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Travis Grandy is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can find him on Twitter @travisgrandy or at his website.

I must confess, I haven’t always had a good relationship with grading student essays. I used to associate grading with the menace of a stack of papers on my desk (and the compulsion to run in the opposite direction). Worse yet, I often wondered whether my students even read the feedback I was laboring over (and this would be especially true when I found myself writing the same feedback over and over). Reflecting on my frustration, I began to move away from evaluating whether students’ writing met my “standards” or not, and toward approaching students as developing writers. This helped give my feedback a much more specific purpose: to engage in a conversation with students about their writing, where they’re at right now, and ways they can develop. By reframing my mindset, I’ve taken away three specific lessons that have made a big impact on how I approach responding to student writing:  

1. Prioritize and Write Feedback that Can Have the Most Impact

It’s not practical to try to craft feedback that addresses every aspect of a student’s paper. Why expend my energy on concerns that have a limited impact (i.e. “This is a run-on sentence” or “This is not the correct use of a semicolon”)? Instead, I turn my attention to the big stuff, especially how well the student is accomplishing the purpose of the assignment. It can also help to use a different format for your feedback, such as recording verbal feedback. The next time you grade, list your priorities for what’s most important and go to these things first when you write feedback.

Here’s an example of the list I use when grading research papers in my class, ranked in order of importance:

  • Writing with a clear purpose and focus

  • Ideas supported by evidence and analysis

  • Effective presentation & arrangement of content that helps readers understand the relationship of ideas

  • Appropriate style, tone, and voice for the audience/discipline

  • Clarity of style, usage, and mechanics (especially things that impact comprehension of meaning)

2. Feedback Is All about Socialization

As a writing instructor, I often try to explain to my students that learning to write well means learning how to adapt writing for a specific audience and community. In other words, we write to communicate with real people, and we write to do things for specific communities. This is especially true for me when I sit down to grade student papers.

For those of you who teach in other subject areas, I would challenge you to think critically about how scholars in your field communicate. Think of how you learned to write like an historian, or a chemist, or a mathematician. Probably like most academics, it’s taken you years of exposure to different kinds of writing in your field to get a sense of how things work (and you might be like me and still feel like you don’t know all the rules). Since your students are developing writers, they haven’t had as much practice as you’ve had. If you assume that your students are being socialized into your academic community, this means that you can think of yourself as an informant. You can help them learn the ropes rather than act as a gatekeeper. As an informant, you’ll probably write things that are ultimately more helpful, and you might feel better about it too.

  • Each discipline and field writes differently—try to make the expectations of your field explicit

  • Learning to write for a particular field takes practice and a lot of experience

  • Write feedback like an informant—you’re  helping students become socialized in your field

  • Feedback is also really important data for you as the teacher: if you keep writing the same thing to students, it would probably help to do an activity in class where they can practice a skill or convention together

3. Work with the Writer, Not Just the Paper

About two years into my teaching career, I began to notice that a lot of my written feedback to students was in the service of justifying the grade I was giving them for that assignment. This came out of a conversation with a student who asked if it would be possible to revise a final draft for a better grade. Even though I had written multiple paragraphs of feedback at the end of her essay, there was not enough there to help her develop her writing. This was a welcome wake-up call for me. It helped me to reconsider how feedback is an opportunity to continue the learning process, not just a bookend at the end of an assignment.

Rather than looking at an assignment as an isolated task, take a longer view. Think of feedback as a conversation with the student about his or her overall progress in your course. This can help you direct feedback toward where students are, and where you want them to go down the line.

  • Don’t focus on grammar and mechanics during early drafts because the student will probably revise

  • Take a long view of students’ development in your class and use feedback as an ongoing conversation about their progress from assignment to assignment

  • Match feedback to the goals of the assignment

  • Offer advice on structuring and presenting ideas and arguments that are appropriate for the audience in your discipline

  • Even if you’re looking at a final draft, write as though the student will revise one more time—this can help you generate strategies and constructive feedback for students to consider in future projects

What strategies do you find helpful when you sit down to grade student writing? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

[Photo by Flickr user Johann Dréo and used under Creative Commons License]