How to Comment on Student Papers without Destroying Souls

The standing-room only talk “Giving Students Feedback on their Papers” hosted by Sal Meyers and Brian Smith offered compelling evidence-based research about better ways of respond to student papers.  I am eager to adapt my grading in light of their great ideas: respond thoughtfully, respond in summary, and respond with technology.


essay with comment: Try harder!

We are allowed to “tsk” thoughtless correspondents who type their emails in ALL CAPS.  It turns out that students read many of the remarks on their graded papers as all-caps attacks on their identity. Professors who face stacks of essays may quickly dash off marginal notes like “Try harder.”


In the study reported on in this talk, it came to light that students read professor comments through the lens of their own insecurities.  If they had the opportunity to treat the marginal note like an instant message, they might respond with “Don’t yell at me,” or “I was trying.”


If we recall the need to be positive, we might scratch “Good” next to a paragraph, but even this comment could be improved.  Students benefit from explanations of why something is “Weak” or “Excellent” much more than seeing passages simply identified.  These explanations take time, and so it turns out a summary note at the end of the essay makes the most positive impact on students seeking to improve their writing.


In these summaries, it is best to limit comments to three main points students could work on in upcoming drafts or essays.  We could create separate Content and Mechanics summaries, to highlight the points in each category in its own summary.


Grading takes time, and grading kindly takes much, much longer.  The room full of energized instructors offered many options for speeding up the process of grading with summaries.  Some use TurnItIn (or other grading apps) to preset common QuickMark comments that can be dragged to the appropriate point in the digitally submitted essay.  “Bad Citation” in the handwritten grading scenario can turn into a much friendlier, instructive note:


“I’m glad to see you included a citation here.  Always remember to include both the author’s name and the page number, if it is a paper source.  The first element of the works cited entry must be the word that appears in the intext citation so that the reader can quickly leap from this citation to the works cited without having to guess at all. That leap should be as simple as using alphabetical order.”  

Other graders use voice recordings or screen-casting, depending on the content being graded. We might also consider setting up a requirement for students to actually read our grading comments.  Students could be required to summarize feedback and resubmit it as a mini-assignment before we enter the tentative grade.


Grading feels like it takes up a lion’s share of our time as instructors.  It makes sense to make this massive effort as useful as possible as an instructive tool, not just a means of calculating a number.

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