On this page, you will find general hints about commenting on student work and saving time, links to grading criteria, and ideas about high stakes and low stakes grading.

Continual practice in writing is what helps students most in becoming more effective writers, especially when they realize that writing is required to be successful in courses other than their writing courses. For non-writing faculty, however, responding to student writing can be a daunting prospect. How can response be handled effectively without taking over time that also needs to be spent on preparation?

In keeping with the distinction made between writing to learn and writing to communicate, we can think of response to student writing in terms of the differences between these two modes. When completing writing to learn, students are engaged in exploring and testing ideas. Teachers can chose a simple method for giving credit and even use writing to learn as part of class discussions instead of as a submitted assignment. The student completes the writing and even receives credit for it, but not necessarily with comments from the teacher. The effect of writing to learn comes in trying out various ideas, and this can prove valuable whether the teacher responds or not. Another way of trying this is to decide on responding to some assignments for writing to learn, using others for class discussion, and still others for students to share and respond to in small groups.

More formal assignments that call for writing to communicate can then be reserved for fuller teacher response and grading. Providing a handout explaining grading criteria may actually reduce the amount of time spent on grading because then teachers can point students to their strengths and weaknesses through reference to the criteria handout.

General Hints

  • Suit your response to the purpose of the assignment. Will the paper be revised? If so, you may want to do more thorough commentary. If not, you may want to offer more general advice or concentrate on one difficult problem.
  • Use praise. Describe even small successes so they will be consciously repeated.
  • Make your comments specific; avoid "template" remarks like "this is confusing." Try to explain what you mean. It is better to choose one or two areas to discuss in detail rather than go over too many areas briefly.
  • Use general guidelines for grades or a checklist that you can review with the class and that goes back with the paper.

If You Are Pressed For Time...

Scan the paper for clues to thesis and focus: are there many very short paragraphs? is there a common emphasis in the first and last paragraphs? is there a lack of integration of quoted/paraphrased sources?

If your scan reveals problems, you can stop right there, make a comment that relates to the problems, and return the paper for reworking (depending on your purpose).

What Can You Say If the Problem Is...

Encourage an avoidance of over general or irrelevant material in the opening. Suggest working toward being specific and lively in the opening.

Ask the student to say out loud what was meant and then write it down.

Avoid inflated, filler words. Avoid repeating words in a sentence. Avoid the passive voice (with some exceptions).

Check to see if the important ideas occur in the main clauses of sentences or in the beginnings/endings of sentences and/or paragraphs.

What About Grammar?

If you are reading papers that clearly need proofreading, you can: - return the papers and ask for proofreading

  • incorporate mechanics into your grading criteria
  • try editing for "publication" in class
  • suggest (or use) a grammar and style handbook
  • mark a sample page or several errors that follow a pattern
  • encourage the use of spell-check and grammar check
  • have students create a "never again" notebook and list their problems there.

High Stakes and Low Stakes Grading

Peter Elbow makes a helpful distinction for non-writing faculty when it comes to responding to student writing. He emphasizes a continuum between high stakes (most responding) and low stakes (least responding), with intermediate points along the way:

Zero response (lowest stakes)

Here students are told honestly that more writing is required than the teacher has time to respond to. Such writing can be used for class discussions and small group work, but it is made clear that the teacher won't read or respond to it.

Minimal, nonverbal, noncritical response

Here the writing is seen by the teacher, but effective writing is simply underlined or checked by the teacher.

Supportive response - no criticism

Simple praise or positive reinforcement is offered by the teacher in a marginal note like "this is a good approach to your topic."

Descriptive or observational response

This kind of response allows the teacher to simply describe the writing so that the student can see it as a reader does.

Minimal, nonverbal critical response

Use a different kind of marking system, like wavy lines instead of straight lines, to point out passages that are unclear or problematic.

Critical response, explanations, advice (highest stakes)

Minimal grading on low-stakes writing might include:
  • Scale with three levels - strong/satisfactory/weak
  • Scale with two levels - pass/fail or satisfactory/no credit
  • Scale with on level - acceptable because turned in
Another idea for minimal grading on high-stakes writing might include offering a contract. In this form of grading, students are told that if they complete certain assignments with specific characteristics, they can count on a particular grade.

For the full text of Elbow's discussion, see "High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing" (5-13) and "Grading student writing: Making it simpler, fairer, clearer" ( 127-140) from Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines. Eds. Mary Deane Sorcinelli, Peter Elbow (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1997).


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