Thursday, May 10, 2007

Saving Your Sanity When Responding to Drafts

Every quarter this happens: I get the first drafts of the first assignment. After multiple hours slogging through dozens of student papers and writing detailed comments, I find myself bleary-eyed and resentful; I’m pretty sure I’m spending more time commenting on papers then they’ve spent writing them. When I finish commenting, I almost always look back at them and realize I’ve written too much and worn myself out.

I remember that writing “instruction” is paradoxical – in reality, THE LESS I SAY ABOUT THEIR WRITING, THE MORE STUDENTS WILL LEARN. I repeat it as a mantra. I resolve to do better next time and to spend the least amount of time possible writing comments on drafts.

As a writing instructor, I feel compelled to address all levels of revision, from ideas and organization to the finer points of style such as elegant and error-free sentences. However, in my experience, committing the time and brainpower to that level of individual feedback has rarely yielded significant change or improvement in student revisions. In my quest to become better at managing my teaching time and energy, I’ve picked the brain of many a colleague, consulted the writings of composition theorists, and experimented in my own classes. Here are some things I am finding out:

1. Write less, much less: Students do want written feedback, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Getting back a draft cluttered with comments of many different kinds is overwhelming. It can also be confusing; all comments appear to carry the same weight: a missing comma appears as important an issue as the missing thesis.

A solution is to pick no more than three issues to respond to (and just choosing ONE is ok) --and only respond to one example of each -- nothing more! The more different types of suggestions you make, the less likely your students are able to absorb and apply them (let alone prioritize which would make the most difference to improving their paper).

2. Set goals: Look closely at the instructions you’ve given for the assignment. Determine what your main goal of the assignment is. For example, is it to learn something through the process of writing? Or is it to test what they’ve already learned? Is your goal to have them develop a really clear thesis? Is it learning to accurately cite in a particular format? Or to incorporate and interpret source materials? You may decide that each draft of the same project has a different goal and respond accordingly.

For example, if you want them to learn to write a thesis, focus all your comments on that. You might, in this case, decide you need to read only the first page of each paper. (What? Yes!!) Underline what you think the thesis is, and ask questions or make suggestions to help them narrow and refine. (If you can't find one, why should you bother giving comments on the sentence or paragraph level? A thesis could change the whole paper.)

For another example, if your goal is mastering citing, choose ONE example where a student cited a source and give her cues/help, i.e. "make sure you introduce your quote, tell who said it, and tell how it relates to the point you are trying to make." You might give an example of what this might look like. (Again, you needn't read the whole paper at this point.) Then tell them to find and apply that principle every time they quote or paraphrase someone in the next draft.

3. Prioritize your goals: Consider at what point your students are in the drafting of a specific project and what point you are in the course. If you’ve spent the last two quarters working on refining a thesis and organization/development, and students are working on a second draft of a project, it might be time to narrow your feedback down to the level of style and usage.

If you are looking at a final draft or a paper that won’t be revised, make minimal comments regarding content only. In my experience, only the most sophisticated and motivated students will be able to apply writing advice from one project to a future one (these are otherwise known as graduate students).

4. Place responsibility for learning on students: I often remind myself that my goal as an instructor is not to help students “fix” flawed writing but to teach them the process of how to evaluate and revise their own writing. It’s the old “teach a man to fish” cliché. Instead of, or in addition to, traditional written comments, consider using other feedback methods that allow students to actively analyze their own and one another’s writing. These could include short conferences, peer review, self-evaluations, and exercises such as reverse outlines.

Here are some specific examples of evaluation/feedback techniques to use other than written instructor comments:

Have them work on different portions of their own or one another’s drafts in smaller sessions. I might have a day where we talk briefly (or I have them read something as homework) about the rules for MLA. Then they trade their papers with classmates to have them check for errors. I've found they are better able to apply these fixes when they've had to identify mistakes in their own or someone else's paper. Or we might have a few minutes where they look at one another's intros and write what they would expect the paper to be about based on the current intro, and give any suggestions of what might make it catchier.

Have each student come up with a "revision plan" -- three things he is going to do to significantly revise and improve his paper. You could have him turn this in with the rough draft at which time you only respond to these three issues.

Use short conferences: Donald Murray, a writing teacher and composition theorist, never gives written feedback to students. Instead, he holds conferences with his students in which he has them do ninety percent of the talking (prompted by a couple of his initial questions). In this way, his students are engaging in a dialogue about their writing and analyzing and problem solving as writers, not just as passive recipients of advice from an expert.

I’ve actually done conferences where I haven’t read the student’s paper. She has to tell me what the thesis is, where she is struggling, what is working, what her plan is for revising.

Other ideas to keep written feedback to a minimum? Keep them coming. Tune in next week for exciting specifics on using reverse outlines.

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