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How Much and What to Mark on Essays

Writing Feedback Comments

Writing Comments

Many teachers and professors take pride in red-inking student essays: the more ink the better. Some shift the burden of marking grammar and mechanics errors onto readers or grad students, while retaining the job of marking and grading content, argument, and evidence. Some “grade” essays without comments by using holistic or analytical rubrics, but do not mark papers. Others latch onto familiar excuses: the subjective nature of essay grading, the lack of time, the lack of student writing skills and conveniently avoid the work altogether by giving objective exams.

For those who still assign writing process essays and/or essay exams and believe that students can and do benefit from comments, the question of How Much and What to Mark on Essays is relevant. Working smarter, not harder and focusing on efficiency and outcomes over pedagogical purity are worthy mantras for effective writing instruction.

How Much to Mark on Essays

…………

  • There is no significant statistical difference in the overall quality of student writing between teachers who mark all mistakes and teachers who mark only a few of the mistakes (Arnold 1964).
  • Both Harris (1978) and Lamberg (1980) found that voluminous essay comments do not improve student writing.
  • Shuman (1979) found that most students respond effectively to no more than five error corrections per paper.
  • Dudenhyer (1976), Beach (1979), Harris (1978), Thompson (1981), and Moore (1992) found that marks on final drafts have little impact on subsequent writing.

In sum, less is better than more, especially on final drafts or essay exams. Moreover, focusing on reader response is essential. In other words, how much the student will absorb and apply.

What to Mark on Essays

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1. Concentrate on Status Errors

Maxine Hairston (1981) suggests that certain errors are perceived as higher status than others. Hairston found that these errors were seen to be more egregious by most teachers: nonstandard verb forms, lack of subject-verb agreement, double negatives, objective pronoun as subject. Other errors are perceived as low status and may not warrant marking: unnecessary or inaccurate modifiers, use of a singular verb with data, use of a colon after a linking verb.

2. Used Focused, Specific Feedback

Use focused, not unfocused feedback. “Focused corrective feedback was more useful and effective than unfocused corrective feedback” (Sheen, Wright, and Moldawa 2009).

When students receive feedback while they are writing, “they are more inclined to use it to revise and edit their drafts than they would be if they received the suggestions on a graded, polished copy” (Nicol, D.J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. 2006).

3. Use a Variety of Writing Feedback Modes

Not every student responds the same to writing feedback. Some prefer written feedback; others auditory, and still others respond best to visual feedback, such as video conferencing. Adding a variety of writing feedback modes will address learning preferences.

Dr. Martha Marie Bless found a statistically significant difference in the amount and quality of student revisions and skill acquisition in favor of the audio comments (Walden University 2017).

4. Do Mark Writing Errors; However

Instead of marking and explaining every writing error, Peterson suggests “… identifying patterns of convention errors, rather than every error in the paper. Students are more likely to learn how to use a convention correctly if they attend exclusively to that type of error when editing their writing” (2008).

5. Mark and Explain Teachable Errors

Teachers tend to mark errors and comment on content or process. Instead, writing researchers suggest that teachers should comment on both. Choosing to concentrate on errors that can be easily explained to the student with the greater likelihood of producing positive transfer to subsequent writing assignments just makes sense. For example, errors in speaker tag commas can be easily remediated because the rules are relatively unambiguous; errors in commas isolating dependent clauses are harder to remediate because the rules are more ambiguous and context dependent.

Students are likely to attend to and appreciate feedback on their errors, and this may motivate them both to make corrections and to work harder on improving their writing. The lack of such feedback may lead to anxiety or resentment, which could decrease motivation and lower confidence in their teachers” (Ferris, D. R. 2004).

6. Maintain a Balance between Error Correction and Writing Analysis

Writing researchers suggest striking a balance in essay response between error correction and writing content/evidence/argument analysis.

