Commenting On and Scoring Student Writing

Scoring and Commenting: Multiple Methods

It may seem that there is basically only one method for grading student work, one with seemingly arbitrary numeric values and weight assigned to some aspects of the writing over others. In fact, there are many ways to score student writing that need not be so arbitrary; it actually depends more on how you see the numbers and the significance of their impact on your grading style. Similarly, though it may seem at times that you are forced to cover students’ writing in red ink to note all of their mistakes—how else will they learn?—there are in fact other approaches to commenting on student work that position you as less an editor and more a coach in the writing process.

Discussed below are the strengths and weaknesses of some specific methods and approaches used in commenting and scoring student papers. Some general advice on assignment design, goals, and grading/commenting practices:

  • Build your assignments around your course goals so that the goals of your assignments complement your most important course goals.
  • Set priorities. Don’t try to comment on everything; do try to comment on the “highest order” issues.
  • Communicate your evaluation priorities, perhaps several times. You might explicate them in the assignment, in peer review or conferencing, and in your evaluation sheets.
  • Save time by supplementing your written comments with peer review and Five Minute Workshops, but guide those discussions so that they stay focused on the most important issues.
  • Save time by closely editing only a few paragraphs (and drawing a line where your close editing ends) OR by evaluating only a few critical editing principles OR by using a rubric.

Strengths and Limits of Scoring Guides (also called ‘Rubrics’)

Strengths of Scoring Guides

Scoring guides help you:

  • articulate evaluation criteria
  • specify priorities
  • facilitate holistic evaluation
  • enable justification & quantification for grading
  • save time!

Limits of Scoring Guides

Generic scoring guides, while good for justifying a grade, provide limited direction to students needing to revise papers-in-progress. (A student might understand that she has a problem with organization but be uncertain what to do about it.) Assignment-specific scoring guides pose less of a problem. Usually, the more closely tailored the scoring guide is to the assignment, the better and more useful it is.

Suggestion: You might supplement use of a scoring guide with some conferencing, with focused commenting, with whole class discussion, with structured peer review, and/or with student self-evaluations.

Strengths and Limits of Close Commenting

Strengths of Close Commenting

Students benefit immensely from close commenting. Both conceptual and editorial comments help students learn the course material and hone their writing skills.

Limits of Close Commenting

Comments are typically written in the order that they occur to the reader (you), not in the order of their importance for the writer. Unless you write some summary comments to establish priorities, your students might attach too much importance to minor asides and not enough importance to critical issues. Also, odds are good that you will “burn out” if you attempt to be a copy editor, unless you have a very small class or you restrict yourself to editing only a small portion of each assignment.

Suggestion: You might limit yourself to summary comments so that you are selective and focused. You might look only for patterns of error in editing. For example, if a student frequently misuses colons in the very same fashion–for example, substituting them where semicolons should be placed–then the paper demonstrates a pattern of error. Though you may find twenty instances of the mistake, it is really only a single mistake–one of misinformation. The student is clearly applying a rule consistently in such a series of errors; it’s just that the rule applied happens to be incorrect. Rather than circle every instance of the error, circle it in the first few instances and make a short marginal comment to the student about the mistake that explains the proper usage. Then permit students to be their own editors, finding all instances of their mistakes that require revision.

Minimal Marking

A method developed by R. H. Haswell, this is a strategy for commenting on student papers that requires students to locate their own errors and correct them, effectively putting the editor role back on the student. As John Bean notes in his book, Engaging Ideas:

Using this system, teachers do not mark and correct errors; instead, they withhold or lower a grade until the student revises, reedits, and resubmits the paper for a new reading.

In not marking errors, the instructor hopes to create an environment that forces students to develop their own mental procedures for finding and correcting errors. Circling errors points out mistakes but does not teach students how to acquire new mental habits. Also, by not marking errors, instructors avoid sending the misleading message that a poorly written essay simply needs editing rather than revision. Time and again, the best advice to give students about a passage is not to edit it for errors but to rewrite it for clarity and coherence.

—John Bean, Engaging Ideas, p. 69

The strength of this method is in its simplicity. Instructors save their time for more critical issues, such as addressing higher order concerns of argument, cohesion, and effective transitioning between sections of a paper. Moreover, as Bean observes, students come to take responsibility for the details of their work, effectively nudging them into being more mindful of the details of their work.

One weakness of this approach is that it does not necessarily help students to see the reasons for their mistakes. If a student does not know the correct rule to apply for a repeated mistake in grammar, for example, that student won’t necessarily know what to look for–that is, they won’t be able to mark their mistakes because they haven’t yet internalized what the rules themselves are.

John Bowders’ Scaffold for Commenting on Student Papers

John Bowders, a professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, approaches commenting on student papers in a manner that blends “traditional” marking and minimal marking. Called the Scaffold method, it proceeds along a sequenced path of explaining a principle or definition underlying the error, then demonstrating or referencing the needed change, then marking in a simple shorthand to alert the writer. This sequence approach is applied to each type of mistake. If, for example, the first three errors of a student’s paper are a grammar error, another grammar error, and a problem of formatting. The first error will be marked with explanation of the principle, the second error with a reference or demonstration of the needed change, but the third will be marked with an explanation of that type of error (i.e., not one of grammar but one of formatting). Three pages later, when the student makes another mistake of format, it will be marked with a demonstration or reference, and two pages later still when the next format error occurs, it will be marked with some shorthand (such as question marks, circles, underlining, check marks and the like).