The Tough Row: Tools for Responding Faster to Student Writing

Dr. Brent House

When I was a college student, spring break meant working in the fields with my father from sunrise until sondown. Planting the crops we would harvest in the coming summer meant two things to my father: my undergraduate tuition would be paid, so I wouldn’t have to enter my adult life in debt, and I would know the cost of hard work, so I would stay on the President’s List for another year. He hoped I would leave college debt-free and I would never have to work as hard as he had worked. Graduate school and a career in academia ensured both of those hopes would be ruined.

Still, many of the lessons he taught when we worked in the fields remain in my life until this day. One of those lessons was that hard work (and smart work) during planting season will bring better yields during harvest season. I remember that lesson, as I work more on the low-stakes, formative assessment of essay drafts that will be completed later in the semester and work less on the high-stakes summative assessment of completed projects.

There’s good reason for this approach, as research from Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher [English Journal 103.1 (2013): 66-71] found 80% of surveyed students who received summative feedback on graded essays wanted to know “what grade I got and generally how I did.” The researchers write: “They [student writers] were not as interested in ‘Edits to improve my writing’ (3 percent), ‘Information about my understanding of the content’ (12 percent), or ‘Specific and detailed information about my performance’ (4 percent).” That same research found, however, that, for students receiving feedback on essays in progress, “a surprising 92 percent chose ‘Edits to improve my writing’ as the most important kind of feedback, followed by ‘Specific and detailed information about my performance’ at 84 percent.

My father would never plant seeds in soils where they wouldn’t grow, so this spring break, I’ll be giving detailed feedback to student papers I will grade later, as the research shows that students will notice that feedback. I’ll be using a rubric to grade student projects that are completed, as the research suggests that detailed feedback on graded papers is largely ignored.

Below are five feedback tools I’ve used successfully to work smarter in the process of providing feedback to my writing students. I’ll be using some (or all) of these tools during the week ahead. The Cal U Writing Center staff and I wish the rest of our faculty a happy spring break, and we look forward to working with your students when we return for the conclusion of the semester.


1) One letter grades. No, everybody doesn’t get the same grade, since I’m not assigning a grade at this point, but the entire class receives one form letter written by me and addressed to all of them. When I have large classes, many of the concerns I encounter in students’ writing are repeated by multiple students, so I write my comments into one big document that I post on D2L as feedback for the entire class. Sometimes, I use specific examples from student writing to illustrate these comments.

Advantage: students get feedback they didn’t even know they needed, as they learn about the common issues that were found in their peers’ papers.

2) Traffic signals. At times, I’ve responded to papers with highlighters only. Green is a positive use of language or a development of idea; yellow is a mechanical problem; and, red is a structural/argument problem. I let the students find the problems underneath the signals.

Green light for faculty: Advise your students to take their tricolored papers to the Cal U Writing Center, and our writing consultants will help them decipher the color codes you’ve left on their papers.

3) Three strikes. I’ve found that most student writers can only respond to about three major issues in the paper during any revision period, so I always limit my comments at the end of the paper to three main ideas or less. Likewise, I often limit my in-text comments to three comments per page.

 4) Baked grades. If I really need to push through a section of papers, I will set a kitchen timer (or the timer app on my phone, these days) to the amount of time that I feel is reasonable, and I’ll stop writing comments when I run out of time. The timer tends to make me more efficient, and it keeps me from investing disproportionate amounts of energy on any individual student’s paper.


5) Technology. Technology can be an effective time-saving tool for providing feedback. I haven’t graded actual papers in years, because the stacks of papers were sources of existential crises and chronic backache. I use voice recognition software to dictate comments into the margins of Word/Pages (mostly I use Apple Pages, as that app also allows me to record and post audio files directly on the pages) and I grade all writing digitally. GradeMark in D2L also is a really effective tool for online grading/feedback for student writing.

Next Step: I’ll be using Camtasia (or, maybe, Mediasite Desktop Recorder) to capture video assessments of student essays.

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The Tough Row: Tools for Responding Faster to Student Writing
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