How to talk with a student who isn’t there

Writing Centers / Monday, April 21st, 2014

Ineffective and effective practices for commenting on student writing

By Mike A. Shapiro, @mikeshapiro, TA and Co-Coordinator in the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.
The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.

Those of us lucky enough to teach in a classroom or tutor in a writing center recognize how much learning can happen in a 30-minute conversation. Spending those same 30 minutes writing comments on a student’s paper can feel like we’re teaching only a fraction of what we’re capable of, and yet writing these comments is an enormous part of our work! A professor in a writing-intensive discipline may spend 300 workdays of her career grading papers, and a writing center may spend a large percentage of its tutoring time on written feedback.

But what do students learn from all these hours dedicated to commenting? Troublingly, the answer is that we don’t know.

C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon have, for thirty years, followed research on teacher feedback. They believe commenters fall for the logical fallacy that what teachers teach is the same thing as what students learn, and they think we count as student learning things that are really just error correction. They conclude from the studies they reviewed that comments on student writing have “limited meaningful impact on draft-to-draft revision and virtually no demonstrable effect on performance from assignment to assignment” (2006, p. 14).

As Anson (2012) puts it, “What would it mean to us, psychologically and pedagogically, if we were to find only a modest educational return on the colossal investment of time and energy we put into responding to student writing?” (p. 188).

Yet, as I look over the research on commenting on student writing, I wonder whether this failure lies not with the comments themselves but with the metaphor through which we approach them.

Great teachers and tutors build talk into their work with students, inviting questions and interpreting student expressions to gauge whether more explanation is necessary. When we carry this interactive pedagogy onto the page we end up talking to a student who isn’t there.

But comments on student writing are not conversation. They are as much their own genre as a lab report or business memo, with reasonably well-researched guidelines for success. Rather than treat comments as a failed form of talk, why not ask what work we can do in our written feedback that we can’t do in any other way?


Is there such a thing as too many comments?


Students report that they like receiving lots of comments on their writing (Still & Koerber, 2010).

However, a paper covered with comments may demoralize students (Weaver, 2006), focus  attention on mechanical tweaks rather than thoughtful revisions (Straub, 1997; Ashwell, 2000), and treat students as editors rather than learners (Sommers, 2006).


By Jinx
By Jinx

To motivate learning and to help students recognize the crucial problems in their drafts, limit your comments to the small number of high-stakes problems which, if addressed, will elevate the student (and the draft) to the next level of competence.

These issues are not always going to be writing a stronger main claim or bringing better analysis to bear on the evidence, but beware shying away from difficult revision topics in favor of revisions that are easier to write about, like sentence or paragraph structure.

Because students are likely to revise only those problems raised in comments (Ferris, 1997; Ashwell, 2000), your selection of important lessons is one of the most important interventions you make.


What do effective comments look like?


Students report that they want detailed comments (Straub, 1997; Chanock, 2000; Weaver, 2006), but instructors and tutors who think they write detailed comments are often mistaken (Carless, 2006).


Researchers identify two elements of comments that lead to draft improvement and student achievement (Parr and Timperley, 2010):

  1. An explanation of the problem in language that refers to the goals of the assignment.

  2. A process the student can follow to address that problem.

Here’s an example comment, framing the problem in terms of the reader’s needs and suggesting a process for fixing it:

“You quote this source without relating its idea to your topic in this paragraph, and so your reader has to guess how this idea about smoking relates to your main point about health care. To help your reader understand your logic, revise the sentence before the quotation to introduce it as an example, and revise the two sentences after the quotation to explain how this example illustrates your main point.”


When do comments fail?


By Lucas
By Lucas

Students fail to understand comments in ways commenters fail to imagine (Carless, 2006; Weaver, 2006; Still, 2010).

Bad handwriting, unexplained underlining, and arcane symbols confuse students, but the major problem is that commenters imagine their words mean the same thing to the student that they do to the commenter. In this regard, and in many others, bad commenting is exactly like bad writing.

Academic jargon that comes easily to instructors and tutors can be impossible for students to decode. For example, one study looked at students in a history course who received the comment that their essays required “more analysis”; of these students, only 51% could explain what analysis meant (Chanock, 2000).