Following are key elements of writing discourse for writing teachers to keep in mind to strike this balance:

  • Essay Organization and Development (Introduction, Body, and Conclusion)
  • Coherence
  • Word Choice
  • Sentence Variety
  • Writing Style
  • Format and Citations
  • Parts of Speech
  • Grammatical Forms
  • Usage
  • Sentence Structure
  • Types of Sentences
  • Mechanics
  • Conventional Spelling Rules.

7. Differentiate and Individualize Assessment-based Instruction

Writing feedback catered to the needs of the individual students is highly effective. Knowing the relative strengths and weaknesses of individual student writers should guide the teacher’s comments. Two data sources are integral to effective writing instruction: diagnostic assessments and frequent student writing. The former affords the teacher quantitative data, while the latter provides qualitative data. Each is useful.

For Further Study

  1. The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley, in Review of Educational Research 77 (March 2007): 81-112.
  2. Seven Keys to Effective Feedback by Grant Wiggins in Educational Leadership 70.1 (September 2012): 10-16.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Here’s a freebie that just might make life a bit easier for teachers this fall… I just released a new free comment insert program

e-Comments Chrome Extension

e-Comments Extension

for Google docs that will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Check out the introductory video and add this free extension to your Chrome toolbar: e-Comments Chrome Extension. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College. Cheers!

*****

Why not use the same language of instruction as the e-Comments program for program instruction? Mark Pennington is the author of Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Differentiated Spelling Instructionand the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit.

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How to Write Effective Essay Comments

Press Release e-Comments

e-Comments Press Release

Conscientious teachers know that merely completing a holistic rubric and totaling the score for a grade is not effective essay response or writing assessment. Teachers may choose to grade and/or respond with essay comments after the rough draft and/or after the final draft. Using the types of comments that match the teacher’s instructional objectives is essential. Additionally, keeping in mind the key components of written discourse can balance responses between form and content. Finally, most writing instructors include closing comments to emphasize and summarize their responses.

Of course, the real world problem that conscientious teachers face is time. Responding to multiple drafts with effective writing feedback is time-consuming and, at times, mind-numbing.

I would like to share with you a free resource that will help get your life back… I just released a new free comment insert program for Google docs that will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Check out the introductory video and add this free extension to your Chrome toolbar: e-Comments Chrome Extension. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College. Cheers!

Writing instructors classify the types of essay comments as following: corrective, directive, and facilitative responses.

Corrective responses are copy edits. Using proofreading diacritical marks, abbreviations, or short phrases, teachers identify mistakes in syntax, usage, mechanics, and spelling. Some teachers simply mark errors; others provide more prescriptive comments as to what is wrong and why it is wrong, and how to correct the writing issue.

Directive responses deal with both form and content. With directive responses, the teacher gives specific direction to the writer. The goal is to provide expert advice to the writer. For example, “Your thesis does not respond to the writing prompt. Re-read the writing assignment and re-write your thesis statement to specifically address the writing task.” Generally, directive response is used with matters of structure and writing style.

Facilitative comments also deal with both form and content. Using the Socratic model, comments are worded as thought-provoking questions. The goal is to make the writer responsible for writing decision-making. For example, “Is there a different type of evidence that would help to prove your point?” Generally, facilitative response is used to respond to the content and/or argument of the essay.

Writing instructors classify the key components of writing discourse as following: Essay Organization and Development (Introduction, Body, and Conclusion), Coherence, Word Choice, Sentence Variety, Writing Style, Format and Citations, Parts of Speech, Grammatical Forms, Usage, Sentence Structure, Types of Sentences, Mechanics, and Conventional Spelling Rules.

Many teachers use these components in holistic or analytical rubrics and provide separate evaluation for each.

