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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Responding to Student Writing

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Responding to Student Writing

This is the area of the "W" course experience that breeds fear in most of us, regardless of whether we've been teaching composition for a living or not.

  • How should we respond?
  • How much should we respond?
  • How concerned should we be about the big ("macro") picture over the welter of grammatical ("micro") flaws we'll find that could easily fill a student's page of writing with red ink?
  • What kinds of responses put off or shut down students? Encourage and move them forward?
  • How much time should we be investing in the evaluation process?

Like so much about the process of teaching writing (because that's surely what "W" instructors need to be doing, even without formal training!), much continues to be written about "responding." In much of the literature, "responding" is distinguished from "grading." Responding is commenting upon, reacting to, and trying to make sense of student papers for the purpose of offering in-process feedback and helping students revise this assignment or improve on further assignments. Grading is evaluating, letting the student know whether and how his or her performance meets the criteria of the assignment. Both have a place in the "W" classroom.

Most of the advice about responding is common sense:

  • Be temperate and focused
  • Don't respond to anything and everything. Figure out what matters most for you, what you think your students need most from you.
  • Go in with a plan. Address "the big picture" in student writing first; leave the editing, spelling, and technical concerns for the "revision" phase.

Selected Websites

Here are a few sites that could help you develop a plan.

Integrating writing into your course: responding advice (UW, Madison)

This page comes from UW-Madison. A very good source, by and large, with lots of advice for teachers embarking on their first "W" experience. It includes tips on

The page also includes are some graded student papers with instructor comments attached.

Evaluation and grading (GMU)

George Mason University's Evaluating and Grading section isn't lengthy, but it is extremely practical. GMU stresses avoiding grades and point values on early drafts, a practice that can foreclose a student's writing process. More importantly, the section closes with advice about giving students practice in evaluating their own writing through self-evaluation forms. The site also contains links to advice on making your feedback more focused on revision and using peer response groups as another form of response.

Responding to student writing (BCC/SUNY)

The WAC Handbook at Bronx Community College contains several excellent chapters in downloadable form. The fifteen-page essay on Responding to Students' Writing (Chapter 5) contains a number of topics related to the process of responding efficiently. There's a lot of good advice here, including distinguishing between "editing-oriented" and "revision oriented" comments, macro and micro comments, and the efficacy of making brief but "targeted" comments.

Faculty resources (U Hawaii at Manoa)

At this index page, you'll find a number of useful articles. Under Writing Matters, a newsletter for writing intensive faculty, articles like "Responding to Student Writing," "Overcoming Writing Errors," and "Working with ESL Students' Writing" all offer practical advice. Further down, in the Quick Tips section, "Handling the Paperload" (which comes with a little descriptor indicating that it "dispels myths about responding") may help you, especially if you have larger classes.

Teaching non-native speakers and writers (UM)

The University of Minnesota's Center for Writing contains several very useful sites, especially this one about responding to and teaching non-native speakers. It includes remarks from non-native writers themselves about sources of confusion and advice for making truly helpful responses as well as suggestions and best practices from instructors.

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