While some instructors blame inattentive students for failing to master academic jargon (Bailey & Garner, 2010), the reality is that students lack the expertise they need to translate academic codes into revision practice. Comments that students can’t grasp quickly demotivate revision and lead students to feel they can’t improve as writers (Carless, 2006; Weaver, 2006).


Take great care to phrase your explanations and interventions in as little academic jargon as possible. For example:

  • What does “elaborate more” mean to a young writer (Carless, 2006)? Instead, consider: “As your reader, I do not see your connection between __________ and __________. Rewrite this sentence to show…”

  • Comments discussing tone/voice are especially opaque to many student writers (Still, 2010). Contrast the infamous “awk.” with “Your phrasing in this sentence will confuse your reader because __________. When I confront awkward sentences like these in my own writing, I read them aloud and then look away from the screen and try to say aloud what I want the sentence to say. Use this process to delete and rewrite this sentence and the other sentences I’ve highlighted.”


Do students learn from praise?


Students say they want more praise in the written comments on their writing (Cho et al., 2006; Weaver, 2006), but research suggests that positive feedback is often ineffective:

  • Positive comments have the lowest benefit among all kinds of observed feedback (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

  • Positive comments confuse students (Hyland & Hyland, 2001).

  • Positive comments give students less reason to improve (Sommers, 2006).

Positive comments may be ineffective because praise is less text-specific than criticism (Ferris, 2014), and positive comments tend to appear at the beginning of a critique (Weaver, 2006). Consider the ubiquitous “This is a good idea, but…”


To use positive comments to instill your students with confidence that they can grow as writers, describe an essay’s strengths in as much detail as you describe its weaknesses:

  • Identify a strength more concrete than an essay’s “idea” or “tone.” Find a strength so specific that you can point to or quote a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that your student can frame and hang on the wall.

  • Identify strengths that are repeatable and transferable, so students can return to them in later writing.

  • Identify a strength that is not also going to be weakness in some respect. Students distrust the rhetoric of “Good thesis, but…”

  • Explain how the strong passage meets the reader’s needs or satisfies one of the goals of the assignment: “This comparison helped persuade me because __________.”


How much time does it take to write good comments?

By Nik McPhee
By Nik McPhee

No research supports the idea that more time spent commenting leads to greater student learning.

Hewett (2011) suggests that beginning writers are able to learn and execute only 2 writing tasks through written feedback. Ferris (1997) saw comments as short as 6–15 words lead to substantial revisions.

These findings may be at the low end of the scale, but it is possible within 20 minutes to identify 3–4 significant learning needs, and to craft interventions to fit each need.

One tool that may be required for faster commenting is a computer. While many instructors feel more comfortable reading hard copies, comments written on those copies come with a built-in incentive to be short and unclear. By typing your comments, you can use your commenting time to execute the two-step intervention process described above.



By Hacklock
By Hacklock

The instincts we hone in the classroom and writing center may lead us to compose written comments that cover more issues than students can reasonably address, in language we can’t modify as we see our students’ blank faces, without clear statements of the problem or processes for correction, and with praise that does not do the substantive work we want it to.

The best studies on this topic share the conviction that comments can teach students if certain conditions are met. By recognizing the comments we write as a genre quite different from classroom instruction, with its separate strategies and rhetorical needs, we come closer to that cheering correlation between student learning from comments and instructor expertise in writing them (Parr and Timperley, 2010). But be wary: Lee (2008) cautions that many teachers who know how to write good comments nonetheless succumb to institutional and professional pressures and end up taking more time to comment less effectively.

The last word on this topic belongs naturally to Nancy Sommers (2006), whose “Responding to Student Writing” (1982) in some important ways introduced this critical review, and whose more recent work leads her to conclude:

“After following four hundred students for four years, I [ . . . argue] that feedback plays a leading role in undergraduate writing development when, but only when, students and teachers create a partnership through feedback—a transaction in which teachers engage with their students by treating them as apprentice scholars, offering honest critique paired with instruction” (p. 250).



Because this is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article, I refrained from commenting on the methods, analysis, and general persuasiveness of these studies. Many of them look at learning contexts that don’t match ours, and I fully appreciate that it is a great risk to assume that studies of high school English learners in Hong Kong apply to first-year composition students in Wisconsin. But if you are waiting for research that applies exactly to your teaching situation, you will be spend your entire career basing your teaching decisions off of lore, you’ll miss the genuine and significant research that can reveal how your students learn (Anson, 2012).

