The Do's and Don'ts of|
TOO FEW COMMENTS
Instructors' perspective: ||A grade alone is sufficient to tell students their standing in the course|
Extensive comments are time consuming, and students seldom read or appreciate them anyway
OR This is a course in [fill in blank], not a course in essay composition.
Student's Perspective: ||Grades are arrived at arbitrarily. Luck and marker bias figure in the
grade at least as much as the student's effort or the paper's actual worth.
DO provide comments that link the grade received to the scoring criteria
Grades alone are insufficient, since these often appear arbitrary, even random, to students. Students need extensive written feedback, explicitly linked to clear scoring criteria, to be able to make sense of their grades. Our job is at least as much about helping students improve as it is about sorting them from best to worst for potential employers or screening for further courses. Students therefore require clear direction in the form of personalized feedback on assignments. Explicitly drawing the connection between each aspect of their paper and the relevant scoring criteria will help students to recognize that the grade is not arbitrary or random. As students attend more closely to the scoring criteria, they develop the self-monitoring skills necessary to improve and to function independently within the discipline.
DO comment on all aspects of the assignment, not just subject-specific content
Feedback should focus on the writing process at least as much as on content weaknesses. In many subjects, however, instructors take the students' writing skills as a given, and feel little or no responsibility for helping to improve them. Fixated on subject content, these instructors feel that the writing process is outside their purview. Consequently, weak writers are progressively marginalized as they advance to their second and third years with their writing difficulties unaddressed. It is generally left to teachers of rhetoric, English literature, and so on, to accept the full burden of instruction in the writing process. We believe this is an error, and that all undergraduate instructors bear responsibility for all aspects of student learning, including (perhaps especially) the writing and thinking skills that are basic to mastery in any discipline. Assignment structures, scoring criteria, and marker attention all have to be directed to the writing process (as well as to the subject content) in every course in which written assignments are set.
DO provide a discipline-based rationale for scoring criteria
Equally important, however, is that these comments be linked to the requirements of the particular writing task as shaped by the discipline, school or paradigm. Instructors need to recognize that these students may well be receiving contradictory advice in another class, and without a discipline-based rationale, have no context in which to interpret this conflicting feedback as other than marker bias. The implicit criteria of that discipline (e.g., use a lot of quotes vs. keep quotes to a minimum; supply elaborate support vs. concise executive summary, etc.) must be made explicit and explained to the students.
TOO MANY NEGATIVE COMMENTS
Instructors' perspective: ||May feel need to document why paper is receiving a low grade.
OR May (mistakenly) believe it will help students to improve if each of the student's weaknesses and errors is clearly identified for them.
Student's perspective: ||An assignment returned awash in red ink is likely to be demoralizing.|
DO NOT cover the student's paper with red ink
However well intended the practice of providing extensive coverage of every minor error, the message to the student is, "there are so many things wrong with the paper, I should just give up." Too many negative comments reduce the student to either defeatism or angry denial ("the marker is an idiot", "the marker is biased against me", "grading is arbitrary") neither of which is conducive to learning and improvement. If our purpose is to improve student understanding of a content area or to improve their ability to express themselves in writing, then "less is more".
DO NOT circle each spelling, grammatical, mechanical or formatting error
Circling every minor error distracts students from the more fundamental structural or content area improvements on which they should be focusing.
Overzealous attention to minor errors is especially a problem if more substantive comments are infrequent, brief, or cryptic, as students will assume that the amount of red ink devoted to an issue equates with the weight given it by the marker. Markers should also be aware that if they circle each typographical or trivial error, this additional red ink may indeed bias their overall assessment of the assignment. Unless spelling or correct APA format happens to be the focus of the assignment, students are correct to complain that these elements should not be given undo weight. (The weighting given such matters as spelling, grammar, formatting, etc. should be determined ahead of time and clearly specified in the scoring criteria distributed to students with the assignment. Many instructors find that 5 to 10 percent is more than sufficient to motivate students to attend closely to these matters.)
If such errors are sufficiently numerous or troublesome to detract from the student's paper (i.e., to seriously undermine their ability to communicate), make a single comment to this effect, and then illustrate the point by correcting the one -- or at most, two -- pages that contain some of the more egregious examples. These one or two pages of red ink will be sufficient to notify students that they have a problem without having to beat them up for the full 10 or 20 pages of the paper.
Such restraint is also a time saving measure for the marker. The time freed up by not harping on each niggling detail can be redirected into office hours, where a more direct, and therefore more constructive, dialog can take place with students seeking advice on how to improve their written expression or content knowledge.
DO focus on the two or three improvements that are the highest priority for this student
No student can correct dozens of problems at the same time, but may well be able to eliminate their two or three worst habits. Any improvement may then be rewarded in the next assignment with positive comments and (presumably) higher grades, as the next set of difficulties is then addressed in turn.
