Should I Force Students to Read Paper Comments?

Last week, I wrote about the way I have dramatically reduced my grading load this semester by skipping comments on student papers. As usual, my readers helped clarify my position.  I could have more accurately written that I reduced my grading load by switching to a face-to-face commenting structure rather than attempting to write comments on every student paper.

The main problem with trying to comment on every paper is I am inevitably wasting time writing out some comments that are never even read by the students they’re intended for. No matter how hard we try as teachers (or how much we deny the truth), there are just some students who don’t care about the feedback. These students flip to the bottom of the page, check the grade, and toss the paper in the trash along with all those painstakingly-crafted comments.

Maybe I’m too much of a realist—or too cynical—but I can’t bring myself to ignore the truth that a lot of my time as a teacher is wasted. I’m sure part of my perturbation also comes from the fact that I teach part-time and therefore have a lot more going on in my life than just teaching. In fact, teaching is really only a small part of my life. The less time I spend on it, the more time I have to do other things.

I realize that might not be a popular approach to teaching, but that’s the mentality I’ve adopted in order to retain sanity as an adjunct. Teaching is a job and the smarter I can do it, the better.

That being said, a big part of the job is also making sure students are learning and getting better. I don’t want to make dramatic changes that negatively impact my students. I have to find a healthy balance between work flow and student development. So I run experiments like the one I’m conducting this semester in order to discern the best practices that achieve that healthy balance.

On that note, I’ve been thinking more about how I could experiment with commenting on student papers. A few comments on last week’s post suggested ways I might check to make sure students are reading comments.

Force Feed

A comment by unfortunatehabits pointed out that I could make students respond to my comments or compile questions after reading them. Not a bad suggestion, but I’m not sold on the idea of forcing students to read my comments. Unfortunatehabits calls this the “eat your vegetables” style of commenting. I like the name, but I’m not sold on the efficacy of this strategy. Personally, I would probably just resent the teacher for making me do it, which isn’t exactly a good state of mind for learning. But maybe unfortunatehabits is right. Maybe some learning would sink in after several force feedings.

Another idea I had was to use the Track Changes function in Google Docs or Microsoft Word in order to ensure students are at least engaging with the feedback. I could require students to accept changes and resolve comments. Resolved comments could be responded to directly in Google Docs and disputed comments could be discussed in the margin, as well. I guess if I really wanted to get serious about it, I could sneak in a ringer comment or two that would show me if the students were paying attention. Grading these responses would be one way to force students to read my feedback.

I can’t help but point out, though, that this would be adding even more work to my already sizable grading load. It goes back to finding that balance between what is good for the students and what keeps me from spreading myself too thin. I haven’t found the perfect ratio yet, but I’ll keep trying new experiments and tweaking my strategy. I believe classroom innovation is crucial to both advancing student learning and alleviating teacher burnout.

  • Stephanie

    I couldn’t agree more. I mark up the grammar/mechanics issues on the most problematic page, provide brief feedback on the last page about the student’s argument, and then tell them to make an appointment to see me if they want to go over the paper with me face-to-face. I’d rather spend 20 hours a week in conferences and know that my time wasn’t wasted.

  • cwfell

    I understand the uncertainty and that our comments often go unread by many students, but I have too many students tell me that they appreciate the comments. They usually add that no English teacher has ever commented (noting both good writing as well as errors) on their writing. I use MS Word’s comment feature to make the comments legible and directed to specific text. However, I edit their writing by lining out unnecessary words and inserting suggestions in read or paraphrase sentences to illustrate active voice, the effect of word choice on meaning, or untangle logic. I do see improvement over the course of the semester.

    It is far too time consuming of my unpaid time since I’m an adjunct. As a compromise, I’ve begun to limit this practice to one paragraph per student per assignment. I establish the value of this practice at the beginning of the course by requiring students to post (Bb blog) an explanation of their current writing skills and identify the weaknesses in their writing. For the first several essays, I list specific criteria for each paragraph by imposing a word limit (150-175 words) and specific criteria for that paragraph (a quotation or description for supporting ¶s and organizational conventions for the introductions and conclusions). They must include an addendum at the bottom of each essay in which they propose a grade and justify that grade by explaining how the draft addresses the weaknesses they have identified.

    The student’s justification of the grade place the burden of learning on the student. I generally agree with their self-assessment, often grade higher than they propose, and add a couple of general comments about their work. This establishes a working relationship with each student that they appreciate.

    Of course, there will always be a percentage of students that don’t invest themselves in their studies, but they’re problems are way beyond my pay grade to deal with or to worry about.

  • Good Enough Professor

    Two things I’ve been trying to get students to engage more directly with the feedback on papers: (1) using a “wrapper.” In class, before students hand in an assignment, I have them write (on the back of the last page or on a handout, depending on how organized I am) answers to four questions: What are the strengths of this paper? What are its weaknesses? What problems did you have with writing this paper? What else should I know about your writing process? When I write a final comment on the paper, I often write it on the wrapper, in dialogue with the self-assessment. (2) evaluating the response to feedback (in classes where papers involved required revisions). I use a grading rubric to score each paper, and this semester I’ve been making one of the criteria for the revision rubric, “Does this version of the paper reflect your thoughtful response to the feedback you got on the first paper?” That criterion is worth a larger part of the revision on each revised paper, so they have some time to get used to it and figure out what it means to incorporate feedback into their rewriting process.

  • Pat Skrocki

    Actually not a comment regarding this article, but an inquiry as to where I go to ask a question.