Click here for the References list.

25 Replies to “How to talk with a student who isn’t there”

  1. Mike, thanks for this timely blog post. Even as an experienced tutor (but inexperienced instructor in many ways) I struggle with commenting on student papers! This has given me many ideas about how to shift the kind of commenting that I do. I especially need to be reminded that the comments should go back to the course goals (which also reminds me that writing classes need clear course goals!!).

  2. A thought-provoking blog post as always, Mike. Thanks! Your review of the literature on the subject is something I especially appreciate, alongside your note about not waiting for research that applies to an exact teaching situation. Your post challenges me as a writing instructor myself, but also as someone in a WAC position knowing that the difficulties of commenting is always among the top concerns of the instructors our writing studio supports.

    One more thing I’ll be taking away from this post. The samples you provide strike a wonderful balance between offering concrete revision tasks (“…and revise the two sentences after the quotation to explain how this example illustrates your main point.”) without going so far as giving the writer the language they need to use.

  3. Thanks for the blog post, Mike! Your discussion of the infamous “awk” reminds me of comment a student made in the Rose Pathways Writing Workshop that Claire Parrott and I co-facilitate. When we were discussing the sort of feedback we like (and don’t like), one Rose Pathway-er admitted, quite passionately, that she was not fond of “the awk” since she felt it squashed her voice.

    Providing specific reasons as to why the style feels clumsy to me as a reader feels like a softer, more personal and thoughtful way to comment on such sentences. Even if the writer does not agree — the wording may sound fine to her ears– the comment doesn’t feel dry and stamped, and establishes, I think, the commenter’s ethos and good intentions. Which, in my opinion, are just as important as fixing a wonky-sounding sentence.

    I’ll run this by the Rose Pathway-er and see what she thinks. Thanks again for the thoughtful post, Mike!

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Mike!
    I agree wholeheartedly that the computer can help teachers offer more specific and useful comments more quickly. Grading online has led me to a technique that I think has actually made my comments more useful to my students, as well as quicker for me. Now that I grade online, I don’t give any marginal comments at all. I read the whole paper, just highlighting for myself sections I want to return to, and then I type my comments as a single one- to two-paragraph letter to the student. In that letter I praise certain sections of the paper (trying to be as specific as I can, as you mention), and then describe just a few specific revisions the student can make, explaining why and how they will improve the paper. I would be curious if others have tried this, too, or if most teachers use marginal comments, as well.

  5. I found myself nodding along as I read your post, Mike — when giving feedback to my own students, I have to try hard to highlight those particular words, sentences, and structures that illustrate what I’m reacting to in their work.

    What struck me most, however, was something that John mentioned above: the concrete nature of your sample comments. I tend to write my comments in the same tone that I’d use when talking to a student in person, and so my suggestions tend to be phrased more in the form of a question: “I’m not sure how X relates back to Y, which seems to be positioned as the main topic of this paragraph. Could you use the beginning of the sentence to show your reader the connection?” Thinking back to what you say in the beginning about the absent student, however, it makes total sense to me to be more directive with a student who isn’t actually there to answer back: “Add Z to the beginning of your sentence to show your reader the connection.” Given the need (which you cite here) for clear, specific feedback, I see the obvious sense of simply telling students what you’d like to see them do and why, instead of sending them on a bit of a rhetorical fishing expedition!

  6. Thanks, Mike, for this useful and thought-provoking post. I was struck by your remarks about academic jargon–when I began to read that section, the type of jargon I had in mind was much more discipline-specific than “analysis,” which made me realize just how easy it can be to assume that my own experiences and knowledge are universal. I look forward to trying out these commenting strategies and continuing this conversation!

  7. Thanks for this immensely instructive and thoughtful post, Mike. I appreciate your synthesis of research on the effectiveness of written feedback and your characterization of commenting as a genre of writing, with its own set of rhetorical considerations and strategies. I was especially struck by Nancy Sommers’ characterization of commenting as a “partnership” in which teachers treat students as apprentices. I think that all the strategies you give definitely fall in line with what an “apprenticeship” between a teacher and student might look like–keeping clear goals, using understandable language, purposeful praise. This idea of “partnership” or “apprenticeship” made me think about how specific styles of commenting might make students feel like partners or equals. I wonder what strategies you could suggest for how to compose comments that they make students feel like apprentices who are learning about what it means to revise.

