On Writing and…The Top 5 Best Practices for Responding to Students’ Writing

Instructors: If you’re spending a lot of time these days reading, responding to, and evaluating students’ writing, here’s a listicle for you, noting ways to use your written responses as one final opportunity for instruction, to justify your evaluation, and to save you time.  The following best practices are based on research from Composition Studies and are indeed practiced by many writing instruction specialists.

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  1. Respond to sentence-level issues selectively, strategically. Do not line edit.  Repeat: Do not line edit. Many instructors feel compelled to point out or correct a student’s every sentence-level error, as if they aren’t doing their job otherwise.  The motivation is laudable, but the consequences of line editing undermine the enterprise: to instruct, and to motivate students to write again.  That is, many students don’t learn from line editing, and to see all those marks frustrates them to the point of not wanting to write, which is required if they are to actually improve their writing, which means it’s a waste of our precious teaching time.  A better practice: Identify three or four patterns of error and offer revising guidance or modeling. Using comments to instruct and evaluate is different from making a manuscript publication-ready.  Respond with this distinction in mind.  (Or, if you must line edit, do so for only the first two pages, to model this kind of close editing, and then go on to identify the patterns of error.)     
  1. Interact in writing with the text as you read, letting the writer know what you think as you read, with affirming commentary and instructive questions, beyond noticing error. Composition teacher-scholar Peter Elbow calls this providing “movies of the mind,” from reader to writer.  These “movies” conveyed along the way of the text reflect your engagement and challenges the writer to account for how the language conjured the response.  These movies also provide connection with the writer, which is what writers, including student writers, seek—connection.
  1. Use an evaluation rubric that offers a hierarchy of writing criteria, generally as follows: Ideas/Content Development; Organization/Structure/Coherence; Language Use; Manuscript/Documentation Style.  Much has been researched and discussed about the use of rubrics; it’s still a contested idea in Composition Studies.  However, students/writers have a right to know—before writing—the priorities for performance and evaluation.  Rubrics are both instructional and just.     
  1. Write a brief endnote capturing your overall sense of the piece. Include strengths, questions, and two or three or four priorities for revision that would truly make a difference in the quality of the piece.  Even if there’s no opportunity for revision, students can nonetheless benefit from this strategic response to their writing, as they move on to other writing contexts and seek to transfer the most important writing practices and skills.     
  1. Pace yourself.  I find that after reading about six papers (depending on the length), I need to take a break, do something different, both for my own benefit and in fairness to the students’ work.    

How do these response practices reflect your own?  What challenges do you typically experience when responding to students’ writing?  How might these practices help?

Sheila M. Kennedy, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Director of First-Year Writing

About Writing Faculty

This blog forum features writing about writing, from the faculty members of Lewis University’s First-Year Writing Program, who are challenged and delighted to teach students how to understand and meet the complexities of college and beyond through writing. For more information about “On Writing and…” contact Dr. Sheila M. Kennedy, kennedsh@lewisu.edu. Dr. Kennedy teaches Writing at Lewis University and directs its First-Year Writing Program. Her areas of expertise and interest include journal writing, healing and spiritual dimensions of writing, teaching writing, and creative nonfiction.

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