Saturday, July 28, 2007

Responding to student writing

What's the best way to respond to student writing? I've received something over 3000 student papers so far, I think, along with thousands of drafts, and I still don't know.

I started out with the "more is better" approach. In my first year of teaching at Southern Illinois University, while working on my MA, I was nearly obsessed with the classes I taught. I'd write roughly a page of comments on every draft of every paper. It wasn't unusual for my comments to be longer than the draft itself.

Did these comments actually help the students write better? I don't know. I think the real message they sent may have been independent of the text: I cared. If your instructor takes the time to write a page of carefully considered comments on your draft, it's kind of rude to ignore that and fail to revise it.

I can't do that now. (I probably shouldn't have done it then; my research took a major nosedive when I started teaching.) So what can I do?

I can meet with each of my students in conference, as I try to do twice a semester. These conferences almost always strike me as helpful. But then, they're not for my benefit. Some students have complained that it's hard to remember all of the issues that come up in a conference. Granted, they can take notes (and some of them shyly ask permission to do so, as if I would mind), but even if they take notes, they can miss something important. They'd rather have me write everything down for them.

I admit to seeing some benefit to that. Certainly, I don't like the idea of presenting a helpful suggestion that will be forgotten. But although I do end up writing comments more often than I have conferences, I don't think I should base my decision primarily on what they want.

Students tend to want the input that will make their assignments as easy as possible. In many cases, that means specific statements of exactly what they should change. And I admit that this approach is easier for me, too. Again, however, the goal isn't to benefit me. It's not even to help the student write the best possible paper. It's to help the student become the best possible writer. And if I tell my students what to write or how to write it, then they end up writing my paper, not their own.

So I try to give them as much control as possible. I explain what concerns I have; they suggest ways to deal with those concerns. Then we evaluate those suggestions and work toward a solution. They take the draft home and attempt to implement the solution, and then I take a look to see how everything worked.

I vary that from student to student. Not everyone thinks the same way, so not everyone writes the same way or learns the same way. It's a balancing act--between giving them freedom and guiding them in the right direction.

I'm still figuring it out, and I expect I will be thirty years from now.


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