  8. This is an excellent post, Mike. I especially like the concreteness of all of your strategies and had the same positive reaction as Katie P. to the idea of pursuing a more directive tone in written comments. In fact, this was a strategy I just began experimenting with a few months ago after reading Beth Hewett’s Online Writing Conference. Her book, like your post, is full of great advice for composing effective comments to students, and I’ve found adopting a more directive tone (especially with undergraduates) to be more effective than my “treating writing as a conversation” writing center training suggested could be true. But this leads me to one thing it might be interesting to discuss more: the “when” of commenting. In particular, should comments be different when written on a “final” paper than on a draft? And is there a way to effectively couple more directive written comments with more open-ended (face-to-face) discussion while working with students on drafts that preserves the power of each?

  9. Thanks for your reflections and analysis here Mike! As someone who spends a lot of time and effort commenting on student work, I think you raise some important points and questions here. I was specifically interested in the fact that there is very little data on the effectiveness of commenting overall and I agree with your assessment that commenting is indeed its own art and genre. I believe that when used thoughtfully, commenting can and should be about a student’s long term writing growth and development and I agree, that indeed we should always be using our comments to push students toward a deeper and more critical engagement with the reader and audience. At the same time though I wonder about this point you raise at the beginning of your post when you write that, “student commenting isn’t a conversation.” Wherever possible in my own work I try to turn my comments into a conversation. That is, I always ask students to respond (via in writing or in person) to the comments that I write so that I can indeed begin to establish a deeper conversation around them. I am in agreement with Sommers that we can and should use the comments as a space for talk, negotiation, and partnership much as we try to do in our individual writing center work – I suppose I am stating that we should never assume a student isn’t there when we are commenting (because they always are) and you raise some provocative points on this topic!

  10. Hi again, all. I’ve been thinking about this post since I first read and commented on it yesterday, so I came back to the post today and was glad to see how much more conversation has been generated since then.

    Here are some thoughts that keep surfacing for me as I continue to think about Mike’s post:

    Increasingly, I find that the “partnership” (to use Sommer’s term) created between me and my students needs to extend beyond the page and into the classroom. I have been trying to approach written feedback on their work as another type of writing that I need to help my students learn how to read, process and respond to, much as I help them approach academic argument, literary texts and so on. So I have experimented a little with building class activities around my students silently reading and processing my comments in class and then generating their own written summaries of what is being praised, what could be improved through revision and in future writing projects, as well as what questions they have. Doing this, of course, means diverting time from other possible class activities, but I’ve been encouraged with the results so far. Has anyone else developed strategies for teaching students how to process feedback and put it to use? Mike, have you come across any literature on this?

    To take a step back from those particular questions, though, this raises a larger issue for me of trying to strike a balance between tweaking (or more drastically re-engineering) the types of written feedback we offer and rethinking how we have students interact with that feedback once it’s produced. To put it another way: What can or should that partnership between teacher and apprentice writer/scholars through comments look like once the comments are in the students hands? Is thinking about the partnership existing beyond the comments themselves one way to alleviate some of our anxiety (or at least my anxiety) about whether our comments are crafted to produce the greatest possible educational impact?

  11. Another smart post from a very smart teacher/writer/thinker. Thanks, Mikey, for this informed, informative, practical, concise, and accessible post.

    And THANKS to all who helped compile the list of references–such a helpful resource!

  12. Thank you, everyone, for challenging the notion that the comments we write on our papers exist outside our relationships with student writers! I’m particularly grateful for Elizabeth, Anna, and John’s suggestions that the comments we write on papers should be integrated in some fruitful way into the classroom or in-person interactions we have with our students.

    You ask a great question about how we teach students to apply our feedback, John! There is good research laying out the problem: a large number of students are not taught how to use comments (e.g. Weaver, 2006). At a minimum, this argues that commenters need to explain—in the classroom or at the beginning of the written feedback itself—what the scale of the revision should be, and what the process of applying the revisions should look like. Still and Koerber (2010) identify some of the mistaken expectations they believe students bring to applying written comments.

