Break Your Paper Response Rut

Take a look at what students have to say about teacher comments on their papers. "'Shit-Plus' 'Awk' 'Frag' 'Huh?'" Part 1, Part 2

Okay, we all get into a rut, dragging stacks of papers or projects back to our offices, spending hours going over those texts, working in isolation and desperation, trying to provide students with our most thoughtful and instructive feedback to their work. We know that new writers--all writers--need audiences for their work, need feedback on their drafts, but it's so very much work!

So shake things up a bit. You'll feel better about your responses and your students will actually get better feedback on their work if you respond at different times during their writing processes, if you respond in a variety of ways to their work, and if you don't take on responsibility for all of the feedback your students receive in your classes. And work smart.

Respond at different times during your students' drafting processes:

Ask them to send you a proposal for their projects about a week into the composition process. Require that they answer questions about their topics, research methods, early discoveries, audiences, purposes, style, forums, mediums, genres, anticipated problems, and biggest questions. Then respond to their proposals, giving them feedback on what they say about their papers and their intentions. Assign 2-3 peer reviews during the rest of the composing process, require that they schedule an appointment at the writing center, and let them know you're available to discuss their drafts at any time. But let them work from your comments on their proposals and from peer/writing center feedback for the most part.

At an important point in your students' drafting, ask them to send you a progress report about their papers via email. Provide them with a list of questions to answer and respond to what they say about the progress they're making with their work.

Give good feedback in the middle of the process and again when students hand in their final drafts. Give them an opportunity to revise their "final" drafts for a better grade. Give them two weeks to revise: at the end of the first week, they should send you a revision plan letting you know what they're planning to do differently; at the end of the second week, have them hand in their original draft with your comments and the revised draft. Or ask them to open up the final paper they originally gave you and revise with "track changes" on. This way, you'll see very easily what changes they've made.

Require that students include an "analytical cover letter" addressed to you when they hand in their papers. The letter explains what they learned researching the topic, what their readers will learn, how they incorporated your advice, how they incorporated peer advice, how they incorporated research, what issues they had to resolve while writing these papers, what issues they would've resolved if they'd had more time to develop their papers more, what things they'd do differently next time, etc. These letters give you the inside scoop on your students' writing processes, which can really cut down on your response time by helping you to focus on the problems your students identified themselves.

Respond in a variety of ways:

Use "insert comment" to respond to specific places in your students' Word documents where you think they should make changes, and then insert your own end note in a different color font explaining the global changes they should make.

Limit yourself to 10-minute draft responses. Let your students know this is what you're doing. Read/watch/listen to their texts, set an egg timer for 10 minutes, type your response as quickly as you can, save that response, read it over to adjust for tone and clarity, and print it up.

Use audio comments to "speak" your suggestions into your students' papers. It takes less time to take minimal notes as you read the paper & talk to students about their work in a recording they can play over and over again.

Before they hand you a draft of their work, ask that they take ten minutes of class time to write 2 open-ended questions about their drafts. Talk to them about how to draft questions that will actually get them some good feedback from you. When you respond to their papers, respond ONLY to the questions they asked about their drafts. Let them know that if they ask a yes/no question, they won't like your answer (example: "does my paper make sense?" answer from you "no, not at all." now what?). The first couple of times, have them peer review their questions to make certain they're asking good questions that will generate a lot of feedback from you. Most students will struggle with drafing good questions at first, but by the end of the semester, they'll know exactly what questions to ask of their readers, which is an important skill for a writer to have.

Ask students to bring early drafts of their papers to work on in class. While they draft and talk to each other about their work, you work your way around the classroom having 5 minute conferences with each student about their drafts. Do these on the spot: they hand you the paper, you read it over quickly, and you offer spontaneous feedback and suggestions while they take notes. For homework, have them send you an email summarizing the feedback you gave them in class and explaining how they plan to address that feedback. You can then respond to those emails only if you think the student misunderstood your feedback.

When addressing surface errors, identify a single pattern of errors in each student's work. Inform that student of what single error they make consistently throughout that work, circle the first three instances of that error in the work. Correct only the first instance as an example of how to make the correction, and advise the student that they should locate the other errors of that nature in their text.

