter (usually phrase rather than sentence-based) summary notes to accompany numbers on a rubric scale. One does have to be careful to point out that an issue that is commented on once in the margins is/may be recurring elsewhere (I've got "check the rest of the paper for similar problems" programmed into my auto-correct), but, much as I lament students' difficulty with seeing the big picture, and recognize the danger that marginal comments could feed that tendency, I think the marginal comments do a better job of calling students' attention to issues (even global issues) with the paper. I suppose if I had unlimited time I'd write marginal comments and comments to go with each rubric item and a summary note, but -- well, I don't, and I'm not sure students have the time to read them, either (if I did write all of them, it would probably be with the assumption that different students would pay attention to different approaches, and I might catch more of their attention that way. But, once again, I don't have time for that.)

  7. Someone here had a method for commenting on papers that saved time: No comments unless the student comes to office hours and requests comments. Real time-saver because few students took the proffie up on the offer.
    Was that Stella or Greta? Where's the link? I don't remember.

  8. I am so glad to hear it's not just me who is dealing with less than stellar student writing....and wonder why the public schools won't stop the standardized test madness and go back to what works with reading and writing. Someone told me today their kid didn't diagram sentences anymore in English, and thus had no idea of the difference between a noun and a verb.......

    1. Our English faculty don't believe in diagramming sentences. Apparently they teach some grammar, because the 'flakes' papers are not completely hopeless.

  9. I make one major end note that say what they did especially well and what their MAIN problems is (ie. if a lack of grammatical correctness leads to a total inability to read the essay, then I mention that; or if the examples provided simply do not support the argument). More than one bit of written feedback hasn't been proven to be useful (according to research) for basic writers.

    I use basic vocabulary or "student language" (i.e. not saying "the rhetorical moves you've included here..." since they can't distinguish a 'rhetorical move' from any other kind of movement. I'll say "You've picked a successful title that catches attention while still showing the main point of the essay. I'd love to see you add more specific examples to support your main argument so that your paper is stronger than it is now."

    Then I use a feedback rubric (not for points, but for feedback). The rubric indicates what they did especially well, adequately, and what they still need to work on. It also indicates what they're completely lacking, so it has four columns and I check one of those columns.

    They consult the rubric and I require THEM to find these items and respond to the specific items on my rubric with "What do I specifically need to do in my next essay that I missed on this one?" type reflection (so, if I've noted that their paper lacks college-level reasoning, they have to consider how to fix that). This saves me from having to comment on every little thing they've done or not done. This also shows them that just because their essay is done, it doesn't mean they can't improve on it.

  10. I usually indicate clear problems on the first page, then just squiggles when the same problems repeat. Then for end comments, however it's turned out, I follow the 'shit sandwich' structure to get the point across without seeming totally negative (i.e. real comments wedged between two vague nice things): "Good start-- this is headed in a good direction. A more specific thesis would give this more of a real "point", and you badly need to do some revising-- make sure to take the time to proofread, because your good ideas deserve it. Some great examples in the fourth paragraph."

  11. My "nice" comment often consists of something like "This is a great topic for this paper. However..." Otherwise, my "nice" comments are really specific: "I appreciated your vivid description of [some really specific thing that is only mentioned once]. However..." I never lie, so if there's absolutely nothing positive to say, well...then I don't.

  12. I don't think there's much real value in "nice" comments if they're not authentic, although I sometimes do write "good" on an especially meritorious paper, such as one that gets 100% on a challenging assignment. You are not being a jerk by being business-like in commenting on papers: indeed, without honest commentary, our teaching has little value. These are not too many questions for a thirsty, even if it is a dreaded "Monday thirsty." Your mentor in graduate school was an asshole for yelling at you for being "too blunt" and "not respecting their ideas," on papers: this is a symptom of having drunk the Kool-Aid.

    I do my best to be as constructive as possible on comments on students' papers, but again, without honesty, including honesty in pointing out what's wrong, we are nothing. It can be a tricky balancing act, but papers that clearly had less effort put into them than my comments are asking for a strong response, which sometimes is merited. Some of the deepest and most effective learning I did in my entire life was when in navy boot camp, in which all my "mentors" were screaming at me, nonstop. They seemed to think of self esteem, when they did think of it, as something to be earned by proficiency and achievement.

