Commenting on Student Writing

Marginal Comments

  • If there is a consistent mechanical or stylistic problem with the paper, rewrite a few of the student's sentences (change passive to active verbs, cross out redundant phrases, rewrite wordy sentences, etc.) in the first couple of pages, and then clarify (in your comments or in conference) what the problem is and that you've rewritten a few sentences as an example – but that the problem persists throughout all the writing.
  • Try using only the left margin of the paper for comments on the paper's style/mechanics, and the right margin for commenting on the paper's ideas/analysis, as a way of ensuring balance.
  • Offer a printed key to any phrases or symbols you use in your markups (let them know, for instance, that "awk" or a squiggle underneath a sentence means that it is awkwardly phrased).
  • Students will often find your comments more helpful (and provocative) if you phrase them as questions. Instead of writing "transition" or "rough transition!" at the start of a paragraph, try asking, "what is the connection to the previous paragraph?"

Formatting End Comments

No matter what format you use, type up your final comments to the student. If you have to repeat comments among different student papers (e.g., "Your thesis is too vague..."), you can cut and paste, but more importantly, it will help you track your students' recurrent problems. Try phrasing your final comments in terms of "What I would like to see you work on for your revision/future papers" – and hold them accountable.

Some formats you might consider using:

  • Prose paragraphs allow you respond more fluidly to the student's ideas, but make it harder for the student to parse specific demands you are placing on them. When writing prose paragraphs, the typical "compliment sandwich" format is: say something positive, say something negative, then end with something positive (i.e., strengths, weaknesses, overall view of the essay's potential, and what to work on in the future).
  • Fill out a table where each row is a different "element of the academic essay."
  • Offer a bullet-pointed list of things that worked and things that didn't.

In addition to these formats, a checklist of goals and issues you expect of all students will ease the burden of responding to every detail (and, if offered as a mid-process checklist, will guide the students as they revise their own work).

Credit: Adapted from Nat Hodes