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What this handout is about

Responding to students’ written assignments is an important part of graduate students’ teaching roles. This handout offers strategies for responding meaningfully and efficiently.

The ideal response

The ideal response will help your students grow as writers and as learners. It will provide appropriately targeted, useful, constructive feedback, and it won’t take a burdensome amount of time for the instructor.

The key to efficiency

A clear rubric will help you allocate your response time and energy. Making the rubric will help you articulate your learning goals for the assignment, what components you expect, and what success looks like for each component. Including the rubric with the assignment will help students understand your expectations and give them a tool for analyzing their own drafts.

A rubric will also help you grade more fairly, consistently, and efficiently. If you’re responding to assignments that you didn’t create, ask the lead instructor about a rubric. If you’re one of several graders for an assignment, work with your colleagues to develop consistent application of the grading and response criteria. See detailed guidance on developing grading rubrics from Berkeley’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center.

Types of feedback

There are two primary types of feedback, distinguished by their timing and purpose.

  • Formative feedback is meant to help students develop a work in progress. It helps to shape subsequent drafts of the same writing project.
  • Summative feedback is meant to reflect how well students have met the expectations of an assignment. It’s offered on final drafts, though students may use that feedback on future writing assignments.

Strategies for responding

These strategies can be applied at both the formative and summative stages.

Read the entire draft quickly

You might want to quickly read through a few papers before responding to any of them, just to get a sense of the collection. When you’re ready to respond, read each paper quickly without marking anything on the first pass. This will give you a holistic sense of how students have met the expectations of the assignment, and it will prevent you from wasting a lot of time responding to less important concerns. You’ll know the biggest concerns and can focus on those things alone on your second pass. This practice can significantly enhance your efficiency in responding.

Respond selectively

Noting the major strengths will reinforce what the student has done well. Noting the major weaknesses will give them specific targets for revision. More experienced responders tend to read for ideas and organization, and their responses selectively recommend more substantive and impactful changes. Less experienced responders often get bogged down with surface features, making copious comments on grammar and punctuation errors that won’t significantly improve the student’s draft. Why bother marking the minor errors when they’ve missed the boat entirely?

It may take some self-regulation and practice to focus more selectively on the bigger things, but the rewards are worth it. You’ll see better drafts, and you’ll help students learn to distinguish between more and less critical concerns.

Respond specifically

Students may not entirely understand vague comments like “awkward” or “clarify.” They may wonder exactly what tripped you up or confused you—because it’s perfectly clear to them! You’ll get better responses from them if they understand your comment fully.

For example, instead of “clarify,” you might write “What happens when hormone levels become elevated?” or “I understand that hormone levels elevate under stressful conditions, but it’s not clear why this matters.” Instead of “Excellent!,” you might write “The level of detail you’ve included has illustrated the mechanism very clearly!”

Respond constructively

Students are usually eager to know exactly what they can do to improve their drafts, and you’ll get better revisions if you give constructive direction. Also, your students may be novices in the kind of writing you’re assigning. Your positive, constructive suggestions for revision will help them develop more advanced skills.

For example, instead of “vague,” you might write, “Providing more historical context would help you make the point that this author’s argument was against the conventional opinions of the time.”

Consider the options

Marginal and end comments: a general tip is not to get too much into marginal comments, which might end up being a much less efficient use of your time. Marginal comments are useful when they can clarify your general comments, indicate where exactly in the text you see a problem – but be cautious to not go into grammar editing (prioritize!). Better to have a few marginal comments and a more complete end comment than copious markings throughout the entire paper. Papers that are covered with comments everywhere are often discouraging for the student and not helpful.

Do your personal math

The strategies above are meant to help you respond efficiently—getting the most value for the time spent—but actually calculating how much time you have available will help you decide what you can do. How many papers do you have? How much total time do you have? How much time per paper? What’s the most important thing the student can do to improve? Done.

Additional resources

See these resources for more detailed discussions and examples.

University of California at Berkeley. “Grading student work.” Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center.

Harvard University. “Responding to student writing.” Harvard Writing Project.

WAC Clearinghouse. “How can I handle responding to student writing?” Responding to Student Writing.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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