Inspired by Nancy Sommers
Spring break has now passed, which means a lot of us are preparing for the final push towards the end of the semester. Many students will be planning, drafting and revising final papers, while their instructors prepare for the assessment work ahead. Whatever approach we take to revision and feedback, the time commitment required is in some ways unavoidable. After all, it is important to give adequate and equal attention to our students’ work when they have made it through a semester under our care and instruction, and have produced something to show for their efforts. Equally, we want to make sure that their work is properly celebrated and recognized, and maybe even offer some direction for what the student could focus on in their work to improve as they continue moving through their education.
On the topic of responding to student writing, Nancy Sommers has written a wonderful guide that includes some tips for how to grade both low stakes and high stakes assignments that have both the instructor and student in mind. Central to her discussion is an attempt to solve the issue of how instructors can meet the needs of their students through certain grading and feedback practices, but avoid sacrificing huge amounts of time and mental space.
Sommers begins her discussion by pointing out a simple and true fact, that as writers “we need and want thoughtful commentary to show us when we have communicated our ideas and when not, raising questions from a reader’s point of view that may not have occurred to us as writers.” Essentially, the process of providing feedback as an instructor (in any discipline) serves to “dramatize the presence of a reader” for our students and is a crucial part of the writing process. A symbiotic relationship of instructor-student feedback-response encourages students to engage in their work on a deeper level once they recognize that they are writing for someone and not just into the void.
Then Sommers gives some great suggestions for how instructors can best support students’ writing through written feedback. These include: creating a motive for revising; making an effort as much as possible to remove the intimidation and judgment that can sometimes be involved in the editing process; forcing students to focus on whatever the ‘Big Picture’ idea is before getting into the nitty-gritty of syntax and grammar; and not taking attention away from what the student is trying to do/ say. This last point is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to providing feedback on early drafts, as there is often a danger of us falling into appropriation of the text, i.e. forcing the student to make the changes we want to see, instead of the ones that are most suited to their overarching point or theme.
This misdirecting of attention is also a common trap to fall into when we correct grammar or spelling mistakes on a first draft without considering the larger context of what the argument is doing or what the student is trying to say. When we do this, we give the impression that diction and grammar is as important as meaning and ideas, which should never be the case. As WAC research and practices clearly show, meaning should always be discussed and verified before moving on to surface level issues such as syntax.
Sommers agrees with this foregrounding of higher order concerns, noting that if you tell a student to try and tackle meaning and grammar at the same time, chances are they won’t do either, or they will struggle to do both simultaneously and well. It can also be difficult for students to know what to prioritize if our comments are scattered and broad, so having a structure to our responses can be helpful. But how should this look? Sommers proposes a very simple plan towards the end of her guide, and one I have used myself as an instructor with much success.
Essentially she suggests structuring end comments as a letter to the student, using familiar language from the classroom and a conversational tone. We should begin by acknowledging something good that the student has accomplished in their draft, and then suggest one or two higher order concerns and no more than one lower order concern to work on in the revisions. End comments on final papers or projects follow a similar format: first offering praise and then perhaps one lesson to take away from the experience.
While this may seem like a lengthily response if we know we have to complete one for every student we have in a course, the idea is that as much early investment as we put into a project will pay off in the long term, both for the student and instructor. The more precise we can be with feedback at the early stage of a draft ensures less work on later drafts and a better final product. Also, as you will see below, it is possible to give the student vital feedback in a concise way. Here is one recommended outline for how to order feedback to the student:
- Opens with a salutation: “Dear Sonia”
- Highlights the paper’s strengths: “You bring in excellent evidence to support your argument”
- Highlights the paper’s weakness: “You expect the evidence to be self-evident”
- Links marginal comments with the end comment: “Marginal comments #1–3 highlight the ratio between quotation and analysis in a single paragraph”
- Provides guidance across the drafts: “For your next paper, focus on a deeper analysis of the evidence”
- Reinforces the writer-reader relationship: “I look forward to reading your next paper”
- Closes with a signature: “Sincerely, Professor Henry”
As Sommers points out, we are constantly challenged in our role as instructors to “develop comments which will provide an inherent reason for students to revise…” and not only this, but encourage them to embrace and take pleasure in the revision process. Thus the more we can inspire excitement and a sense of possibility through our feedback, the harder our students will work to improve their writing, and the more this will be reflected in their final grade.
 The information in this blog post is adapted from an article by Nancy Sommers, “Responding to Student Writing,” in College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, May 1982.
 Sommers, Nancy, Responding to Student Writers, Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2013.
 Sommers, College Composition, 148.
 For a more detailed discussion of what exactly to include in end comments, as well as more discussion on the how, see the WAC fellow’s PowerPoint, “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading”: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/wacdigitalinitiativeswritingintensivecertification/2018/03/08/minimal-marking-effective-grading/ Web, accessed April 29, 2019.
 Sommers, Responding to Student Writers, 24.
 Sommers, College Composition, 156.