DO provide typed feedback
Typing one's comments on a separate sheet forces one to focus in on a few key points, thus helping to resist the temptation to circle every minor spelling, grammar, and conceptual error as it is encountered.
[Additional benefits of providing students with a page of typed comments include:
- avoids difficulty of students having to interpret one's hand writing
- avoids negative connotations of red ink (black type represents neutral communicative media)
- avoids any potential for marker embarrassment since typed comments can be spell-checked
- facilitates efficient marking by allowing the use of boiler plate:
Once a common misconception or grammatical error has been corrected for one student, the paragraph may be recycled (sometimes with minor, easily word-processed adaptations) the next time a similar error is encountered.
- provides record of every comment made to each student, so that
- students' improvement may be easily tracked and rewarded assignment to assignment
- the relevant information is available when students ask for help or wish to appeal grades
- the most common errors or problems may be more easily identified, and the lesson, assignment, or scoring criteria modified accordingly
- facilitates creation of database for research on changes in student standards, etc. over time]
TOO FEW POSITIVE COMMENTS
| Instructors often start from the positive assumption that students will
do well, and that the content & writing process will be sound; and so
focus their comments only on the problem areas in which the student
still needs to improve — in this approach, "no news is good news".
OR When faced with an excellent paper in which there is little room for
improvement, feel that there is nothing left on which to comment.
|Student's perspective:|| Feedback always appears negative and discouraging.
Instead of celebrating successes, the attention of even high achievers
is always focused on grieving weaknesses.
OR Grading often appears to be random. |
DO make as many positive comments as negative comments
As suggested above, focusing only on their weaknesses can be demoralizing for students. If the majority of the feedback they receive is negative, students will naturally come to see evaluation and feedback as painful and something to be avoided. When widespread, this negative approach engenders both test anxiety and excessive drop out rates.
A balanced approach that includes an equal number of positive comments reassures students that they have mastered at least some aspects of either course content or the writing process, and that their case is therefore not without hope. A more balanced approach therefore encourages students to seek out constructive feedback and allows them to build on their strengths.
Finding positive comments to make is sometimes difficult when students present very weak work, but if you can only find a couple of good things to say, then restrict yourself to an equally small number of negative comments: those two or three improvements that are highest priority for this student.
DO tell students what they are doing correctly
Many students do not in fact know what they have done right, and need to be told. One purpose of positive feedback is to make students conscious of their strengths so that these may be repeated and built upon.
Furthermore, as students move from course to course, discipline to discipline, they often receive what appears to them to be contradictory or inconsistent advice. They therefore need to be explicitly told what is appropriate for this particular discipline or type of assignment.
DO build on student strengths
Feedback is most effective when it begins with student strengths and then moves to the corresponding weaknesses.
For example, it is not uncommon for a student to use three examples in building their argument. If the first example is well developed, the second less so, and the third much weaker — perhaps even off topic, as the student desperately casts around to build their case — one's feedback should begin by identifying what made the first example so powerful, before turning to demonstrate the lack of those same qualities in the third example. Similarly, a student who has used parallel structures to good effect in one part of their essay, but suffered breakdowns in parallelism elsewhere, will be better able to understand what they should have done when the marker starts by explaining what went right in the first instance.
By building on student strengths, by making the student conscious of what they are doing right, one is able to move students from unconsciousness to consciousness and so ultimately towards automaticity.
ASSUMPTION OF MARKER BIAS
Instructor's perspective:|| Generally take great pains to keep bias from influencing grading.|
Student's perspective:|| Generally believe one has to tell instructor what s/he wants to hear.|
DO check your marking for reliability and potential bias
Whatever our intentions, we are all a bit biased. As suggested earlier, stronger students do best when they demonstrate their independence of thought by taking the instructor on, while weaker students' papers collapse under the rigorous examination that follows their adoption of an unpopular position. Weaker writers who toe the party line get mediocre marks for lack of originality but are accepted as basically correct. Stronger students who adopt the party line do better than weak writers, but not as well as they could have done had they written from their heart. The instructors and top students are then confirmed in their belief that the system is completely fair, while the lower students learn that undergraduate study is about compliance and conformity.
It is therefore useful, once papers have been marked, to sort them into rank ordered "pro" and "con" piles. The top, middle, and bottom papers in each stack may then be compared to ensure that both positions are being held to the same standards in each grade range.
DO develop explicit scoring criteria
Scoring criteria must be developed for, and distributed with, each assignment.
