Commenting on Student Papers

Posted: January 5, 2014 in Pedagogy
Tags: ,

DAFT COT trailer

Handling a controversial, argumentative topic would be challenging for some–the reader’s emotional response is to take a side and defend it. When I encounter topics that I have a strong opinion about, I’m interested to hear or read what one person believes. Rarely does that person’s stance completely coincide with mine.

I think it’s important for teachers to explain where they come from when making comments as a pseudo-audience member. Teachers do not have the right to grade based on personal opinion: they must remain as objective as they can. After all, they cannot grade based on their personal stance when taking part in the writing conversation. As Bruffee points out, “Writing may seem to be displaced in time and space from the rest of a writer’s community of readers and other writers, but in every instance writing is an act, however much displaced, of conversational exchange.”

To accomplish this “third-party” perspective, I found myself critiquing the rhetoric behind the argument. The belief system had nothing to do with how I felt towards the topic but everything with how the argument would be perceived by others. The blogs I commented on were mainly liberal, which lends to my political and personal slant. If anything I didn’t feel opposed to these students’ opinions, but rather protective because their views were my views (for the most part).

I wanted the student I was working with to produce the best argument they could by eliminating flaws in logic, strengthening their theses, honing their focui, and improving upon their organization. Surprisingly, these were the areas where the students requested the most help. These higher level concerns were the ones I immediately identified as being the source of their weaknesses, and the students instinctively knew where they needed to improve. I doubted then that any comments would be part of the “banking concept.” I wasn’t considering depositing information into my students’ heads with the intent that they must make the changes I was suggesting. I had no intention of portraying my insight as the right way to approach the topic, think about the writing process, or meet the assignment’s requirements.

From what I’ve found from tutoring and from this project, permitting students to choose where they want to improve makes them more likely to use the comments provided. Hooks would claim this manipulative act is a form of praxis–allowing students to take action and reflect on the world (and their work) in order to change it. She argues for progressive, holistic education that makes students engaged and empowered. Making broad comments that are focused on students’ individual wants and needs allows them to invest in one of the most painful parts of the writing process–revision. I believe that guiding students to self-discovery and self-actualization leads to writers who take ownership of the production of better writing.

The students felt the feedback helped them and expressed appreciation for the comments I provided–even the negative ones. I tend to exhibit total candor and honesty when I provide feedback. (My co-worker always asks me for writing advice because, as she says, “You’d tell me if it sounds like crap but in a nice way.”) The blatant truth and a Socratic approach towards self-knowledge seems the most effective strategy when I need to convince people to alter their faulty logic or tighten their writing focus.

Even though I’m able to be neutral and objective when examining a piece of writing, I find myself feeling uncomfortable when I consider grading student work. Belief–the strength in one’s convictions–cannot be critiqued. Slapping a letter on a belief seems degrading to a student’s effort at representing how she feels on paper. Grades, though, are essential at establishing where students are in relation to their personal progress. Using DAFT COT to create a rubric doesn’t allow for arbitration or a passing whim; percentages under this grading system have meaning and carry weight regardless of a student’s opinion on a controversial topic.

Development, Audience, Focus, Thesis, Content, Organization, Transitions

  • Method for prioritizing students’ wants and needs when commenting
  • Goal-setting exercise for students to identify strengths/weaknesses
  • Mnemonic for memorizing higher-order concerns for a holistic approach towards the writing process
  • Distinguishes what revision is intended to accomplish/improve
  • Letters are arranged to guide the writer through brainstorming or drafting individual paragraphs
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