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Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors
GSI Teaching & Resource Center

Working with Student Writing

Grading Essays

For detailed information about grading student writing, see the Grading section of our website. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when grading student writing.

Grade for Learning Objectives

Know what the objective of the assignment is, and grade according to a standard (a rubric) that assesses precisely that. If the purpose of the assignment is to analyze a process, focus on the analysis in the essay. If the paper is unreadable, however, consult with the professor and other GSIs about how to proceed. It may be wise to have a shared policy about the level of readiness or comprehensibility expected and what is unacceptable.

Response to Writing Errors

The research is clear: do not even attempt to mark every error in students’ papers. There are several reasons for this. Teachers do not agree about what constitutes an error (so there is an unavoidable element of subjectivity); students do not learn when confronted by too many markings; and exhaustive marking takes way too much of the instructor’s time. An excellent essay on this topic is “On Not Being a Composition Slave” by Maxine Hairston (available at the GSI Teaching & Resource Center). Resist the urge to edit or proofread your students’ papers for superficial errors. At most, mark errors on one page or errors of only two or three types.

Commenting on Student Papers

The scholarly literature in this area distinguishes formative from summative comments. Summative comments are the more traditional approach. They render judgment about an essay after it has been completed. They explain the instructor’s judgment of a student’s performance. If the instructor's comments contain several critical statements, the student often becomes protective of his or her ego by filtering them out; learning from mistakes becomes more difficult. If the assignment is over with, the student may see no reason to revisit it to learn from the comments.

Formative comments, on the other hand, give the student feedback in an ongoing process of learning and skill building. Through formative comments, particularly in the draft stage of a writing assignment, instructors guide students on a strategic selection of the most important aspects of the essay. These include both what to keep because it is (at least relatively) well done and what requires revision. Formative comments let the student know clearly how to revise and why.

For the purposes of this guide, we have distinguished commenting on student writing (which is treated here) from grading student writing (which is treated in the Teaching Guide section on grading). While it is true that instructors’ comments on student writing should give reasons for the grade assigned to it, we want to emphasize here that the comments on a student’s paper can function as instruction, not simply as justification. Here are ten tips.

  1. Use your comments on a student’s paper to highlight things the paper accomplishes well and a few major things that would most improve the paper.
  2. Always observe at least one or two strengths in the student’s paper, even if they seem to you to be low-level accomplishments — but avoid condescension. Writing is a complex activity, and students really do need to know they’re doing something right.
  3. Don’t make exhaustive comments. They take up too much of your time and leave the student with no sense of priority among them.
  4. Don’t proofread. If the paper is painfully replete with errors and you want to emphasize writing mechanics, count the first ten errors on the page, draw a line at that point, and ask the student to identify them and to show their corrections to you in office hours. Students do not learn much from instructors’ proofreading marks. Direct students to a writing reference guide such as the Random House Handbook.
  5. Notice patterns or repeated errors (in content or form). Choose the three or four most disabling ones, and direct your comments toward helping the students understand what they need to learn to do differently to correct this kind of error.
  6. Use marginal notes to locate and comment on specific passages in the paper (for example “Interesting idea — develop it more” or “I lost the thread of the argument in this section” or “Very useful summary here before you transition to the next point”). Use final or end comments to discuss more global issues (e.g., “Work on paragraph structure” or “The argument from analogy is ineffective. A better way to make the point would be…”)
  7. Maintain a catalogue of positive end comments: “Good beginning for a 1B course.” “Very perceptive reading.” “Good engagement with the material.” “Gets at the most relevant material/issues/passages.” Anything that connects specific aspects of the student’s product with the grading rubric is useful. (For more on grading rubrics, see the Grading section of the Teaching Guide.)
  8. Diplomatic but firm suggestions for improvement: Here you must be specific and concrete. Global negative statements tend to enter students’ self-image (“I’m a bad writer”). This creates an attitudinal barrier to learning and makes your job harder and less satisfying. Instead, try “The most strategic improvement you could make is…” Again, don’t try to comment on everything. Select only the most essential areas for improvement, and watch the student’s progress on the next draft or paper.
  9. Typical in-text marks: Provide your students with a legend of your most common reading marks. Does a straight underline or check-mark indicate “good stuff”? Does a wavy underline mean something different? Do you use particular abbreviations in the margins? You can find examples of standard editing marks in many writing guides, such as the Random House Handbook. Use these sparsely, though: avoid overloading students’ attention with obscure markings that require translation.
  10. The tone of your comments on student writing is important to students. Avoid sarcasm and jokes — students who take offense are less disposed to learn. Address the student by name before your end-comments, and sign your name after your remarks. Be professional, and bear in mind the sorts of comments that help you with your work.

Plagiarism and Grading

Students can be genuinely uninformed or misinformed about what constitutes plagiarism. One can comprehend their confusion, given on-line come-ons like the following: “Our site provides personalized term paper help where professional writers are ready to write your custom term papers or essay that you can't find the right words for. Sometimes writer's block gets the best of you — that's where we come in and provide you custom term papers.” The assumption seems to be that it’s perfectly fine to farm out one’s academic work to another “manufacturer.” Fortunately, the same search engines that lead students to papers for sale can lead an instructor to the plagiarized source of a suspect paper.

In addition, some departments subscribe to a service that automates paper analysis to rate the probability of plagiarism or ratio of material known to appear elsewhere. Even with the results of such an analysis, instructors are obligated to exercise their own judgment to decide the degree to which the use of source material was fair or unfair.

Plagiarism can be largely prevented by stipulating that larger writing assignments be completed in steps that the students must turn in for instructor review, or that students visit the instructor periodically for a brief but substantive chat about how their projects are developing, or that students turn in their research log at intermediate points in the research process.

Your section syllabus should include a clear policy notice about plagiarism so that students can not miss it.

For further guidance on preventing academic misconduct and how to respond if it occurs, please see Preventing Academic Misconduct — Plagiarism.

 

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