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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

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  • 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 Many Essay Comments and What Kind

Press Release e-Comments

e-Comments Press Release

Teacher response to student writing often falls into two extremes:

1. The holistic rubric devotees who simply parrot standardized writing test grading by assigning numerical scores for “catch-all” writing categories or

2. The red-ink zealots who mark every single error and writing issue with their secret codes, a.k.a. diacritical proofreading marks and extensive writing comments.

The first approach of the holistic rubric hardly merits comment. Students merely look at the total score and continue the same errors or writing issues on the subsequent draft and next writing assignment. Intuitively, the second approach would seem to produce some benefit; however, the writing research is clear that student response to extensive marks and comments on rough drafts is minimal and the transfer of learning from such comments on final drafts to the next writing assignment is almost non-existent.

A middle ground can achieve more results. However, we have to make a distinction between rough drafts and final drafts. Researchers have found that marks on final drafts have little effect on student’s application to subsequent writing tasks (Dudenhyer 1976; Beach 1979; Thompson 1981; Harris 1978). But, conscientious teachers should make comments on rough drafts and writing research does support this practice. But how many essay comments make sense? And what kind of essay comments produce the produce the most revision and application to future writing tasks?

How Many Essay Comments

Many teachers take pride in the number of essay marks and comments they make on a paper. Some colleagues buy red pens by the truckload and spend significant time at their task. However, writing research has some disheartening news for these teachers. No significant difference in the quality of student writing was found between those teachers who marked all mistakes as compared to those teachers who made only minimal (Arnold 1964). Also, writing extensive comments does not improve student’s writing (Harris 1978; Lamberg 1980). Additionally, most students are able to respond effectively to no more than five comments per composition (Shuman 1979).

Clearly, more is not necessarily better. Knowing the student’s individual needs from frequent writing will help teachers prioritize which marks and comments will most help that student’s writing.

What Kind of Comments

Students tend to revise errors more so than issues of style, argument, structure, and content. The reason is simple: it’s easier to revise errors. Research shows that teachers tend to follow the same pattern as students: they mark and comment on errors much more often than on matters of style, argument, structure, and content (Connors and Lunsford 1988). So, teachers should keep in mind a balance between errors and writing issues when making essay comments. When a minimal credit is awarded for writing revisions, students tend to gravitate toward fixing the errors, rather than tackling the tougher chore of the writing issues. Awarding more points for writing revision and holding students accountable for addressing all marks and comments will motivate more and more meaningful revisions.

Teachers tend to mark errors with some form of diacritical mark, such as “cs” for a comma splice, and write brief comments, such as “awkward” for style or content. However, Hairston (1981) found that students tended to revise more when explanations were provided, rather than simple error identification. So, comments work better than simple diacritical marks.

So, which comments are most important to include? Clearly, issues of coherence and unity merit comments. So would issues of organization, content, and evidence. Hairston also suggested focusing comments on those issues which readers found to reflect lack of writing expertise. For example, nonstandard verb forms such as brung instead of brought are considered more egregious status indicators than a who-whom mistake. Good teachers can certainly make informed judgments about which comments to include and which comments to avoid.

So, to summarize how many essay comments and what kind, writing research would suggest the following:

  • Comment on rough drafts, not final drafts.
  • Limit the amount of comments and individualize those to the needs of the student writer.
  • Balance the types of comments between writing errors and issues of style, argument, structure, and evidence.
  • Hold students accountable for each mark or comment.
  • Comments are better than diacritical marks alone.
  • Comments should explain what is wrong or explain the writing issue.

Comments include…

  • Essay Organization and Development
  • 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

This freebie will make life a bit easier for teachers… 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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