    My review didn’t turn up many studies looking at how written comments are integrated into spoken conversations between commenter and writer, but they must be out there. Murtagh and Baker (2009), for example, argue for a “feed forward” process that builds student reactions to comments into a cyclical conversation about revision.

    Many very effective writing programs, like the University of Minnesota’s Student Writing Support online tutoring and our Writing Fellows program at UW–Madison, treat tutoring as a two-stage process that begins with written comments and proceeds to conversations about the draft.

    In my own classroom instruction, I ask students to reply to my feedback with their questions, counterarguments, and strategies for revision. My favorite devilish tactic is to require students to comment on my comments if they want to see their grades. Still, I have some concerns with these strategies:

    1. If we write feedback knowing that we will have a conversation with the student afterward, how will we separate the work we do in these two kinds of feedback? How do we avoid duplicating our effort? How do we avoid the dangerous division whereby written comments identify problems and spoken comments identify solutions? Will this division be a kind of crutch that allows us to skip the difficult work of thinking whether our comments are clear to our students?

    2. A more anecdotal worry is that students in introductory composition contexts might feel frustrated at the thought of prolonging the writing process through several rounds of conversations about comments about revision. One strength of written feedback is that it is available in the time and space when and where students sit down to revise. If written feedback is contingent on conversation, and the notes written during that conversation, does this separate the act of revision too far from the act of commenting?

    3. Written comments on student writing provide an authentic experience of the reader as a stranger to whom they can’t explain themselves. While students learn so much from the immediacy of their conversations with instructors in the classroom and writing center, this is the one situation in which they are confronted with a different conversational challenge: making themselves understood to someone who isn’t there. And, of course, there are cases when the commenter and the student will never meet, such as when a writing center offers email feedback on student drafts, or when the students are distance or online learners.

    These concerns are, of course, not arguments to avoid conversations with students about revision! Instead, I wonder whether training apprentice scholars may involve, for some students in some contexts, the difficult work of having student and commenter working to make sense to each other in writing.

  13. This is a really wonderful post, Mike. I think I’m going to incorporate it into some of the tutor training that I’ll be running in the fall – we do a couple of commenting workshops (using a format I borrowed from Matthew Capdevielle) and your post is a great blend of theory and practice. I also really love the discussion that has grown out of it.

    Beth, although I still read everything in hard copy, I also type up a “letter” for my students, although I do that in addition to making brief marginal notes that, in many way, act as a sort of reference point for issues that I describe or discuss in more detail in the letters. I also keep notes on the side where I make comments that are only for my eyes – often the process of writing the letters is one of translating these thoughts and impressions (both positive and more critical) into more constructive, detailed comments, which also then allows me some time to really prioritize what I need to spend time on when providing feedback. The letters themselves tend to be two paragraphs long, one focused on what students did well and why, and one focused on what needs to be improved and why. Since I started using this approach, I’ve found that student responses to their grades and investment in subsequent papers seem to have been more positive.

    I also love the idea of asking students to comment on the comments!

  14. This is not only an insightful post, but downright practical and useful. We spend so much time talking to our students about thinking about their audience when they write, but that’s so often something we forget when we write comments on their papers – we simply expect that they will know what we mean when we say “awk” or “more analysis.” This is such a good reminder too to think of commenting in terms of efficiency and usefulness: what will students get out of what we write?

    To your point (and Beth’s comment) about using computers in order to respond to student writing, however, I think it might be worth asking what we lose when we shift from handwritten comments in the margin to either the comment function or to solely typed end-notes. Although I imagine I will abandon writing on hard copies eventually for a number of reasons (especially environmental), I still find that I engage with student writing more effectively and more attentively when I have a pencil in my hand. I don’t write all over their papers, but my marks on their page represent my engagement with their ideas: I underline strongly worded ideas, I put check marks next to strong points, I write “hmmm” when I’m skeptical, I write “Ha!” when I think something is funny. I think (or at least I like to think) my marks and remarks give them a sense of how their real reader responds to their writing. I give a typed end-note, too, which addresses larger argumentative, methodological, and organizational aspects of their paper as well. But I’m not yet willing to let go of the handwritten stuff.

  15. Thanks for this post, Mike!

    I ask myself these questions all the time, and it has led to several different strategies for how I provide written feedback.

