Your Students Care More Than You Think…

Responding to Students’ Texts

How much does our written feedback on our students’ work matter to them?  Do our students even read our comments? And if so, do they understand them? Why do students seem to find some comments useful and ignore others? The short answer according Nancy Sommers (Harvard) and Chris Anson (NC State): err…., it’s complicated.

These kinds of research questions have long been an area of scholarly inquiry in writing studies. In a Friday afternoon panel presentation, Sommers and Anson offered insight in their 4Cs panel presentation on two pilot projects they are currently conducting (“Mysteries in the Margins: Teachers’ Comments Through Students’ Eyes”; K.06, 3:30-4:45).

Sommers’ project involves 50 first-year writing students at a community college who share their experiences responding to their writing teacher’s comments. Her major findings thus far indicate that, yes, our written feedback matters—it matters a lot actually—and yes, students (usually!) do read our comments. They read our comments to understand how they can improve their writing as well as for encouragement . That is, they try to read our comments, but, no, they often don’t understand them. And hence, they’re often don’t incorporate them into future drafts because they’re unsure about what to do next. Thus, what (to us) often looks like our students ignoring our comments on their papers is actually a demonstration of uncertainty. They don’t know what to do, so they do nothing.

Anson’s research, on the other hand, focuses on the perceived value of written comments to student texts (either hand written or electronic) versus using a screen capture software to give students recorded oral comments as the teacher reads through the paper. Using the software, the teacher can also highlight particular areas and give targeted feedback. Many students in Anson’s project reported perceiving the screen capture comments as more personal because they can hear the teacher’s voice and thus can glean additional contextual information from the teacher’s voice inflections. Many also felt that the oral response demonstrated a higher level of teacher engagement with the paper. One student remarked that after reviewing the screen capture he felt that his teacher had really read the paper and thought more about her comments to him. (Teachers reported spending about the same amount of time responding to student work whether they were giving written comments or using screen capture technology. Regardless of the approach, Anson also found that teacher response is essential to student learning).

So what kinds of things can we do to give more effective and useful comments that help our students improve their writing?

  • As one student in Sommers’ study puts it, “Give the sweet before the sour.” In other words, give students some kind of positive feedback before negative feedback. Tell them what they did well before suggesting areas for improvement.
  • Anson found that students are largely unable to separate their ‘cognitive’ and ‘affective’ responses. In other words, they can’t separate their feelings about the teacher’s comments from the instructive value of the comments. Further both Sommers and Anson found that students are easily discouraged. Receiving what they perceive as too many negative comments may cause some students to give up.
  • Another student in Sommers study also suggested that “Less is more.” When students see too many comments—“that sea of red ink”—they get overwhelmed. (Previous research in the field of composition also confirms that students can only deal with 2-3 writing issues in a particular artifact. Pick your battles).
  • Avoid teaching new lessons in the margin. Students need what Sommers refers to as ‘background’—references to material or instruction given in class. For example, it’s confusing to students if we remark on the ‘coherence’ of a paper, but we’ve never used that term in class.
  • Don’t fix surface-level errors in student papers. (Previous research in the field of composition confirms this as well). Connect students with resources and offer your assistance, but hold students accountable for surface-level correctness.

[Creative-commons-licensed flickr photo from Unhindered by Talent/Nic McPhee]

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