Grading as Coaching, or, How to Spend Less Time Marking Papers

Recently, I sent a draft of some writing to my adviser with the comment, “the writing still needs some work, but please look at the overall points and let me know if you think I’m going in the right direction.”

Isn’t this precisely what all writers want? And doesn’t that include undergraduate students too?

When students hand in a draft, in a sense they are saying this exact same phrase to us as instructors: “here is some writing that I proofread [hopefully!] but it’s still marred by the limited time constraints of the assignment. I hope that the overall points are good and I’m going in the right direction.” Yet, we approach these papers with a copy editor’s eye and red pen, marking up every dangling modifier, incorrect word usage, subject/verb disagreement, or incorrect use of idiomatic English. In a sense, we are doing the opposite of what we hope anyone assessing our own work would do, even though we know from experience that copy editing is the final, not first, stage of professional writing.

We forget that we are not referees, but rather, coaches for our student writers. In her well-known essay on the “overgraded paper,” Muriel Harris writes

like student writers without a thesis or consistent perspective, the teacher who overgrades leaps from suggestion to correction to criticism, from being an editor to a coach to a reader. In noting many things, the instructor emphasizes nothing, and many students…retreat (92).

We fall victim to Harris’s well-placed critique of trying to do too much. And we do it with such good intent (“I want my students to be better writers! I’m trying to help them!) that we are blind to the ways it can be damaging.

The best technique is to mark less. Instead of reading the paper with red pen ready at the draw, try reading the paper with your hands empty. Resist the urge to correct that misplaced comma, or that use of “effect” when they should have written “affect.” After reading it, go back through and find the three or four places where the student author needs to clarify, expand, refine, offer another example, analyze or re-state. Be explicit about exactly what you want in your comments (ironically, simply writing the word “unclear” in the margin is, itself, unclear). After all, these are the things we most want to see improved, and that lead the student not only to write better but to learn the course content more comprehensively.

And all those pesky grammatical mistakes? Save those for a later draft, when the
“big picture” ideas are clearer. Or if you’re only doing one draft, mention them in an endnote: “you have problems with subject/verb agreement throughout,” or “I’ve placed a checkmark in the margin of lines with writing errors.” It turns out that once your students accomplish the higher-order thoughts and cognitive processes, their writing also naturally improves.

This way the student will focus on those higher-order issues you highlighted. I’ve given back papers with 20 or more markings on a page, and only one of them was something that would have seriously improved the content, rather than the execution, of the paper. Nancy Sommers notes that this kind of grading

encourage[s] the student to see the text as a fixed piece, frozen in time, that just needs some editing (151).

On the subsequent draft, my student of course obliged and addressed every marking I had made, except one, the hardest one. If that had been the only marking on the page, she would have been forced to consider the problem I posed, and possibly taken her paper to the next level.

For more, see our workshop on effective grading strategies from December, 2013.

Harris, Muriel. “The Overgraded Paper: Another Case of More is Less.” In How to Handle the Paper Load,  ed. Gene Stanford, 91-94. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33, no. 2 (May 1982): 148-156.