    One of my more recent strategies has involved rubric development. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve been teaching business documents, which are slightly more formulaic, but I think they could be applied to college-level research papers as well. I often feel that there are lists of things we’d like our students to do, and it’s often less mysterious than we’d like to believe: tasks like “focusing each paragraph around a single point or idea.” Rather than type this instruction over and over again, I include items like these in a rather long rubric containing check-boxes. A portion of my grading involves checking off accomplished items and returning this document to the student. Many students have expressed to me how much they appreciate this style of grading in surveys and conversations. It allows them to see what they’ve done well (the checked items), and where the need work (the unchecked items). I believe this speaks to many of the recommendations you make above, especially the one about specific positive feedback.

    These rubrics can also be very helpful in peer review because I can basically have students evaluate each others’ work without actually assigning a grade.

    This has led me to further envision a system where a single comment on a paper could actually be a hyperlink to video demonstration of how to fix the problem that I am identifying. This way, I could avoid academic language altogether and simply show the student what to do… like some sort of seamless integration of comments and instruction.

  16. Thanks for a great post Mike! I’ll admit, my own commenting has devolved from where it was when I was a lowly TA, in part because I’m now routinely turning around 120-160 papers at a time (God bless the 4-4 teaching load). But this past semester, I had my students in my Intro Lit classes write up a two-paragraph response to my feedback on their first major essay. They had to tell me what they thought I was saying, and then tell me how they would use this specifically to improve the next paper. Of course, I was seeing the gamut of responses, from “This all makes sense” to “I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.” So your points about what we mean vs. what they take out of it are particularly pertinent to where I’m at right now. (Whether that assignment of mine had any effect remains to be seen; I get their second essay this Sunday. But I have high hopes!)

    Re: Eric’s comments about handwritten v. electronic: I do everything online now, which makes my work much easier (and my handwriting is atrocious, so my students appreciate getting typed feedback). But I agree, it’s much harder to praise this way, simply because it takes so much longer to “Insert Comment” and then type “Yes!” or “Good!” or something. It was much easier when I could just put a checkmark or a smiley face next to a good moment. Sadly, that takes up a lot more time in typing than it does with a pen. So if anyone has thoughts on how to quickly show praise, I’d love to hear them.

    And re: Beth: I had one paper in my freshman comp last semester where all I did was give end comments. (It was different from the other papers in that class, which had both end and marginal.) My students repeatedly said it was much tougher to revise that paper, but that they felt their revisions were more substantial because they couldn’t just go in and fix the small stuff. I noticed that paper did have much better revisions, by and large, than the others. Less focus on incremental changes, and more big picture revision. Do with that anecdotal evidence what you will.

  17. This post and discussion really has me thinking! Thanks, everyone, and especially Mike, for starting this particular iteration of a conversation that’s long been going on in writing pedagogy research.

    I’m bookmarking this for future thinking and teaching! In particular, I love Brian’s and Mike’s comment-back feature, and the idea of working with students on interpreting comments. Since we teach our students how to read lots of different kinds of texts, why do we assume they can read comments? It’s so obvious, but I had never thought of it that way before.

    Mike: do you know of studies on non-written commenting? I’m thinking in particular of audio-recorded comments. All I have is anecdata, but some of my students report really liking that. They get the affective good stuff (me talking nicely about their work, which now that I think of it, might be a gendered), and when I give them constructive feedback, I’m able to talk through a potential revision process with more detail. It’s like a combination of endcomments and conferencing, I think. The high-bandwidth of speaking means that I don’t cramp my wrists, and students can return to the 5min audio recordings to catch what they missed–unlike written comments.
    I don’t always do audio comments though–sometimes it’s too heavyweight for assignments, and the tech stuff takes more time than writing comments. And some students really *don’t* like it.

  18. My favorite part of this post? The research question: Rather than treat comments as a failed form of talk, why not ask what work we can do in our written feedback that we can’t do in any other way?

    There is something special about the kind of instruction that takes place in writing. I think a productive theory of commenting absolutely has to take into consideration the medium. What a smart post.

  19. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Mike!

