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On Teaching
Linda Shadiow, PhD

Responding Effectively to Student Work: A Bakerís Dozen of Approaches

In reflecting on her time spent enrolled as a university freshman (My Freshman Year, 2005), anthropology professor Rebekah Nathan, aka NAU professor Cathy Small, writes, “I can vividly remember overhearing the authentic excitement in one student’s voice as she exclaimed into her cell phone, ‘Mom, the professor told me the essay was really good!’” (p. 134).

We want our responses to student work to influence how learners move forward in the class, how they refocus their efforts, and how they reflect on their progress. Once we have made an assignment and been explicit about the way this assignment fits with the planned outcomes for the class and how the assignment will be evaluated, students proceed. When we collect and evaluate their lab assignments, essays, math problems, research papers, field reports, students expect feedback.

In addition to putting a grade on the papers there are a number of ways the professional literature on teaching suggests we can respond effectively to student work, whether in face-to-face or online environments. Here is a collection of such approaches. Not all of them will be applicable to the type of assignments you regularly make, and there is no implication that all of these would be used all of the time. This “baker’s dozen” is meant to expand the repertoire of strategies from which you can draw.

  1. Use the student’s name. This is a simple way to contribute to the teacher-learner relationship that is an important part of student motivation. Personalizing a comment with a name draws attention to an authentic rather than generic observation or suggestion. Pair the student’s name once in the overall comments, ideally with one of the more positive responses. “Because of your example, I understand your point here, Rachel.”

  2. Respond as a reader. Approaching the reading of an assignment as a teacher comes easily: our stance is, “Let me tell you how you can improve your work.” What can be missing in this approach is the link between what is written, how it is read, and what the consequences of that reading are.

    The contrast? “Clear up the confusion here,” or “I had to reread this passage more than once because I was confused.” The first example is a directive, the second is facilitative. Neither of these precludes a corrective comment: “Work to be explicit about your primary and supporting evidence.”

  3. Avoid "but." This is another small way to strengthen the tone of the overall feedback students get. When a positive comment ends in “but...,” the effect of positive feedback is undermined.

  4. Ask question/s. Depending on the length and type of assignment, including a question or two can re-engage students with their own work. For example, “How did you decide on taking this approach?” A variation of this is to invite further details through the use of a sentence stem: “Help me understand how this step relates to the previous step.”

  5. Make a suggestion for one thing to work on. Include a statement that begins, “In your next assignment…” and identify one aspect the student can work on to strengthen his/her work.

  6. Be wary of generic comments. I have a storehouse of stock comments: “good work,” “unclear,” “awkward,” “nice job.” While these are better than only placing a grade on a paper, such generic responses do not invite students to attend to them. A tailored, specific comment might read, “I am able to see how you arrived at your conclusion, James, because you listed your steps explicitly. Good work.” Or “I was confused here because you seemed to have missed describing a step in the experiment.”

  7. Briefly describe what the assignment does. Students wonder if we “got” what they tried to do. A brief comment that paraphrases what the assignment did gives learners a mirror in which they can see how we viewed their image of their own work: “In this essay you provided a series of examples to support your position.”

  8. Read a page aloud to student. When students come in to office hours to discuss their work, read the first page of their assignment to them, commenting as you go on your response as a reader. Let the student hear you stumble in the awkward sections, reread the confusing sections, and compliment the effective passages. In this way the student is able to eavesdrop on your reading of the piece.

  9. Construct a paragraph for use in class that summarizes your observations about the collective assignments. On the day you return the assignments, provide the class with a paragraph that gives learners insight into the work of the entire class: “For this assignment, I was happy to see the extent to which the class analyzed the position. The strongest papers referred to the concepts underlying the position and cited key historical figures whose work illustrated the position. The papers that needed more work would have been more effective if there was more analysis and less personal response….”

  10. Ask students to comment on their own assignment. Prior to turning in their work, ask students to think about their own work by responding to a few sentence stems:

       “The strongest part of my paper is….”
       “The part I would spend more time on if I had it is….”
       “In my next assignment I plan to….”

    On subsequent assignments you could add: “What did you do differently on this assignment than you did on your previous one?”

    Once you finish reading and grading the work, then read the student’s own responses and add a comment. By engaging in this dialogue, students' own reflections become a part of the conversation about the work.

  11. Highlight sections of the rubric that apply to the student’s paper. In using a rubric, use a highlighter to draw a student’s attention to the descriptors that apply to their work. And give the graded rubric back to students when the assignment is returned.

  12. Use peers as “readers.” Rather than have students grade each others’ papers before turning in assignments, ask that each paper be read by two peers. Guide the peer reading by asking them to use a series of prompts about their reading (not evaluation) of the assignment:

       “As a reader I think your key point is….”
       “As a reader it helped me when….”
       “As I reader it would help me if….”
       “As a reader I felt your most effective point was….”
       “As a reader I found my understanding of your point would be strengthened if….”

    Every student gets two peer-reading feedback sheets prior to their completing the final version of the assignment. And each peer reader can get a point for completing each reader-review sheet for a colleague.

  13. Ask for permission to keep a few papers. When a paper is assigned, it is useful for students to talk about what would make an effective assignment. Showing two anonymous papers from a previous semester (or even the first page of each of two papers) can initiate a discussion of what makes one paper more effective than another. This can further lead to an explanation of how the assignment rubric reflects the very qualities students saw themselves. Or such a discussion can lead to the students actually collaborating on the development of the rubric.
Linda Shadiow

You may have noticed that in this brief piece I have used “students” interchangeably with “learners.” Actually, I am convinced that more deliberate attention given to the types of comments we put on assignments (and the kind of comments we give verbally) can contribute to students’ learning. So the aspiration is that students will move further ahead as learners because, in part, of how we engage them after their assignments are completed.

—Linda Shadiow, Professor of Educational Foundations and Director of the NAU Faculty Development Program