Commenting: The Basics

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When I am training new teachers, I like to tell them that grading is easy—it’s commenting that’s hard.  That is, once you get used to whatever criteria your program uses to determine grades (see ours for reference) you can quickly determine the grade any paper has earned. The real challenge, and the real reason grading takes so much of our time, is commenting. How do you comment effectively?  How much is too much and how much is not enough? How do you frame comments in a way that will help a student improve? These aren’t easy questions for any teacher, as indicated by the rich body of literature on commenting. I’d like to that by sharing my experiences with commenting on student work. Much of what I do is what we all do, but humor me—I’m hoping there is some value in seeing it at work in the context of real student writing. For this series of posts, then, I’ll use the papers of one of my students from last semester, who was writing in response to the assignments I referred to in my earlier series of blog posts. For starters, my purpose in commenting is not to justify a grade. Instead, my comments are a mixture of my reactions as a reader (letting the student see a real audience’s response) and directed feedback on how to improve for the next writing assignment.  My comments are also pretty regular, so much so that students in my classes tend to learn the pattern pretty quickly.  I always include a comment at the end of the introduction that offers feedback on the student’s argument, and I always comment on each paragraph, reflecting on its strength or weaknesses. My final comment sums up my overall impression of the paper, then indicates specific issues for the student to work on in the next paper. Throughout it all I look for promising moments—those little moves in a paper that show real potential. In pointing students to those moments in my marginal and end comments, I’m able to help them see what they need to do more of and what they need to modify. So what does that all look like?  In my next post I’ll show you and discuss why I wrote what I wrote in some detail.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.