    I was struck by your statement that bad commenting is like bad writing because “commenters imagine their words mean the same thing to the student that they do to the commenter.” Your point is well taken. In addition to jargon, I wonder if one of these disconnects is around the issue of goals. I comment with the intention that my students be able to transfer their learning to subsequent papers and classes, but am I communicating this explicitly? If a student is reading my comments with a view to “fix” the current paper, in what ways are we misreading each other in the commenting exchange?

    If good commenting is like good writing, in which we know (or at least anticipate) our audience, it seems to me there is also a component of making ourselves known to that audience. In light of what others have said about teaching students to interpret and apply our feedback, I’d add being transparent about our goals for them (and perhaps being open to the fact that their goals for themselves as writers may not mesh with ours).

  20. I’m a little late to this blog post reply party, but I made it. Just to reiterate what most folks are saying, this is really a helpful post! It makes me think about and rethink how I work with online students. And I have to say, my pedagogy is pretty much in line with the strategies being offered here. And that makes me really happy, and really relieved, actually. I say this for a few reasons:

    First, I tend to be more directive in my written comments because, one, I feel that is what the student needs (per their submission form), and, two, because of the reason stated in the post regarding the possibility of not hearing back from the student after you send their paper back to them. I will talk about this more in a bit.

    Secondly, I do tend to get students who send their papers to me with questions regarding their instructor’s comments. Even if they do not have questions about them, they send me the paper with the comments anyway because our submission form asks for the comments so we can see what page their instructor is on in terms of needed revisions. Sometimes it is hard for me not to get frustrated with the ambiguity and generalized nature of the teacher comments, the ghost highlights and underlines. I feel sometimes as a tutor I am put in a difficult situation to “translate” and “interpret” the teacher comments (which is not part of our writing center pedagogy), while at the same time trying to line them up with my own. Even after I create my comments, I always urge the student to ask their instructor for further elaboration on their own comments to avoid any sort of miscommunication and mistranslation. Also, sometimes I find that arcane instructor comments can be somewhat reflective of the assignment prompt – I’ve seen many writing prompts that are confusing and/or too general, and the comments the instructor gives back on what the students students wrote to answer said confusing/general prompt are also general and confusing. My favorite is the “?” scrawled down half the margin.

    Lastly, I also breathe a sigh of relief about the research that positive comments are not that effective. I tend to give very few positive comments. As I noted before, my comments are directive, and they also include examples, links to examples on the internet or the APA/MLA manual, or other useful websites that I think they could learn from. I don’t just send them a link and let them do with it what they may: I explain to them what the link leads to, how to use it, and why. I find that explanations behind everything I ask the student to consider doing in their revision helps build my credibility, and also shows them how I see it working for them. This does wonders for upping our return submission rate, and our evaluations haven been adamant that this type of directive assistance is what the students need. When I do give positive comments they are usually in the letter I write to the student at the beginning or end of the paper, and I usually focus on one thing that I think the student does nicely. It is usually regarding voice, organization, or their choices in references. I choose one of these areas because these three areas are usually what students have concerns with the most. I never use “Good thesis/quote/conclusion,… but” for the reasons stated in Mike’s researched info. This totally negates any positive reinforcement. I also hate it when professors do this to my writing, too. So I definitely stay away from it because I know how it feels.

    At any rate, that is my take on your post, Mike, as I see it pertaining to my own tutoring/teaching style. It does make me feel really good about what I do with our distance learners. And, like you said, we may never know what these students take away from our comments. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. The point is that the ones that do take something from it will most likely remember where they learned it, and every time they apply it in another class, in their work/home/business, they will think of us. One can hope, anyway!

  21. Thanks for blogging about this OGE, Mike! As I said when you first approached me about co-teaching it, I feel it is important for us to think about our commenting practices especially in the more digital forums in which we increasingly teach.

    First, a confession: Even as the Online Coordinator and someone who thinks a lot about digital pedagogy, I have never commented electronically on student papers. In the past, I have frequently used my hour long bus ride to comment on student papers, which, without getting a data plan for my iPad, is not really possible electronically. However, after teaching this OGE and directing email instructors this year, I think I’m sold on the process for several reasons:

    1. Legibility– While this may seem a small concern, I actually think it is very important when communicating how much your students should value your comments. If you chicken scratch in the margins, even when you make an offhand comment about your sloppy handwriting and ask students to come to you if they can’t read something, you are creating a barrier for students in interpreting your feedback. Why add one more barrier when it is already difficult enough for us to make them pay attention and value what we have to say? When comments are typed, the student can easily read them and that barrier is removed as if to say, “Hey, I WANT you to be able to read these because they are important.”

