Writing Comments on Student Papers

As a teacher, it comes without saying that you are expected to grade papers. It is an inevitable task that is part of the job responsibility. Teachers of all grade levels from grade school to college have graded student papers in the course of their career. Even so, grading papers is a challenging task that can either hurt or help students when it comes to writing. In his essay Writing Comments on Student Papers, author John Bean discusses this topic and provides several strategies on how best to complete this task.

It is true that teachers do read a massive amount of papers. Often times they are reading papers that are not the best writing and as a result, they let their irritation show on the page by writing harsh or sarcastic comments on student papers. Bean makes a differentiation in those comments, he states that the best kind of comments: “enhance writers feeling of dignity” in comparison, the worst kind of comments are “dehumanizing and insulting”. Even though teachers want students to write better papers they don’t often show that in their comments. Students often read teacher comments and get discouraged and think that they are not good writers. In order to show the students perspective of this, Bean presents a 1990 study conducted by researches Spandel and Siggins. In the section Students Responses to Teacher Comments, several students were interviewed to show the reaction of teacher comments on their papers. The comments were “needs to be more concise”, “you haven’t really thought this through”, “try harder”. As you can expect the result of these negative comments, (although well-intentioned) tend to “make students feel bewildered, hurt, or angry” (pg. 319). This is what Bean urges teachers to stay away from. Additionally, in another study (conducted at a large midwestern university), the best form of feedback is the mitigated criticism, a type of feedback that combines both positive and negative comments. This result correlates with Bean’s argument that in order to improve techniques for commenting on student papers “we need to remember our purpose, which is not to point out everything that is wrong with the paper but to facilitate improvement” (pg.321).

I expected the result of these studies to favor the more positive comments because students are encouraged to change their papers when they are not bombarded with comments that make them feel fearful and lack ambition.

Furthermore, Bean discusses the purpose of commenting on student papers, which he writes is to coach revision. When teachers first receive a student draft they should focus on identifying these main points.

  • Identify the thesis
  • does the draft follow the assignment?
  • where is the paper going?
  • what are the authors main ideas/arguments?
  • is the draft effectively organized?

If the paper lacks any of these essential elements the marginal comments should address it while being limited to a few problems.

The general strategy for commenting on drafts:

  • Comment on the tile and introduction
  • Comment on topic sentences
  • Comment on grammar, punctuation, and spelling

After giving coaching advice, Bean suggests that teachers should give students at least one week to edit their draft. That way they have ample time to make corrections and rethink about their papers. He also recommends that teachers allow rewrites.

I noticed that in the article Bean considers comments on grammar, punctuation, and spelling to be “lower-order concerns” (pg.330). Nevertheless, he makes it clear that when he suggests minimal marking he is not advocating for teachers to be soft on grading errors, but they should let students know that there will be points deducted off their papers if they do not make these corrections. I also agree with this idea because these small mistakes can easily get fixed by students and save teachers time.

OLD/ NEW Contract examples: 



Another issue Bean discuss is the topic of writing style. This is apart from the concern of grammar errors. The writing style is based on technical language and the voice of a student. Although this is not a commenting issue, Bean suggests that teachers should address their pet peeve about style to their students (ex: chappy sentences, lazy use of “ this “ as a pronoun, etc) before they write comments.

Bean concludes his essay with a call to action for teachers to improve their grading. In order to make his point about this important part of grading, Bean makes a comparison to the butterflies. He writes that the end comment of a draft is like a butterfly without the metamorphosis. At this point of the writing, it is a caterpillar, however, with proper feedback and revision, it will become like a butterfly. I thought this was an excellent imagery of the writing process. In order for teachers to enhance positive emotion, the final comments should show

1) show the strengths of the paper
2) include Summary of a limited number of problems
3) include recommendations for revision
Overall, I thought the article was a great piece of advice for teachers and any other profession that grade student papers. I agree that teacher comments should be a guiding light that allow students to achieve their highest quality of work. Most importantly, teacher comments should encourage students to take pleasure in redoing their papers correctly.

Read The Artice Here! 


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