Remember that your class deals with complex issues, controversial social problems, important rhetorical skills, and critical thinking. Within this context, a comma splice is like a poppyseed stuck in your student's teeth: it's distracting, sure, but it's hardly as important as what they have to say in their texts.

Rely on the other writers in the room:

Hold office conferences as small group workshops. Have every student in a small group share papers with each other prior to your office conference. Each student is required to offer global comments about each work. During the conference, you become just another participant in the small group discussion.

Have students upload their papers to Moodle on a rotation all semester long (4-5 students every other week). Then create forum discussions for each paper & require that the rest of the class respond to those papers, offering feedback & suggestions. Your remarks could then become only some of the comments students receive on their work. Or your remarks could simply summarize and expand on the comments the rest of the class has already made about the work, helping each student to prioritize the advice they received and showing the rest of the class where you agree with their advice.

Have your students write 10-minute responses in class. Everyone reads/watches/listens to their peer's text and then waits for the go-ahead from you. They start writing when you say "go," you give them a 2-minute warning when time is almost up, and they stop writing when 10 minutes is up.

Spend class time discussing how to peer review with your students, and do this periodically throughout the semester. Talk to them about your own writing process and how peer reviews have informed that process. Show them one of your own papers, a blood-red draft one of your colleagues has responded to, and talk about how you changed that paper using that colleague's suggestions. Let them know peer review is how writers work, that it's an important feature of academic publishing. Let them know that peer review is not just how we have student writers work: it's how all writers work.

Privilege peer response by asking the writers to send you emails summarizing the feedback they received from peers during the review & discussing how they plan to act on that feedback.

Privilege peer response by asking the writers to include the written peer reviews they received with their final drafts. Grade the peer reviewers based on the responses they gave to other writers. Make a certain percentage of your course grade a "peer response" grade, where they get credit for giving good feedback. When you look at their peer reviews, if you find you agree with the peer reviewer, circle those responses & point out "this was a good idea" to let the writer and peer reviewer know that you both respect and agree with the advice the peer reviewer offered.

Take students to the writing center or ask the consultants to come to your classes to talk about the services offered by the writing center. See if you can arrange for one of the Peer Tutoring classes to come to your class to work one-on-one with your students. Set aside 1-2 classes for the in-training peer tutors to work with your students to illustrate how much you value this kind of work.

Show students the rubric you will use to grade their papers when you introduce those papers. Have students use those rubrics to respond to and "grade" their peers' work during the peer review. Use that rubric when you respond to their drafts, and focus your comments on how to improve on the various areas of the rubric with their next draft. Use that rubric to grade their final papers, providing minimal final comments. If students wish to revise their projects, give them more feedback in a revision conference.

For one paper assignment, treat the class like a writer's workshop and set aside a week's worth of class time to having every paper draft read by the entire class. For homework your students will read the papers you're discussing during the next class. They make good notes for how the writer can improve the paper (give them questions to answer if you wish to really guide their responses). During each class that week, one third of the papers are featured: one student begins the discussion by reading their comments on the first paper. The writer of that paper remains silent, taking notes. Other students chime in when they agree with or disagree with a comment the first reader has made. New comments/suggestions are offered. Every paper gets 8-10 minutes of discussion before you all move on to the next paper. At the end of class, every writer also gets 22 written peer reviews of their work. This is the only time you offer your own response during the paper drafting process.

Work Smart

Keep your own priorities in mind and your rubric at hand as you respond to early drafts. Don't get distracted. What you grade at the end of the process should exactly match what you valued throughout the composition process.

Pretend the grammar in every paper/project you receive is already perfect. What does the paper really need to improve if you can get past those trivial surface errors that could be corrected with a simple copyedit? Focus on the big issues, the really important concepts and theories you want students to take away from your class. You are an editor/teacher, not a copyeditor.

How many of your students pick up their work after the semester has ended? Don't kill yourself giving thorough feedback on end-of-the-semester projects. Fill out the rubic, make some notes for yourself (not for the student), and let it go. If they email expressing an interest in picking up their work, give them good feedback on that work then, and only then.

Teach your students to be effective peer reviewers. Illustrate how much you value and respect peer review. Use the writing center. Shake things up with your responses and with peer responses to keep yourself and your students engaged in the process. Share your ideas for peer review, workshopping, and response with the rest of us, please!