    2. Efficiency– This is something I’ve become more convinced of by working with email instruction. When I write out comments by hand, I frequently find myself writing the same kinds of things over and over again (these later turn into class mini-lessons). Copying and pasting are godsends for time management, though they must be used critically. You have to take time to relate your template back to your experience as a reader of the paper. So, I could easily cut and paste (or, if I’m fancy, I can just use the AutoCorrect feature, which my OGEers LOVED learning about) my reverse outline spiel into a draft. I could then spend more effort and energy relating that template to this paper and less regurgitating the template.

    3. Links-The possibilities for linking in your comments help you build a more student-centered classroom, so that you are teaching students to help themselves, rather than just correcting them. If I point out an APA citation rule in the comments, I can easily link to a page that explains that rule, providing the students with a resource I may not have time to mention in class. In this way, students also know that my comments are a place where I continue teaching and providing resources.

    Besides these, there’s also the opportunity for students to respond to comments, especially if you use Google docs as your turn in method, which can hold students accountable for reading your comments without requiring you to read a whole new assignment (as letter responses do). You can just go in and check off whether the student responded to the comment, instead. While I haven’t been in the classroom this year, I’m excited to try out some of these new tools with future students.

    Leah Misemer
    TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  22. I love that your blog post adopts the organizational strategy you recommend for commenting on student papers (problem/strategy). This information is so helpful in inviting all of us to reflect on our commenting practices and reminding us that more time, effort, or ink does not always result in more learning.

    As I recently held conferences with my students, I found myself thinking about how this information applies to the verbal comments I make – particularly whether students understand my comments in the same way I do. While we do have the opportunity to have a conversation, we’re also restricted by a fairly tight schedule (15 minutes per student). I’m still waiting to see their revised papers but focusing on two key areas and discussing solutions/revisions together did seem to be a successful strategy for a brief-conference. I’ll definitely be thinking more about the crossover between my verbal and written comments.

    Thanks, Mike!

  23. Mike, your tips and suggestions for making comments on student writing do more efficient “work” is great. When we teach students that writing is collaborative and process-oriented, it strikes me that we might begin to view our feedback in a similar way. I especially appreciated your suggestions to even couple praise with specific suggestions for revision. It’s nice to have someone tell you what you’re doing well with your writing, but students often arrive from high school having received little productive feedback (at least so they tell me). The challenge becomes how to offer them feedback that departs from what they’ve seen (or not) in the past. Your post reminded me of the importance of responding as a reader by asking questions. At the same time, like Anna, I also wonder about your assertion that feedback isn’t a conversation. Whenever possible, I ask my students to respond to my feedback with a letter, reflective elements, or through freewriting in-class. I believe it is possible to make feedback into a conversation. Doing so also empowers students to guide the course of their learning. Instead of reinforcing a model of one-way teacher-to-student comments, seeking methods for the student to turn that around and speak back to comments can be a very powerful tool for learning. When we ask students to respond to specific suggestions from our feedback, to demonstrate that they have thought deeply about those suggestions, made an effort to revise their work accordingly, and to point us to moments in subsequent work in which those comments have been embraced, we turn the comments into a conversation. In so doing, we can make our feedback on student writing do substantially more “work.” That said, I especially appreciate the detailed suggestions you offer here, and I imagine I’ll return to this blog post in the future as a reminder of the many ways that I can make my feedback pull its weight! Again, many thanks for a timely, thoughtful, and engaging post.

  24. Thanks Mike

    I have read Hattie and colleagues work on feedback extensively, which also highlights the superiority of written feedback.

    It has included general advice such as:
    * Focusing on a small number of key points
    * Telling the student how they could improve (referenced to content criteria)

    However, you added a lot of practical that I hadn’t read before.


    Your readers may also be interested in Hattie’s research on matching the type of feedback (aka comment) on the level of mastery the student is at on the topic. In brief:
    * Give correct and direct type comments to novice learners
    * Point out the process for intermediate learners
    * Give coaching questions to advanced learners
    For more information check out this article.


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