Closing comments are usually used to personalize the overall writing comments. Closing comments may summarize the essay comments, emphasize a positive or negative in the writing, refer to the writer’s progress, provide brief praise or encouragement, or assign the overall grade

*****

Why not use the same language of instruction as the e-Comments program for program instruction? Mark Pennington is the author of Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Differentiated Spelling Instructionand the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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How to Add Essay e-Comments to Your Computer

Ever feel like a talking stuffed animal? Pull the cord and get one of thirty pre-recorded comments: “Needs more evidence.” “Your thesis statement does not respond to the prompt.” “Subject-verb agreement problem.” Instead of talking stuffed animals, teachers use their favorite red pens. Every teacher of writing knows what I’m talking about. The common student writing errors…

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if teachers could type and save their commonly-used “canned” writing comments to automatically insert into student essays without all the bother of copying and pasting? What a time-saver this would be! It’s easily done and you have the tools you need right on your desktop or laptop in Microsoft Word®. Plus, you don’t have to be a computer programmer to get the job done. Read more…

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How to Use the Computer to Grade Essays

Thought I’d share how I started using computers to grade essays and offer fellow teachers a great resource to provide better essay response and cut grading time by half. Years ago I played around with the Insert Comments feature of Microsoft Word® and learned how to put in and format the bubble comments. I started using these comments to respond to and grade student writing submitted by email. At first, I only assigned a holistic rubric score, made a few comments, and patted myself on the back for learning how to insert audio files for brief summary responses. Students loved this paperless process. Read more…

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Grammar Checkers for Teachers

Conscientious teachers still mark up and comment on student essays. Despite recent trends toward holistic grading and the views of some kind-hearted souls who believe that “red marking” student writing irreparably crushes self-esteem, the vast majority of teachers do respond to student writing. Of this majority, some comment on writing content; some on essay structure; some on the quality and relevance of evidence; some on the proper use of citations; some on grammar and usage; some on mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, spelling, etc.); and some attend to matters of writing style. Rarely does a teacher do it all.

It’s exhausting and time-consuming. So, naturally, teachers look for short-cuts that will save energy and time, but ones which will still give students what they need as developing writers. Enter spell checker and grammar checker software. Whereas spelling checkers, either as a stand-alone software or as a tool embedded in word processing programs such as Microsoft Word®, do a reasonable job of finding spelling errors (other than troublesome homonyms), grammar checkers simply cannot replicate that effectiveness. But there are some helpful resources to lighten the teacher’s load…

Wikipedia has a nice article, Grammar Checker, which explains the programming limitations of grammar checkers, but suffice it to say for non-techies: grammar checking software is a whole lot harder to program than is spelling. My take is that we should encourage students to spell check and revise accordingly, but skip the grammar check and proofread instead. Geoffrey K. Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, agrees with greater reservations:

“For the most part, accepting the advice of a computer grammar checker on your prose will make it much worse, sometimes hilariously incoherent. If you want an amusing way to whiling away a rainy afternoon, take a piece of literary prose you consider sublimely masterful and run the Microsoft Word™ grammar checker on it, accepting all the suggested changes.” (Monkeys Will Check Your Grammar, 2007)

The popular website Top Ten Reviews does a nice job reviewing the four most popular grammar checkers, although their top choice, Grammarly, did happen to advertise rather prominently on their site. In the review site’s testing, Grammarly caught 10 of 14 “grammar” errors. Now, to put on my English teacher’s hat, these were not all grammatical errors, but I nitpick. Of course, I had to try my own writing submission with the Grammarly software:

To pee, or to pee not: that is not the question. When in the path of alien invasions, it becomes necessary for the rights of the governed to outweigh the rights of the graham crackers, it is the right of the fig newton to abolish that nonsense speak.

The results? I could break down all of the issues, but you get the idea.

So, are there any computer short-cuts for essay response and grading that do help the conscientious teacher in providing quality essay response throughout the writing process? Yes there are, but these must remain where they belong: in the control of the teacher. At present, computer-scored essays remain a pipe dream.

However, a comfortable balance can be struck between technological efficiency and teacher judgment.

e-Comments Chrome Extension

The e-Comments Extension

Here’s a freebie to add to the Chrome extension toolbar that just might make life a bit easier for teachers this fall: e-Comments Chrome Extension. This free comment insert program for Google docs and slides will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College.