Explicit scoring criteria allow instructors to mark more objectively. By frequently referring back to the scoring rubric, and matching the characteristics of the paper in front of them to these descriptors, the marker is more likely to disregard irrelevant factors that might otherwise bias their assessment. One may hate the student's point of view, but if the criterion says "provides three supported examples" and there are three good examples, then the student has met the criteria and should receive both the grade and the positive comment that goes with it. (Feel free to raise the question in a marginal notation of whether there might not be counter examples, but such editorializing comments should be clearly distinguished from grading comments.)
DO make explicit reference to the scoring criteria in marker comments
Explicit reference to the scoring descriptors should be included in the feedback to the students so that they can confirm that the assessment matched the assignment criteria. By being able to review the descriptors and confirm the assessment of their paper, students are more likely to take responsibility for the grade they have earned, rather than see it as the result of chance or marker bias. Explicit reference to the criteria also encourage students to attend more closely to the criteria in future, thus becoming self-monitoring and self-correcting on earlier drafts to produce better final work.
IMPLICIT, DISCIPLINE-SPECIFIC CRITERIA
|| Students should have learned basic composition skills, correct formatting, and so on, prior to taking the current course
It is not the instructor's responsibility to teach students these taken-for-granted skills |
Student Perspective: || Grading is arbitrary, random
Instructors routinely ambush students with hidden criteria not specified in the original assignment or scoring rubric
Each instructor has their own idiosyncratic hobby horses which the student must attempt to predict and satisfy
Different instructors routinely provide contrary advice on what is required for the student to improve|
DO NOT allow discipline-based assumptions to become implicit scoring criteria
A basic principle of good evaluation is that there should be no surprises for students. It is therefore inappropriate to dock students for failing to approach the assignment in a particular manner, unless that approach has been explicitly taught as part of the course.
Unfortunately, the requisite skills and prior knowledge most instructors take for granted are often discipline-specific, and students may well be receiving contrary directions in other subjects. Over generalizing the feedback received in one course to assignments in other disciplines where the advice may not apply, students naturally conclude that these contradictory directives reflect the personal prejudices of individual instructors rather than systematic differences between disciplines. Being held to implicit, discipline-specific standards that vary subject to subject explains why many students believe grading is arbitrary and that they have to conform to the idiosyncratic demands of their instructors: no one has ever explained to them that different disciplines, traditions, and paradigms may call for different approaches to the writing task. When students experience variations in the writing task as something imposed by the instructor, rather than as defined by the logical requirements of particular applications, they have no basis on which to make informed decisions for themselves. Instead of being provided a set of tools from which they could reasonably choose the most appropriate tool for the task at hand, they are left with the mistaken impression that all writing tasks are the same, and it is only the instructor that changes. It should be obvious that it is impossible for students to take ownership of their writing if they feel its characteristics are arcane and dictated by the instructor.
If grading criteria are not made explicit, and explicitly linked to the particular assumptions of the discipline that provide their rationale (or at least their history), students have no basis on which to predict these hidden criteria, and it is unfair to hold them to these standards.
DO include explicit discipline-specific criteria in the scoring rubric
Therefore, all discipline-specific criteria must be made explicit and stated in the assignment and scoring rubric. Of course, the taken-for-granted nature of these criteria make it difficult for the instructor to identify and articulate these implicit understandings in advance. The solution is to allow the rubric to continuously evolve, so that as each new student "error" is encountered, it may be added to assignment instructions and scoring rubric for use next term.
DO provide direct instruction on the writing process as it relates to one's discipline
As students are taught why particular approaches best suit the requirements of particular contexts, they are able to build up a toolkit of writing techniques and devices from which they can choose the most appropriate for any specific task. Given ownership of this variable repertoire, students can begin to take more risks, combining and recombining techniques until they achieve a synthesis that represents their own voice over a much wider range of writing tasks.
DO keep scoring criteria flexible
Paradoxically, when instructors are clear about the disciplined-based requirements for their assignments, some weaker students may take the directions too literally. Instead of producing an integrated and coherent argument, they mechanically reproduce the assignment structure or scoring rubric, often even adopting the descriptors from the rubric as their topic headings. Such methodical approaches do allow limited success, because it is clear to both the student and instructor that the student has met the assignment's minimum requirements. This approach is further reinforced by reasonable success in those course components (such as labs) where essay-style integration is not required. Their unwillingness to take risks, to bring their own out-of-course knowledge to bear, or to push the envelope, however, restricts their grades to the "C", or at best, "B" ranges. For students who religiously follow the structures set out in the assignment, it is frustrating to be told that they received only a minimal pass because they "failed to go beyond" the requirements as presented. "Tell me what you want," they legitimately complain, "and I'll do it!"
