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A Synopsis of This Week’s Readings: Responding to Student Writing

All of our ENG 703 readings this week address the topic of how best to respond to student writing. The writers all have differing methods, but all of them agree that a student-centered approach is best. What follows it a quick synopsis of this week’s readings.

“Responding to Student Writing,” by Nancy Sommers, addresses the key concern that “teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their own purposes in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teacher’s purpose in commenting”(149). She also takes issue with the extent of comments, indicating that teachers are sometimes vague and excessive in their comments; “the language of the comments makes it difficult for a student to sort out and decide what is most important and what is least important”(151). Sommers talks about the abstract language used to critique student work, but notes that sometimes such language is “not appropriate for the specific text the student is creating”(153). Many teachers read with their “preconceptions and preoccupations”(154), resulting in their misreading of many student texts. Ultimately, Sommers does note the relevance of commenting on student papers; this “assists the writing course in achieving its purpose; classroom activities and the comments [teachers] write to [their] students need to be connected”(155).

In “Minimal Marking,” Richard H. Haswell points out “that hours must be put in with little return in terms of effect on the students or on their writing” (600). To address this problem, Haswell has created a system to address student writing errors. “Each of these mistakes is indicated only with a check in the margin by the line in which it occurs,” (601) Haswell writes to explain his system. “That is nearly two hours saved with a set of twenty-five essays,” he writes. He has a great deal of numerical data to back up his system, as Haswell appears to be quite the statistician. This system, Haswell writes, amounts to “less work for the teacher, more gain for the student”(603). Haswell includes a quotation by Comenius: “the more the teacher teaches, the less the student learns”(604), summing up his thesis: “the best mark is that which allows students to correct the most on their own with the least help”(604).

Two essays by Peter Elbow conclude this week’s readings: “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking:Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment” and “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Writing.” Both of these essays demonstrate Elbow to be an educator who cares about his students and, in his own words, “at least do[es] no harm” to them (13).

In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking,” Elbow writes at great length, yet his points are easily summed up. He advocates “little ranking and grading,” which “undermine[s] learning and teaching”(205). Ranking is the process of assigning letter or numerical grades to student papers. Elbow writes, “let’s use evaluation instead–a more careful, more discriminating, fairer mode of assessment;” he notes, however, that “evaluation is harder than ranking,” so he highlights his beginning of term method of “evaluation-free zones,” which foster relationships between students and teacher. Ultimately, Elbow wants teachers to “learn to be better likers: like our own and our students’ writing;” this makes for the most rewarding teaching and learning experience.

Elbow’s other essay, “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” examines the writer’s preference for low stakes assignments. “The goal of low stakes assignments is not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn, and understand more of the course material”(5). This is because “low stakes writing helps students involve themselves more in the ideas or subject matter of a course”(7). Elbow notes a problem: “When students do high stakes writing they often struggle in nonproductive ways and produce terrible and tangled prose.” However, we live in a high stakes, test-driven culture; what about those high stakes essays which students encounter on state tests or the SAT exam? Elbow writes, “by assigning frequent low stakes pieces, we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we [teachers] have to grade a high stakes piece–so they are already warmed up and more fluent”(7).

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6 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    If i teacher is not teaching grammar then it’s not fair to grade their work checking for grammar. I think it’s something that students should already know by the secondary level but unfortunately from my experiences writing and grammar are not student’s strong points. Maybe just putting the check next to the sentence will be enough to motivate students since they will have to do it on their own. I keep running this idea through my head and I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the students should and probably will benefit from the check theory but I can’t help but think it’s a way out for lazy teachers. I am leaning more towards the fact that this works and it’s something that I would like to try with my students next year. I want to be a teacher and believe that students will need me but what I learned on my own sometimes sticks better. I guess we’re learning facilitators and not teachers.

  2. Guadalupe Bueno says

    Richard H. Haswell’s method resonates as a prudent form of grading on the teachers’ behalf because the student is responsible to evaluate what was incorrect . I do not see it as a lack of action from the teacher. We have all learned through trial and error, and most of what we learn has resulted from solving a problem ourselves. Christopher, what you said about the heightened importance of tests or the SAT exam is true- such therefore leads to question whether or not the very system that is to produce better writers is actually creating a counter effect in its zest for exams?

  3. Victoria Fontana says

    As you included in your synopsis about high-stakes writing, Elbow says, students “often struggle in nonproductive ways and produce terrible and tangled prose.” High-stakes writing administers added pressure and stress which can impede the natural cognitive mechanisms involved in critical thinking and thoughtful writing.

    High-stakes writing also doesn’t allow for much recursive writing. Perl might argue that recursive writing would activate the felt-sense that may not be welcome with high-stakes writing assignments. The felt-sense is similar to “non-verbal knowing” that Elbow believes can occur when writing, as if one is on the search for a word that is on the tip of the tongue, or inspired by an abstract idea that is waiting to be shaped with words. Many styles of writing can benefit from non-verbal knowing; that inspiration may lead to more creative pieces and well-rounded, interesting expository essays.

    • Kevin L. Ferguson says

      Great point–and we talked a little last time about the relationship between formal and informal reading, especially the question of how one can lead into the other.

  4. mobrien says

    This “check theory” would ideally be the one thing we need to use when grading our students to help motivate them to do the work themselves. But, the truth is that some of our students need more guidance than others. While I understand the authors’ points and the consensus across the board that it is better to have students look critically at their own writing, there are some students who genuinely need more specific feedback or direction. Vague comments, and small checks next to errors are not the answer for students who struggle to find their words to begin with. When I give a writing assignment, I am collecting 120 papers — this is an overwhelming stack to think about grading. I also agree that we can often develop poor grading habits because of the tedious nature of grading. However, if it becomes more about a dialogue with the student, rather than an identifucation of all the student errors, then perhaps this tasl becomes less strenuous. Feedback and grading should allow for open communication between teacher and student, and this communication should happen more than once over the course of an assignment (via outlines, drafts, and final copies). A question mark next to an unclear statement will not suffice. If we want our students to ask questions of their own work, it is our responsibility to model that behavior by posing questions to them first — questions that require critical analysis and self-reflection in order for them to effectively revise their writing. Can the “check theory” work on some assignments, or in some spots of an assignment? Of course it has its place, but like everything else we have been discussing this semester, there is a blance that we hace to strive for. Yes, students need to be aware of fundamentals and make a consistent effort to formalize their writing. But this needs to be combined with opportunities for the student to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize their thoughts for a well-developed, more effective piece.

  5. trevor11 says

    I think what Haswell is describing is more or less a godsend for an English teacher…if it could work in all cases. I as an English student, both undergraduate and graduate, have worked at improving my writing and that means paying attention to the comments and suggestions I receive from my professors this once again an intrinsic factor though. I wish that I could simply put a check next to a line and have the student find and mend their mistake but I think it’s important to recognize the fact that 1, like rachel says they should already know about grammar at the secondary level, yet many of them are severely lacking in that area and 2 the student must be cognizant enough to recognize and understand that a mistake was made and that they need to fix it. How many times have you been handed a paper back from a student you marked up and it looks largely the same because they didn’t pay attention?