Save Time By Skipping Comments on Student Papers

I’ve always assumed students enjoy reading feedback on their papers about as much as I enjoy writing it. But that’s never stopped me from continuing to give it on every paper. Each semester, I take my stacks of student papers and work through them one by one, adding comments in the margin and coming up with some kind of end note that lists a couple positive comments and a couple suggestions for improvement. And each semester, I hand them back, not knowing if anyone cares about my advice or even reads it.

What if most students aren’t even reading my notes? Frankly, it would be a terrible waste of my time.  I could grade papers much faster if all I have to do is slap a grade at the end.

Day Dreaming at Work

Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be the most responsible way to teach writing. Personally, I would feel like I was shirking my duty to the students. Like I was shortchanging them somehow. Surely there are some students who actually do care about becoming better writers.

But as any adjunct who teaches multiple low-wage sections of composition knows, efficiency is king. The faster I can burn through papers, the better chance I have of earning a living wage. Some adjuncts have even argued that adjuncts should do the absolute bare minimum in order to maximize their usually sub-par pay. I don’t quite go that far because I take pride in my work and I always try to do a good job. However, I definitely understand the sentiment of that argument and I think it’s worth considering.

Ideally, adjuncts (and other teachers) could find a way to fulfill their responsibilities to the students and also to maximize their efficiency by not wasting time on futile exercises. To that end, I came up with a new strategy this semester and, so far, it’s been working pretty well. Rather than simply assuming every student is equally interested in my detailed feedback on their papers, I instead made the opposite assumption—that no student is interested in my feedback.

The No Comment Approach to Grading Student Papers

Here’s how my little grading experiment works. For each paper, I put barely more than a grade, and under that grade I write: “Feel free to make an appointment during which we can discuss specific strategies for improvement.”

This way students can easily learn more if they’d like by coming to the office. If, on the other hand, they care only about the grade, I don’t waste my time writing out comments.

I have followed this strategy for every student paper this semester that earns above a “C.” Any paper that earns a “C” or below still gets normal feedback. In my mind, these students need the most help, so I actually feel guilty not commenting on their papers, regardless of whether the student chooses to read those comments.

Aside from the time saver, I’ve found that paper comments work much better as a discussion anyway. Students can hear my tone and understand my perspective better. And they can respond to me, which is something we never got with static comments. This way, my feedback becomes a two-way discussion. I can hear the student’s thought process and confirm whether or not he understands the advice I give.

Surprisingly few students have actually come to my office to discuss their papers. In the single digits. I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. That being said, I’ve still had more students in the office this semester than I usually do, so that’s probably a victory in some way.

From the teacher’s perspective, this experiment has been a huge success. I’ve saved dozens of hours by leaving the comments off student papers. There’s no doubt in my mind that this grading style makes my life easier.

As for the students, well, I can say those who have come to the office to talk have certainly received more specialized help than I’ve ever been able to give students in the past.

It’s hard to say how the absence of comments affects the students who received no direct feedback from me all semester. I admit to feeling a little uneasy about that outcome, which feels like a dereliction of duty somehow. But, then again, maybe these students never would have read my comments anyway.

All in all, this experiment appear to be a net positive. I’m curious what you think, though. Have I gone too far with this strategy? Is there a better way to save time and also continue to improve the writing of my students?


  • victoria addis

    My first response to your article was Noooo! Comments are soooo valuable!!! But reading your actual “no comment” strategy- I can see that it has some value. A face to face response is infinitely better than a cold bit of paper, and would reward the students who care.

    My one reservation is that this strategy might leave out students in any special circumstances who wouldn’t always be able to prioritise extra visits to their tutors over childcare/ work responsibilities or health issues and for whom the convenience of paper comments is appreciated.

    • josh_boldt

      That’s a good point, Victoria. I also thought it might not be fair to students who are too shy for office visits. Maybe I could update it to say “stop by the office or send me an email.”

  • Kate Nonesuch

    I work in adult literacy, the other end of the stream from you, but came to a similar conclusion about the waste of time it is to make comments that students don’t read. I decided not to give grades. and found a similar result–a few students came to me to sit down and have the discussion about their papers. Did you also find that students who make the appointment come with their best work, that is, the pieces they have worked on, and want to make better? It seems no one bothers about work that they threw together without much thought at the last minute. Kate Nonesuch

    • josh_boldt

      You’re right, Kate. The students who come to talk are always prepared for the meeting and engaged in the feedback discussion. I’ve also experimented with requiring students to come to meetings having done a self-evaluation of their own work. That gives us something specific to talk about.

  • Jo VanEvery

    I was talking to someone else about this issue recently. She said she’s starting asking students to indicate whether they would like feedback when they hand the paper in. Her experience was that there were few requests, but that meets @victoriaaddis:disqus concern below about leaving out students who want comments but can’t make time to come and see you. You could still put the “come see me if you want to discuss strategies for improvement” statement on there.

  • unfortunatehabits

    1) On my evaluations, students rate me on whether or not my comments were helpful. Your approach would hurt me.
    2) Sometimes, not all the time, students benefit from reading your comments even if they do not think that they do. It’s good for them. This is the “eat your vegetables” idea of commenting.
    3) If you are worried about students not reading your comments, my advice is to spend more class time asking them to read and reflect on the comments. Ask them to compose a few questions in response to what you wrote. Or ask them to “speak back” to the things that you noted. In other words, if they’re not reading them, make them read them in class.

    • liz

      Unfortunatehabits, I find your suggestions helpful. I also wonder about how the students who earn a grade above a C feel about not getting notes on their papers, if they feel shortchanged. I

      In addition, I don’t have an office or office hours and teach night classes at a community college. It is difficult to meet with students. I stay after class, and some meet with me, but many have to get home.

  • Janel Atlas

    I’m wondering if you collect drafts or just final papers?

    I don’t write marginal comments on final drafts, but do short terminal comment with grade. For first and second drafts, though, I provide significant and specific comments. It takes me 10 minutes per paper (if the paper is <6 pages). Students report that it's very helpful. On final papers, though, I know that there's only a tiny chance they'll do anything more with that paper, so I don't waste time with lots of details.

    • josh_boldt

      Good question, Janel. I do have students write in stages, so the final paper has already been through at least one round of guided peer review.

  • Good Enough Professor

    I’d like to know more about the extent to which students take seriously spoken comments as opposed to written ones. Does it vary by types of learners? Adjunct sanity is one key issue here (I’m all for anything that makes it possible to do the job without being complicit in its exploitative tendencies), but the other is the learning: if student improvement across the class remains about the same or improves with this approach, why not?

    Like Victoria, I wonder about the self-selecting nature of doing the assignment this way. First-generation students, international students, others who aren’t well acculturated to postsecondary ed. may not come, not because they’re not motivated but because they don’t fully grasp that (a) the invitation is sincere; (b) that a conversation will take place that will help them better understand the problems in their writing; (c) that their instructor will be a supportive, comprehensible presence in that conversation. Other students, used to the cookie-cutter approach of a lot of high school education, may just not realize that learning = doing/changing/improving (not bubbling in predetermined correct answers) and be suspicious that there’s anything of substance to be gained by taking you up on your invitation, so long as they’re earning an acceptable passing grade.