A partial solution is to add explicit statements that the rubric is not to be taken as an appropriate format, that students should integrate listed elements, or that assignment guidelines represent minimum requirements only. Providing several (wildly different) exemplars from previous terms (with the authors' written permission, of course) may also prove helpful. The best approach, however, is to keep scoring criteria open-ended and flexible. An example of a generic essay scoring rubric for the social sciences or an "issues"-based course is appended below. Note that while students are provided considerable direction and held to a high standard, they are still given wide latitude over subject content, approach, and personal position on the issues. They are thus able to retain a far greater degree of ownership than with less flexible or less explicit criteria.
Instructor Perspective: ||Term papers have served as the key assessment tool for 400 years; any change would represent a fall in standards.
Topics need to be instructor-assigned to ensure that they fit course requirements and to prevent cheating (e.g., by students recycling papers from other courses or students).|
Student Perspective: ||Assignment is of no relevance to student's life.
There is no context for the student's writing.
Student has no ownership in topic; no intrinsic motivation.|
DO allow students to chose their own topics
An effective writer owns the ideas, believes in what he or she has to say, and is aware of an obligation to communicate to the reader Unfortunately, most undergraduate students are forced to write on topics chosen by their instructors and consequently feel little commitment to either the topic or to the opinions they are expressing for the benefit of the marker. Allowing students to freely choose any topic relevant to the course content may significantly increase student ownership. Instructor feedback is then more likely to be sought, read, and assimilated.
Do provide students with a specified target audience
Because students know that the instructor is only person to read their paper, they often treat them as a personal communication, rather than as an essay intended for "publication". This confusion of purpose undermines student success. Weaker students are unlikely to grasp the importance of specificity, for example, when their only audience is the professor, whose assumed expertise in the subject seems to the student to make it unnecessary, and perhaps even presumptuous, to provide supporting detail.
Similarly, students occasionally document their process — listing every book read, describing how each draft has been revised in light of new insights, and asserting how much they have learned — without actually making a coherent argument or directly answering the question posed.
These student misconceptions can be overcome by explicitly designating a target audience for the student. This can be as simple as explicitly stating that students should be writing "as if" for publication in a specified journal, or one can attempt to actually provide a real audience. For example, students could be asked to produce a web page or poster session for public display, or to anticipate a follow up assignment in which classmates read and critique their papers. (Note that appropriate preparation is required for peer-review to be successful, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of the current paper.) Assignments that are to be shared with peers or the public are likely to increase student ownership, and to decrease the tendency to "suck up" to the instructor. Knowing that their work is "going public", students take greater ownership for both the content and their ability to communicate it. Instructor feedback can then be focused on how well students have addressed the designated (if sometimes still hypothetical) audience.
DO adopt alternatives to standard term paper
Instructors need to provide students with greater opportunities to undertake writing tasks that are meaningful within the context of the students' careers and lives. If we want students to take more ownership of their writing, the first step may be to allow them greater choice in the format that writing takes.
For example, one alternative to the traditional term paper is publishing on the world wide web. Although a web page assignment cannot assess all of the skills (such as sustained argument) served by a traditional term paper, it does offer other skills (such as succinctness) which may be equally valuable, and may be more immediately relevant to the graduate's career goals. Instead of accepting the term paper as the default assessment tool, written assignments can be matched more closely to the specific learning objectives for the particular course. (Of course, instructors adopting such new assignment formats must then be prepared to expand their repertoire of comments to include appropriate feedback; in this case, web design, graphic layout, and so on.) As marker feedback becomes focused on content and process skills that are more obviously relevant, students are more likely to attend to it.
DO encourage students to use and develop their own voice.
In trying to enter the relatively foreign world of academic discourse, many students fixate on the tropes without understanding their substance. The most obvious and most frequently encountered example is the inflated diction of students who lack confidence in their own voice. Faced with readings that appear nearly incomprehensible, students often strive to make their own writing sound equally important. In attempting to emulate this supposed academic style, they often sacrifice what clarity of thought and language was available to them.
Similarly, some students adopt the stylistic devices of particular paradigms — such as the jargon and rhetoric of post-modernism, Marxism, feminist critique — without mastering the content that underlies these specialized discourses. Fending off constructive feedback with accusations of marker bias, they often fail to improve.
Students can be warned against these practices in class, in the assignment directions, and in the scoring criteria (see last point under "D" in the sample scoring criteria, for an illustration). Pointing out one or two specific instances in the student's paper where meaning has broken down as a result of jargon or inflated diction, and illustrating how these could be improved by using simple English (e.g., "Why not just say...."), is usually sufficient to convince students to trust that the instructor would in fact prefer to hear the student's own voice.
DO structure written assignments and scoring criteria to elicit desirable characteristics
As common student weaknesses are identified, assignments can usually be modified to reduce or eliminate the difficulty for the following term. Explicit statements in the assignment and scoring rubrics can warn students against bad habits, while soliciting good performance. Again, it is easier for students to hit the target if they know what the target is.