Responding to Student Writing
As you craft comments to respond to student writing, you need to address students with a variety of skill levels and attitudes toward writing. Some students have never felt good about writing or simply have little motivation around it. Part of an R&C GSI’s job is to respond to students’ writing in ways that help them focus positively and purposefully on improvement.
Promote Students’ Self-Efficacy as Writers: Some Background
The concern for student self-efficacy addresses students’ motivation to learn and to take charge of their role as learners. It refers to students’ belief that they are capable of achieving a desired level of performance that will affect their lives (Bandura). An extreme example of a student with low self-efficacy in a writing class would be someone who assumes that her failure or success (the grade on a paper) is either entirely up to the subjective judgment of the instructor or fated by her perceived inefficacy (“I’m just a bad writer”).
A student with high self-efficacy believes that she can learn what the instructor expects and understand why those criteria are important. If you show a grading rubric to a student with high self-efficacy, she will begin taking in the assessment criteria immediately, asking questions, and seeking examples to learn from.
A student with low self-efficacy may feel overwhelmed and — because of the way she feels rather than any intellectual shortcoming — shut down on the subject. This student needs convincing that although writing is a complex activity, it involves particular skills she can work at to improve her performance in concrete ways. She needs encouragement to take charge of developing her skills, especially in the competitive environment of UC Berkeley.
You as an instructor can facilitate students’ skill development by giving them the criteria you will use to evaluate their writing, giving frequent feedback on their writing, responding sparingly and strategically to their formal essays, and having students comment reflectively on their own writing.
Implications for Response to Student Writing
First, when you introduce your grading rubric for student essays — you may prefer to call it something like “features of successful academic essays” — give the class opportunities to work with it. Aim for a high level of facility with the criteria. Think through the different ways students need to “know” them — not just being able to define “thesis” and “argument,” but being able to apply the criteria to concrete examples of theses and arguments to evaluate their effectiveness. Set the activities up in such a way that every student has to take part and you can assess everyone’s ability to apply the criteria. Peer review training is the most obvious activity you can use here, but create opportunities for students to start applying at least the more global criteria (e.g., argument, coherence, tone) as they begin writing their first paper. You can then introduce peer review sessions on subsequent papers to highlight other criteria in your grading rubric (without neglecting the ones students have already worked with).
Second, be sure to give frequent and specific feedback to students on their writing. Since frequent brief written homework is expected for R&C courses, you can easily do this. For those students who appear discouraged, make a point of telling them what they’re doing well in their writing as well as some specific feature that they can improve fairly easily (such as breaking up extremely long sentences or constructing a direct paragraph). Recognize when they start getting that feature right and congratulate them on their success.
Third, be strategic in the way you phrase marginal and final comments on their papers. Make it clear that you’re a reader interacting with the writer’s work and that the writer remains responsible for that work. (At the same time, it can be useful to address comments about student writing to the work rather than to the student: for instance, you might write “This paper did not provide a complete thesis” rather than “You did not provide a complete thesis.”) Posing questions is often more useful than declaring judgments. For instance, instead of writing “Tangent!,” try “How does this fit with your main argument?” Instead of jotting down “wrong word” or “awkward,” ask whether the phrase means one thing or another. And choose your comments sparingly — address just a few patterns of error, not every kind of error, and mark no more than three per page. Otherwise the student becomes overwhelmed and has trouble deciding what to work on.
One more step can help students develop the sense that they are in charge of their ongoing development as writers: guided reflection. Have students keep a writer’s log and require them to make certain entries during class. Good questions to address include what aspects of writing they like or feel good about, and why; what aspects they know they need to improve, and how they might go about that improvement; what processes or physical environments are best for them when composing; what sorts of things get in their way. It’s especially useful for them to make an entry when turning in a draft or receiving feedback. If they’ve just undergone peer review, have them use journaling to process their reviewer’s comments and come up with a writing or revision plan — what issues will they address in their revision? — and scheduling a time (or multiple sessions) to do the revisions. In this way students get used to regarding their writing as a craft they work at that can be analyzed without threatening their self-worth. The students’ comments join yours as useful feedback on the quality of their writing.
Bandura, Albert (1994). “Self-Efficacy.” In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.) (1998). Encyclopedia of Human Behavior vol. 4, 71–81. New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of Mental Health. San Diego: Academic Press).