  13. Sandwich.

    One thing they did well
    One (or more things) they need to fix (be blunt!!)
    One thing that gives them hope.

    This isn't about faking out their self-esteem. "Oh Susie Snowflake, you were WONDERFUL!!" That shit is bad for everyone.

    This is about showing them that they did something right -- a thesis statement, a good handle on the material, successful execution of statistical measurement. That indicates that they can do other things well too.

    It's then about getting down to business, fixing things bluntly.

    Finally, you end on a note that gives them courage: you are on the right track. This paper has a lot of potential. With a little more work you could really do well here. It puts the power back in their hands.

    Sandwich. I do it for every paper. And I only comment on those 3 things. Each paper is less than 5 minutes to grade.

  14. I try to keep up with educational technology but I had no idea that cantron machines could provide this level of feedback.

    That. Is. Awesome.

    1. Actually, an experienced teacher probably could generate a set of opening, middle, and closing sentences that could be mixed and matched (with check-boxes or whatever for selection) to generate a semi-appropriate, semi-coherent comment for pretty much any paper. Not quite scantron, but, with the right software, pretty close. A good many comp teachers have some pretty long standard comments programmed into Word's auto-correct feature. But I, at least, usually end up customizing more than that. Whether it's actually worth my time (i.e. makes a difference in the students' learning), I'm not sure.

    2. Yeah, but when one teaches intro-chemistry to 500 and has gradflakes to chase after too, providing extensive feedback to intro-chem is something to dream about. I sometimes wonder whether I spend too much time reading papers and writing comments on them for my general-ed, intro-astronomy class for 100, considering that I have a physics-for-engineers class of 80 and my own gladflakes to chase after, too, and also considering how little good they apparently do. Few students appear even to read my comments, except the reliable few who will construe nearly anything I write as an offense.

  15. I'm not cruel, but I don't waste words or bullshit. (I know. How very shocking.)

    In a C range or below paper, this means I usually don't have anything "nice" to say. I praise what's praiseworthy in B and A range papers. Always, I note what can be done to push the argument/analysis further and the grade higher, and offer to meet with the student to go over the paper together. Shockingly, only the B and A range students ever seem to read these comments, and only the A students ever take me up on my offer.

    Also shockingly, I end up repeating (read: cutting and pasting) the same comments about following the instructions, backing up claims with evidence, and numerous language errors detracting from the argument...that is, if there is an argument to begin with. If a student isn't writing at a post-secondary level, I say so, and encourage them to visit the writing centre before their next assignment. This means I don't end up wasting time on students who clearly have not given a single fuck about what they've handed in, but my ass is covered.

    I abhor the sandwich model for what I regard as its fundamental, formulaic insincerity. Also, because I suspect that most of my students stop reading after the first cheerleading line, having had their own awesome affirmed.

    Frankly, most of what I read is shit. Like, someone-took-a-dump-in-double-spaced-12-point-Times-New-Roman-and-then-handed-it-in shit. Other than to observe that it's shit, and it stinks, what else can be said?

    1. "Also shockingly, I end up repeating (read: cutting and pasting) the same comments about following the instructions, backing up claims with evidence, and numerous language errors detracting from the argument...that is, if there is an argument to begin with. If a student isn't writing at a post-secondary level, I say so, and encourage them to visit the writing centre before their next assignment. This means I don't end up wasting time on students who clearly have not given a single fuck about what they've handed in, but my ass is covered."

      Yes. This. Exactly.

  16. I grade mostly science exams rather than term papers. I'd go crazy if I taught composition. No wonder you folks drink so much.

    If a student did something well, I say so, even if the exam is otherwise shit. I especially like to point out good use of details to develop an argument.

    Otherwise, I just underline the accurate answers, cross out errors, and use many of the same comments over and over and over and over and over and over:

    Develop. Rest of the Q? Why? Vocab? Details? Review this. Read the book. Drill, baby, drill! (That last one is about memorization, not politics.)

    If a student visits with the exam asking for help, I like seeing my comments repeated on different answers. It tells me what to emphasize to the student.


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