Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Respond to the writer by responding to the writing

I recently offered a list of contemporary classics on teaching and learning. Among the shorter classics I didn't mention is Nancy Sommers' "Responding to student writing." Some of you have no doubt encountered Sommers' piece before. For those unfamiliar with it, a summary:

Sommers studied the comments and feedback that 35 university instructors gave to a set of undergrad essays. Her conclusions?

  • Comments and feedback are often overly focused on microlevel issues (commas, sentence structure, etc.) and amount to editing and proofreading on the instructor's part.
  • Instructors give contradictory advice. For instance, instructors critique the grammar of a paragraph while then suggesting that the paragraph is irrelevant anyway and should be omitted.
  • When focusing on macro issues, instructors repeatedly give the same vague advice, advice students do not necessarily know how to implement.
Sommers observes that such habits by and large do not help students improve as writers. The fixation on micro level issues leads students to correct rather than revise, to respond to feedback as a set of isolated criticisms instead of thinking holistically about their writing and its purposes. And by providing vague advice, we encourage students to see writing as hostage to a set of obscure rules whose rationale they need not grasp in order to be good writers. 

What makes Sommers' piece noteworthy is that it's the first I know of to emphasize that commenting on student writing is a developmental task, not just a summative or justificatory one. As Paul Corrigan nicely puts it, "commenting is not a clerical duty; it is an act of pedagogy."

How, then, do we give feedback that makes students better writers instead of feedback that merely improves what they've written? For me, the big lessons have been two:

  1. Give less feedback. Stick to two or three main points or criticisms. Some of these can be micro ("your essay has numerous run-on sentences"), but at least some of your feedback should engage with the student writing as a genuine attempt to engage a philosophical problem or text. Ask yourself: Is the main problem that the student's aims are not clear, or are the aims clear enough but the student has not succeeded, for whatever reason, in realizing her aims?
  2. Respond to the writer by responding to the writing.You're not reviewing a journal manuscript or helping a colleague with an early draft. What do you want students to learn from your feedback that they can use in subsequent writing tasks? Here it's not enough to say your writing should/should not have this feature or that one. Try to imagine the situation of the student writer and where in the process of their writing things go astray.
Sommers' article ends on an inspirational note:

The challenge we face as teachers is to develop comments which will provide an inherent reason for students to revise; it is a sense of revision as discovery, as a repeated process of beginning again, as starting out new, that our students have not learned. We need to show our students how to seek, in  the possibility of revision, the dissonances of discovery-to show them through our comments why new choices would positively change their texts,  and thus to show them the potential for development implicit in their own writing. 
How have you responded to student writing so that writing can become a process of discovery for students?

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