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Computer-Graded Essays

Teachers recognize the value of essay compositions as vital tools for learning, self-expression, and assessment. The essay remains a staple of college and post-graduate applications, as well as job applications. In terms of formulating coherent explanation, analysis, or argument, the essay best provides that means. Even a well-constructed objective exam cannot match the essay in assessing the degree to which teaching objectives have been mastered.

“Essays are considered by many researchers as the most useful tool to assess learning outcomes, implying the ability to recall, organize and integrate ideas, the ability to express oneself in writing and the ability to supply merely than identify interpretation and application of data. It is in the measurement of such outcomes, corresponding to the evaluation and synthesis levels of the Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy that the essay questions serve their most useful purpose.” (Valenti, Nitko and Cucchiarelli 2003)

However, essays are rather subjective vehicles of expression. Even the best attempts to develop objective evaluation criteria with analytical rubrics and check-lists fall short of unbiased objectivity. Yet, this shortcoming has not eliminated the cherished role of the essay in the British and American educational establishments.

There’s just one problem. Essays just take too much time to read, respond to, and evaluate. A conscientious teacher may realistically spend an hour per student essay if that teacher responds to multiple student drafts in the context of the writing process evaluates the final published essay.

Of course, teachers can spend less time, if they use simplistic holistic rubrics or buy into the convenient notion that making comments on a student’s essay somehow disenfranchises the autonomy of the writer. However, most teachers recognize that interactive dialogue between student and teacher on the student’s essay is unavoidably essential. And it does take time.

Enter the age of computers. Is artificial intelligence going to be able to grade essays

Computer-scoring of student writing is being actively marketed to K-12 schools and universities. Multinational corporations, such as Educational Testing Services (ETS), claim that current technology is able not only to provide objective assessment, but is now also able to give accurate and useful feedback to the student writer. Criterion, a machine-reading service marketed by ETS, has become widely popular in both American K-12 schools and universities. Other similar automatic grading programs are open for business.

Both of the new assessment consortia that have been delegated the tasks of developing national assessments for the Common Core State Standards (now adopted by 43 states) have indicated that they are using machine-scored essay software. “Automated assessment systems would provide consistency in essay scoring, while enormous cost and time savings could occur if the AES system is shown to grade essays within the range of those awarded by human assessors,” suggest the aforementioned researchers.

But, what to teachers say about computer-graded essays?

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) summarizes its position on machine-scored writing:

We oppose the use of machine-scored writing in the assessment of writing.  Automated assessment programs do not respond as human readers.  While they may promise consistency, they distort the very nature of writing as a complex and context-rich interaction between people.  They simplify writing in ways that can mislead writers to focus more on structure and grammar than on what they are saying by using a given structure and style.

“Writing Assessment: A Position Statement.” NCTE.org. Nov 2006

The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) summarizes its position on machine-scored writing:

“We oppose the use of machine-scored writing in the assessment of writing.” Automated assessment programs do not respond as human readers. While they may promise consistency, they distort the very nature of writing as a complex and context-rich interaction between people. They simplify writing in ways that can mislead writers to focus more on structure and grammar than on what they are saying by using a given structure and style… We believe ourselves that machine-scoring fundamentally alters the social and rhetorical nature of writing—that writing to a machine is not writing at all.”

The CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments

But, is there a middle ground? Can teachers use technology to save time and doing a more thorough job of responding to student essays? Can teachers maintain autonomy in the evaluation process and exercise their own judgment about which comments need to be made, which grammatical errors need to be marked, and which grade needs to be assigned?

Perhaps so. There can be a balance between technological efficiency and teacher judgment.

Press Release e-Comments

e-Comments Press Release

This free resource will make life a bit easier for teachers this fall… I just released a new free comment insert program for Google docs that will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Check out the introductory video and add this free extension to your Chrome toolbar: e-Comments Chrome Extension. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College. Cheers!

