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Grade Summaries Instead of End Comments

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Untitled by Neil Conway on FlickrI always spend the largest amount of time on the comments when I grade students’ writing. I can frequently tell with a quick skim what needs attention. The work comes in determining the best way to help the student understand, finding resources in the text or online to support them, and encouraging them to keep writing.


In my post about Explaining Labor-Based Grading to Student Writers, I found an idea that inspired me to make an immediate change by stopping my practice of writing end comments and long annotations. So this week, I am not only thinking about students’ labor, I am also focusing on the labor that I bring to the course.


Asao Inoue, whose research has inspired me, writes about the workload involved in assessing student work on their labor in his article “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” Inoue explains, “Since I only read the writing, and do not grade or even respond to most of it, weekly work goes smoothly and quickly . . . I’m only looking for patterns of issues and examples to use in class discussions” (91).


Students know about this practice from the beginning of the course. The contract that Asao Inoue used at Fresno State discusses the “culture of support” that the course will build as they provide feedback for one another. Inoue tells students, “Always know that I will read everything and shape our classroom assessment activities and discussions around your work, but you will not receive grades or comments directly from me all of the time.”


Inoue’s ideas made me wonder why I was spending so much time on individual comments. Frequently, I was repeating the same basic ideas, as I wrote unique comments for each student. I was putting in a lot of work, and I wasn’t sure that students even read it carefully. Since my classes are all online, I couldn’t discuss patterns and examples in class, in the way that Inoue mentions. I realized though that I could accomplish the same thing with a grading summary post after I finished reading through students’ work on an assignment.


My first assessment summary was Grades on the Analysis of Writing Project. As with my end comments, I started out with comments on what students had done well and moved on to frequent errors and improvements that they could make. I don’t think it's the best advice that I will ever write, but I’m happy with it for a first try. In particular, I liked the fact that with the audience of the whole class (rather than one individual student), I could put the praise and advice in a broader context. Students were not alone in the additional work that they needed to do. They knew that others needed to make the same or similar changes.


I also used this grade summary page to outline the options for revision. Since I have not totally converted to a system of grades based on labor, I had a series of reasons that students might need to revise that ranged from forgetting to include the self-assessment checksheet and reflection to not turning in the assignment at all. Instead of writing specific instructions into an end comment for each student, I wrote one list that included the options for everyone.


I am still adding annotations with the SpeedGrader tool in Canvas (our CMS) to point out strong work and ask questions to help students revise, but I have stopped adding most of the end comments. I am saving myself a little time, since I don’t write all the individual comments. Better yet, I feel as if these comments to the whole class remind everyone about ways to improve their writing. I haven’t gotten much feedback from students yet, so I would love to hear what you think about this system. Please leave me a comment below, and let me know.



[Photo Credit: Untitled by Neil Conway on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license]

1 Comment
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Hi Traci -

Teaching 5-6 classes per semester translates to hours of comments to...well, comments, and that process is quite tedious. For me, that would be 100-120 responses per week-- impossible! And you're right to point out that if instructors like us were to write hundreds of individual responses, you might notice the same comments over and over. I began to notice that my responses were practically "canned," as if I were some human scantron machine. Then again, students may be expecting comments for every assignment, so it does make sense to respond in some way. 

My homework assignments are usually Canvas Discussion Forums that respond to a reading or in-class discussion. Everyone sees posts, so it's all very transparent. After reading and grading all responses, I create a new announcement that responds to everyone's post. If I don't post, I take notes and bring up any issue in class, everything from critical thinking, rhetorical devices, to run-on sentences. 

In one class, I am using Bedford's reader Monsters, and I had students read a funny essay by Chuck Klosterman, who argues that the increasing popularity of zombie myths is largely due to the idea that we are all killing zombies in some way, if those zombies include "deleting 400 work emails on Monday morning" or checking a Twitter feed. (Here's the article if interested: ) I had students build on that notion, and they could see how their own lives - at times - felt monotonous and tedious. Once all responses were posted, I replied with this announcement: 


Lessons from Discussion #2

All of you wrote some excellent responses. Many of you acknowledged the idea of us being zombies because of all the "boring" and routine chores we must do daily to survive. But as many of you highlighted, those chores are done for a larger purpose: To get an education and a better job.

Perhaps that's the takeaway. Have you heard the cliche' that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Apply that idea to zombies. If you are unhappy with your lives, but you forego doing anything to improve your existence, well then I suppose that makes you a zombie. Clearly you are are using your brains, and your routines are a means to a successful end: a degree, a career, perhaps a family, etc. 

Don't eat the brains. Use 'em!

See you Thursday.


I'd love to say that I do this every week, but depending on the responses, I may use their Canvas discussions as a lesson plan. I am very clear about how these grades are assessed, so students are aware and rarely do they complain.

After all, we don't want to become "comment zombies!"


P.S. Have you read Rethinking Rubrics? It may add a layer to what you are suggesting. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (9780325008561): Maja Wilson: Books 

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.