Recently I reviewed Dr. Peter Filene's book, The Joy of Teaching (University of North Carolina). In his chapter on evaluating and grading, he gives some excellent advice to all of us on how to teach through the comments we make on students' papers. He advocates:
- Identify what the student has done well. Thus, follow up your comment, "I like this part" with "because..." Be specific.
- If you label problems in the paper such as "this part is confusing," give the student suggestions as to how to overcome the problem. In other words, tell the student why you are confused.
- Instead of asking questions on the paper that the student could respond to with a simple "yes" or "no," use why, how, or what questions that require the student to rethink what he/she wrote.
- Be careful of writing too much in the margins as at first glance the student will feel overwhelmed with the sheer impact of a paper covered with scribbles. Concentrate on the major problems with the paper.
- Consider writing your comments as a letter to the student. The 1st paragraph would "describe what the student has done well." The 2nd paragraph would present one or two major weaknesses of the paper and suggestions for the student to overcome this in the next paper assignment.
- Make a copy of the student's paper and your comments so you can see how the student is progressing when grading his/her next paper.
Dr. Filene gives the following examples:
Lydia: This essay has some good ideas, but they aren't very clear. You didn't spend enough time organizing them or finding evidence to support them. Commas and spelling need work too. You consistently misspell "sucession."
Allen: You have produced a lucid and interesting explanation of the Civil War. I particularly like the examples you cite on page 2 because they clarify the importance of John Brown and "fanaticism" in pushing the South to secede (By the way, it's "secede," not "succeed.")
The essay would be stronger if it had said more about Lincoln's policy toward slavery. On page 3 you say "he hated it," but that doesn't clarify what he proposed to do about it. Do you see how there's a missing link in the story? Moreover, the thesis paragraph doesn't do justice to the rest of your essay. It repeats the question instead of alerting the reader to your subsequent argument (which you capsulize neatly in your conclusion).
I'll be glad to talk about this.
As you can see, his second example continues teaching beyond the classroom itself and would be more likely to result in a better paper from the student next time.