*****

Why not use the same language of instruction as the e-Comments program for program instruction? Mark Pennington is the author of Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Differentiated Spelling Instructionand the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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Essay e-Grading

Let’s face it; technology in education will grow more and more important. However, teachers haven’t always been on the forefront of using technology to improve instruction. One area in which teachers can significantly improve their instructional approach without additional investment is in using the computer to respond to and grade student essays. Whether using on-line response or simply using the computer to generate responses to print out for paper submissions, the computer will save the teacher significant time. Now, we are not talking about automatic grading programs… The NCTE has rightly produced policy statements against these applications. The teacher has the responsibility to control the quality and quantity of writing response. However, the teacher can use the computer to store often-used comments that both identify errors and teach what is good writing. Additionally, the ability to insert links and audio comments makes the stages of the writing process truly an interactive teacher-student experience.

Following are articles, free resources, and teaching tips regarding how to teach essay strategies from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

 

How to Write Effective Essay Comments

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/writing/how-to-write-effective-essay-comments/

Conscientious teachers know that merely completing a holistic rubric and totaling the score for a grade is not effective essay response or writing assessment. Teachers may choose to grade and/or respond with essay comments after the rough draft and/or after the final draft. Using the types of comments that match the teacher’s instructional objectives is essential. Additionally, keeping in mind the key components of written discourse can balance responses between form and content. Finally, most writing instructors include closing comments to emphasize and summarize their responses. Here’s how to write truly effective essay comments.

How to Use the Computer to Grade Essays

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/using-computers-to-grade-essays/

Thought I’d share how I started using computers to grade essays and offer fellow teachers a great resource to provide better essay response and cut grading time by half. Years ago I played around with the Insert Comments feature of Microsoft Word® and learned how to put in and format the bubble comments. But, it took hours to cut and paste the comments into each computer. I whined about this once too often until my computer-savvy son found a way to insert my entire 438 e-comment bank into any computer with Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (Windows XP, Vista, and Win 7/8 all work fine). He developed a simple download. I would love to have every teacher get this download and use these 438 Essay e-Comments.

Why Using Essay e-Comments Makes Sense

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/why-using-essay-e-comments-makes-sense/

We have computers. Let’s use them! Using the computer to store and insert often-used essay comments is efficient, saves time, and just does a better overall job of essay response and grading. Moving beyond writing comments, we can also insert hyperlinks to suggest content revision. Why not insert audio files to summarize comments? Plus, the social context of computers enhances peer revision. This article helps teachers problem-solve how to manage an interactive teacher-student writing experience using both home and school computers.

Essay Comment Excuses

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/essay-comment-excuses/

Teachers know that detailed essay comments are keys to effective writing instruction but are adept at creating essay comment excuses to avoid the time and energy it takes to do the job. But, how can we do a great job with essay response and still maintain some semblance of a life outside of work? Canned comments. Ones to cut and paste from your computer. But… really good ones.

Grammar Checkers for Teachers

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/grammar-checkers-for-teachers/

Conscientious teachers still mark up and comment grammar and usage issues on student essays, but it’s exhausting and time-consuming. So, naturally, teachers look for short-cuts that will save energy and time, but ones which will still give students what they need as developing writers. Enter spell checker and grammar checker software. Whereas spelling checkers, either as a stand-alone software or as a tool embedded in word processing programs such as Microsoft Word®, do a reasonable job of finding spelling errors (other than troublesome homonyms), grammar checkers simply cannot replicate that effectiveness. But there are some helpful resources to lighten the teacher’s load…

For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, check out the The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum:  Teaching Essay Strategies. The style manual (included in the Common Core aligned Teaching Essay Strategies, also includes a download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (XP, Vista,  Windows 7, 8, and 10), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. Each comment identifies the error or writing issue, defines terms, and gives examples so that student writers are empowered to correct/revise on their own. This approach to essay comments produces significantly more accountability and transfer to subsequent writing.

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