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Tips for Responding to Student Writing

How you respond to a student’s writing depends largely on your purpose for responding. If your purpose is to prepare the student to revise a piece of writing, you should provide marginal or formative comments (in addition to end or summative comments) that help the student to think through areas you see as problematic. And remember that students will revise, more or less, based on your comments, so address the larger issues of content in your comments.

If your purpose in reading a piece of writing is to evaluate, and no revision will follow, students are less likely to pay attention to your comments. However, marginal comments still can help students better understand the rationale for their grade, and when the comments reflect a real reader’s personal experience with the writing, students are more likely to understand and accept them.

That said, here are a few suggestions for writing effective marginal comments aimed at revision:

  • Avoid short or underdeveloped comments and instead clearly state your concerns or questions:

    Too Short Developed
    Vague What is your main point here?
    Relevance? How does this example support your position?
    Awk I’m confused here.
    Org? These details don’t belong here.

  • Wherever possible, respond as a reader rather than a teacher, using first person to engage the writer:

    Teacher Voice Reader Voice
    Unconvincing I’m not convinced here.
    Faulty reasoning I don’t follow your reasoning.
    Tone Your anger makes you seem less credible.

  • Offer positive comments, again using the reader voice whenever possible:

    Wow! These statistics really show how serious this is. Great point. I hadn’t thought of it in this way. Your analysis is quite insightful here. These examples really help me understand your point.

  • To whatever degree possible, help students to see the relationship between your comments and the rubric you’re using to assess their writing. (It might be wise to review your rubric before reading a set of papers.)

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