Writing Comments That Lead to Learning

Instructors who require papers spend a good deal of time emphasizing the importance of audience and purpose in writing. Writers who remember their readers and their writing objectives are much more likely to use good judgment about the decisions that go into creating an effective piece of writing. This is equally true of the comments instructors write on students’ papers. I’d like to share some suggestions, some of which I learned the hard way.

Students often react first to the number of comments on the paper. They look to see how much the instructor “bled” on their papers. They may not even read overall comments that appear at the end. Sometimes it helps to put those comments up front so that students see them first.

Notes in the margins of the papers tend to be sketchy. With little room in the margins, instructors use more underlining, coding, and abbreviating. Many marginal notes simply label a problem without further explanation or example. For instance, I have written, “There are stronger works for your POV” on papers not thinking that POV (for point of view) may be an unfamiliar acronym. Not only does this feedback puzzle and frustrate students, it doesn’t help them improve.

There is a difference between an explanation that simply shows the students how to reword or rewrite something and an in-depth explanation that discusses the reasoning behind the suggested change. For example, in a legal brief for my Business Law class, a student wrote, “This is an appeal from the judgment of the St. Joseph County Superior Court, by a jury, that the defendant was guilty of check forgery.” After having spent so much time on the papers that my hand ached, I gave into writer’s cramp and simply underlined “the judgment” and “by the jury.” Fortunately, the student came to me and asked what I meant.

On one of my first papers (when my hand was fresh and cramp free), I wrote, “Watch your language. A jury convicts or acquits but cannot render a judgment. The court enters a judgment on the jury’s verdict.” This comment is a more useful explanation.

Instructors must balance the positive and negative comments, remembering the importance of positive feedback. It motivates students, is essential to improvement, and builds confidence. If students are told why something is good, they can do more of it subsequently. Papers lacking any positive feedback tend to lead to poor student morale.

Closely related is the overall tone of the comments. Instructors need to keep the tone professional. Constructive criticism goes a long way, but destructive criticism goes an even longer way. Once someone destroys your self-confidence as a writer, it is almost impossible to write well.

How many is too many? Instructors should monitor the number of comments they write on students’ papers. Although it may be tempting to comment on everything, the workload quickly becomes intolerable and too much feedback may overwhelm the students. They find it difficult to prioritize the comments and tend to retreat into simple and safe writing in an effort to avoid another barrage of comments. Or they don’t even read the comments and therefore learn nothing from the feedback. However, the major problem with the overcommented paper is that the instructor has lost both a sense of focus and a point of view.

The solution is to separate the mechanical comments and the substantive comments. The mechanical comments encourage the student to see the paper as a fixed piece that just needs some editing. The substantive comments, however, suggest that the student still needs to develop the meaning by doing more research.

When commenting on students’ papers, think of your audience and your purpose. Your job as an instructor is to reach your students to help them learn and grow. If your comments do not accomplish your goal, then it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into the papers.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, Volume 23, Number 8.