Sunday, November 1, 2009

An Alternative way of Revising

This time of year, many of us find ourselves writing many comments on papers that we have written before, for the same student, and we find that we are writing the same comments throughout the paper. When we do this, we get frustrated, and the students get discouraged. But shouldn't we be marking all the places in the paper that illustrate the particular problems on which we expect students to improve? In addition, we all recognize the value of revision - but full papers are often insufficiently revised, compounding the frustration and disappointment of both teachers and students alike. What to do? Here is what I am trying.

By this point in the semester my students have had at least one if not two papers on which I have commented extensively, including comments on clarity, grace and style. Together we have begun to locate particular patterns in their writing to focus on for revision and future papers. From this point onwards, then, I select only one paragraph per paper to mark for style, grace, and other formal matters. As a matter of discipline I allow myself only three more comments on any given page. Of course, I still provide an overall evaluation based on content. I also select only one paragraph to mark for issues concerning explanation, argument and evidence.

Instead of encouraging students to revise an entire paper, I give them the opportunity to come to office hours with a revision of one or both of these selected paragraphs. This can easily be read together in office hours and presents a good learning opportunity. It also allows the student to do some revision without getting behind in class because she is trying to tackle a major revision of a whole paper.

I should say that given my small class size, I also give them one opportunity to revise one whole paper if they wish. But for larger classes, this might be a good way to 1) recognize the value of revision, 2) make revision targeted and effective rather than a daunting and distracting process, and 3) encourage us as teachers to remember that writing lots of similar comments across a whole paper is as demoralizing to students as it is frustrating for us.


  1. I like this idea, Becko. I agree that students do get discouraged, and it can seem overwhelming to revise a paper with so many negative comments. The other problem is that they will simply go through comment by comment, and change the paper, without thinking too deeply about it. I'm teaching in the Honors Program here this fall, and have done something similar. I meet with them and discuss the first couple of pages of their papers, and then tell them to revise the entire paper based on my comments. This way, they have to extrapolate and apply the suggested changes to the whole paper without having it all served up for them on a silver platter. It's easier for me, and better for them, one of my favorite teaching combinations.

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  3. The spam comment above brought this post back to my attention. (In case the moderators have removed the spam comment by the time you're reading this, I am not referring to Mike Austin's comment! There was a genuine spam comment.)

    I recently started requiring that students meet with me prior to revising a paper, and it made a huge difference. The meetings involved substantive discussions of philosophy, as well as tips for writing better papers. The students seemed to appreciate it, and I was very pleased with the quality of their revisions. It does require extra time on the instructors' part, but it's time well spent.

    The other thing I've been doing to cut down on the number of repetitive comments I write is to use a detailed rubric. (Michael Cholbi did a post on rubrics this summer.) Among other things, I can use the rubric to help students understand why I gave them the grade that I did, and I can focus my comments on philosophical points and ways to improve their work.


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