January 13th, 2009

Common Comments


In the February issue of The Teaching Professor I highlight some very practical research that looked at student responses to written feedback provided on their papers. Most of us tend to be a bit cynical about this. We see students quickly turning to the page with the grade and then shoving the paper into the backpack. But the findings of these two studies indicate that this isn’t how most students respond. The studies give students more credit than we tend to. But there was something else from one of the studies I wanted to share here.

Melanie Weaver, one of the researchers, took a series of comments (mostly words and phrases) that teachers frequently write on student papers and then asked students how confident they were that they understood those comments. The comments included in the article aren’t an especially good list for us in North America because this particular study was conducted in Great Britain. But she’s on to something.

What about generating a list of the comments you write most often on students papers. “Redundant, vague nonspecific reference, unsupported generalization, lacks coherence, no transitions, superficial analysis, unsubstantiated conclusion”—you know the ones. You could write definitions for the comments and distribute that as a handout to students—I’m sure some of you have probably done so. That would be useful, but I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be more instructive for teacher and students, if students got the list and were asked to say what they thought the various comments meant. With that feedback, you could easily identify the ones students didn’t understand very well or misunderstood completely, and spend a bit of time discussing those.

It’s a waste of time offering feedback if students don’t understand it. Yes, they should ask, but you know as well as I do that any number of them won’t. Look at it this way: if the feedback is more meaningful, students are likely to pay more attention to it. They might even be motivated to be mindful of it in their next paper.

You think your students know what your the comments mean? That’s not what Weaver discovered. Take the comment “superficial analysis”, more than 40 percent of the students she surveyed were slightly or very unsure what that comment meant.

Reference: Weaver, M. R. (2006). Do student value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors’ written responses. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31 (3), 379-394.

—Maryellen Weimer

  • David RJ

    I guess the problem is that professors usually can immediately identify the problem, so we think all we need to do it label the problem for the student. For students, however, simply labeling the problem is not enough. Someone needs to show them where/what the problem is! Because it takes longer to explain the problem to the student than it does to simply label the problem, too many of us resort to labels. I'm as guilty as anyone.

  • Dispersemos

    John Bean and others have written good material on the most helpful forms of feedback for student writers. One important point I took from Bean is that feedback on a final version of a paper (one that a student won't revise and re-submit) is not likely to transfer to the next writing assignment. Instructors should either allow re-writes or provide feedback on early drafts that will undergo revision.Based on my personal experience, individual conferences with students regarding their writing are more effective in providing feedback that students will act on later.