A Few Thoughts on Providing Written Comments on Student Work

By: Professor Luellen Curry

As a Legal Writing professor, commenting on student papers is one of my primary tasks. It is an essential teaching tool, but not one that always comes easily or naturally. I’ve found over the years that it has been a continual learning experience for me, one that I hope has resulted in improvement over time.

I’d like to share a few insights on commenting. I’ve gleaned many of these from colleagues; others I’ve developed through trial and error. Note that effective commenting can not only take the form of written comments delivered either electronically or on a hard copy, but also live feedback delivered during a student conference. It is even possible now to combine written and verbal feedback, as Professor Abigail Perdue interestingly described in Listen Up: The Advantages of Audio Commenting. My focus in this post is on written comments, but some of the advice translates to live verbal feedback as well.

One caveat: as stated, the following suggestions are based on my own experience and that of colleagues with whom I’ve had the good fortune to work and from whom I’ve received very helpful advice. However, I also recognize that others’ experiences may have led them down different commenting paths, just as effective as the ones I recommend here. Therefore, my intent is not to be critical of anyone who does it differently. Rather, I only seek to offer ideas others may find helpful in refining their commenting styles.

Given that, here are a few suggestions:

Don’t try to comment on all aspects of a paper. Having decided on specific goals for an assignment, stay focused on those goals in your commenting. One of the greatest temptations I faced as a new teacher was the desire to comment on every single thing I saw as needing improvement in a paper. Needless to say, reviewing papers took a tremendous amount of time and I fear left some students overwhelmed at the amount of information they received. It can be a struggle to rein oneself in, but it’s a necessary one, both for the teacher’s time management and the student’s ability to effectively use the feedback being offered.

In full disclosure, however, I still struggle with this; I call myself a “recovering over-commenter.” Just as in any recovery, I have to manage my over-commenting on a day-to-day (sometimes paper-to-paper or even page-to-page) basis.

Don’t try to comment on substance and citation at the same time. Just as with editing your own work, it’s more effective to separate commenting on substance from commenting on citation. Reading through a paper at least twice, once for substance, and once for cites makes it easier to focus on two very different tasks and may yield more consistent and effective comments for each.

Only comment on a recurring error once or twice, then tell the student to correct it throughout the paper. Often including an example or suggestions about what would be more effective will give the student a clearer understanding of what needs improving and how to apply similar improvements in other parts of the paper.

Remember, you are a commenter, not an editor. It is not your job to identify and correct the student’s errors. Instead, your aim is to identify where the student has succeeded and where he or she is falling short of the objectives you have set for the assignment, to communicate to the student what is missing and what needs to be improved, and when appropriate, to provide suggestions on effective ways to improve or revise what’s been written.

Try to be precise and concrete with a comment. Avoid simply saying something is unclear or confusing. Instead, explain why something is ineffective: why it isn’t clear or what’s confusing about it. The same is true for positive comments. Even though a student may like a simple ‘good,’ the student may not understand why it was good. A brief explanation will help the student understand what was done well and make it easier to repeat the technique elsewhere in the paper.

Along the same lines as being precise and concrete, think about wording your comments in ways that will reduce the sting of the critical ones, making it easier for the student to concentrate on improving the writing, rather than on feeling anxious or defensive.

Simple steps, such as focusing the comment on the writing, not the student (“A bit more explanation would clarify . . .”  instead of “You have not fully explained your point . . . “) can help take the sting out of a comment. Similarly, using terms like “more effective” and “less effective” instead of “wrong,” “bad,” “weak,” etc. keeps the focus on the ultimate goal – successful communication with the reader. Putting your comments in the context of the reader’s needs, and not your own preferences, such as by saying “the reader may not understand . . .” instead of “I don’t understand . . .” keeps the emphasis where it should be, on the reader, not the teacher.

Be careful not to overstate what’s good about the paper. While it is important to include positive comments along with more critical ones, it is also important not to mislead a student about the quality of his or her work. If a final summary comment tells a student that a draft is “good” or “very good” when it’s merely average or below, the student may not understand the level of work needed to improve the paper. Instead, think about beginning a final comment with a realistic but positive statement that offers some encouragement but does not mischaracterize the true quality of the paper. Phrases like “good start,” “you’re on the right track,” “good effort so far,” etc. may better manage student expectations and provide more accurate feedback about the paper’s quality.

Offer some comments as questions to spark the student’s thinking about what he or she has written and ways to improve it. Also, consider adding a brief comment with the question to avoid confusing the student. For example, “Transforms it into what? A little more explanation here would be useful to your reader.”

Explain your commenting method to your students. Before returning the first set of papers in a course, I always try to remember to let my students know what to expect. I tell them that I make a lot of comments. Some  are merely suggestions. Others include examples to help them understand what the comment means. I also tell them that the volume of comments reflects my efforts to make sure I’ve given them clear explanations on what needs to be done to improve their papers and shouldn’t be taken as a negative reflection on their writing ability or potential. I’m not sure this avoids the initial shock of seeing a margin full of comments, but I hope it helps soften it a bit.

Finally, there are many resources available on effective commenting on student work. The Legal Writing Institute’s website is a good starting point for finding both short and in-depth articles. There are also books available, such as A Guide to Teaching Lawyering Skills by Joel Atlas, et.al (Carolina Academic Press, 2012). One of your greatest resources, however, may be your colleagues, whether professors or other legal professionals. Learning from their experiences can greatly assist you in developing a strong, effective commenting style.

How do you effectively provide feedback to your students? Share your good ideas at [email protected]


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