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Recommendations for Writing Comments on Student Papers

Robert Harris
Version Date: April 29, 1997 

Writing comments on student papers is something of an art: it requires a little thought and practice for the comments to be effective--that is, both read and attended to. The following recommendations about writing comments were developed for students in writing and literature classes; however, with a little adjustment, they can be applied to any writing assignment.

1. Remember that students' egos are very fragile. Be careful in your comments not to hurt the students unnecessarily. Tell the students in advance that the job they do on a paper is not a reflection of their worth as a human being. A "D" paper does not make them a "D" human being. Many students have gotten grades in high school based on how well the teacher liked them, so when you give them a C or D, they think you hate them. Explain that this is not so. It might be good to say, "The more marks you find on your paper, the more it means I like you. If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't bother to put any marks on your paper."

2. Don't mark errors or make comments in red. Red ink looks like blood and screams at the student, "How dare you make this mistake!" Use pencil or neutral pen color like blue or green. (Pencil also allows for erasures, in case you change your mind about a grade, marking, comment, or suggestion.)

3. Don't use comments merely to justify the grade. That is, don't just summarize all the mistakes you've marked or point out all the deficiencies in the paper so that the student won't object to the grade you assign. If all the comments are negative, the students will either not read them or be depressed by them. Remember that you want to increase their motivation to do better on future papers.

4. Be sure to point out some positive things about the paper. Most papers have at least a few things that the student has done well. Good insights, analysis, use of quotations, an effective title, good use of personal examples--these are a few items you might mention. Sometimes you will have to stretch a little, since some papers show little thought and are grammatical and stylistic messes. But do try to find something good--without being sarcastic: "Nice choice of font!" or "Excellent margins!" may seem funny to you at the time, but can demoralize a student. You can usually claim to have found something "interesting" or perhaps "provocative" that the student has said.

5. Intermix positive and negative comments. It's usually best to begin with a positive comment about the paper, then mention a criticism, then another positive, and so on. The intermixture helps the student accept the criticisms and shows that you have a balanced response to the paper.

6. Don't use subordination, or "but" or "however" transitions unless transitioning from negative to positive. That is, never say, "This essay has some good ideas in it, but. . . ." If you do this, most students will discount all the good things you say, believing them to be insincere. (They have heard it too often before: We appreciate your efforts but you're off the team, fired, failed in the class, not going to the prom, etc. etc.) It is okay, though, to transition the other way and say, for example, "While there are several serious mechanical errors in this paper, the ideas expressed are quite good." The best thing to do may be to list the comments without any logical transitions.

For example: "This is a well-written paper, containing some interesting and apt analysis. The difficulty with it is that it does not develop a clearly expressed thesis. That is, what is the point of it all? The paragraphs are interesting and draw upon some of the crucial questions of the novel. There is way too much plot summary. Mechanics need help, too. I liked the section near the end where Mark is shown to have grown."

7. Criticize "this paper," not "you." That is, don't say, "You don't know where you're going here," or "You are grammatically very weak." Instead, say, "The paper doesn't seem to have any direction," or "The paper is grammatically very weak." It's okay to use "you" when saying good things, but direct criticisms to what the paper lacks, not what the student seems to lack.

Similarly, when making comments about needs, say things like, "This paper needs a clear central idea," rather than "You need a clear central idea here." Phrases like, "an area to work on," "a major problem to look at," "fragments need to be focused on and corrected," and so forth are better than what might seem to the student like direct attacks.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to express the difficulty with the paper as your own, as reader, letting the student know that communication is not taking place. If, for example, you write, "I cannot understand where you are going here," or "I cannot find the direction of the paper," or "My difficulty here is the lack of a clear central point," the student should understand that his or her job has not been done, and yet should not feel under attack.

8. Use a question rather than a correction to challenge errors. Everyone's brain gets a wire crossed occasionally and we inattentively say what we do not mean. And sometimes students cannot say what they mean, and thus make mistakes of writing rather than of knowledge. It is therefore a good idea not to jump on errors that upon examination will probably be obvious to the student. A simple query that implies an "Are you sure about this?" is usually enough to initiate the appropriate forehead slapping.

Instead, then, of writing, "Oh, come on! Don't be an idiot!" or "You have this backwards!" with five or six underlines underneath it for emphasis, ask a simple question. "Are you saying here that Marx was a capitalist?!" (The exclamation point shouts entirely loud enough.) "Are you sure this is right?" "Does this mean that the dead man is talking?" (Try not to sound sarcastic. Occasionally, just a question mark or exclamation point in the margin will point out the error.)

More Sample Comments

Example 1: Good analysis of similarities between the two novels. Perhaps the length of discussion of each similarity could be shortened as you tightened up the writing and then the number of similarities could be increased by two or three. Intro is too long and the central idea isn't quite clear enough, because of the way the last sentence of paragraph two ends. Much better than the draft. Grade: A-

Example 2: This is generally a good paper with a clear central idea. (The central idea could have been kept a little more directly in focus.) Paragraphs could be improved by focusing them on topic sentences better. Very persuasive and interesting job. Grade: B

Example 3: This paper has some very fine insights and interpretations in it. Your thesis is good, clear, and the argument is persuasive. The organization and discussion could be improved quite a bit, to make it clearer in some places that you're still demonstrating Keetah's symbolic role. And is she symbolic of the culture, the village, or both? That isn't clear. Grade: B

Example 4: The thesis is clear and exciting. I wish the middle of the paper had developed it clearly. And it could have--the details are there, though as plot summary, not argument. Discuss and apply the details you include and you'll have a great paper. Grade: C

Example 5: There are several interesting insights here, together with some apt analysis. The weakness of the writing interferes with the communication of those insights and ideas. What I could understand about your view of Freytag's pyramid, I really liked. Better structure and more than one draft would surely help to make your writing as good as your underlying ideas. Grade: D+ 

 


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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com