For years I provided very extensive comments on students’ papers. What stopped me was one of them, finally, saying “thank you.” It immediately struck me that hundreds of students over many semesters hadn’t cared enough to say anything to me about the comments, and in fact probably hadn’t cared about them at all. I switched to a more minimal commenting approach, at least on lower level courses.
But perhaps we can forgo nearly all written comments. That is what Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate and adjunct professor, suggests as an option. She uses a rubric that includes pre-written statements with grades and weights for various parts of the assignment. She checks off boxes on the rubric, thereby “commenting” and grading the assignment. She provides no line or marginal comments. Instead, she says: “Pass it back with a two-line summary about the paper in general, and then this note: ‘I would be delighted to give this paper an extensive line-by-line reading in my office hours, or by appointment!’ The students who want this will come to you. For me, it’s between one and ten students per paper, out of 35-60 total. This method is unassailable, because any student who wishes to have line comments gets them–they just have to make a slight time commitment about it, too, which every Dean would think is fair.” Schuman’s account of the process, along with examples of her rubrics, are over at her blog.
I was all the more horrified to see that almost all of the (six) people who commented on the post voiced approval for the method.
Why am I horrified? With all due respect to people who want to take these "grading shortcuts", I think it sends a terrible message to students. We don't want them to take shortcuts -- to write half-baked papers with poor grammar, no references, etc. -- but then we turn around and take shortcuts ourselves? And out of a belief that students don't read of care about our comments? This is, in my view, an incredibly short-sighted way to look at the matter (not to mention false-see below). Even if only a few students read or appreciate your comments, your students see the overall level of effort you do or do not put into your teaching. They see whether you give your best: whether you care about them enough to put all the hard work in regardless. And I believe they pick up on it. If students see that you are willing to take shortcuts, why shouldn't they? But if, on the contrary, you show them you are not willing to take shortcuts, and that you will not accept shortcuts from them, this -- in my experience -- has a real impact. If you show students that you are willing to work for them, they will be willing to work for you -- and for themselves.
When I started out as a professor, I took the half-baked approach, writing some comments in the margins, etc. -- and I was so darn frustrated with how disengaged and careless students were. Then I tried something: I tried the method that my very first philosophy professor, Daniel Dennett, did in my class. I attached a cover page or two with single-spaced, detailed comments referring to passages in the text explaining what, exactly, the student did well or poorly, and what they need to do to improve. I also include a section of "final comments" telling them how the paper succeeded/failed, and finally, a breakdown of grades into five areas: (1) introduction, (2) summary, (3) objections motivated, (4) critical discussion, and (5) miscellaneous [grammar, editing, page#s], etc.; each with comments of their own. This may sound like a lot, but I have gotten incredibly efficient at it, and the response from students has been outstanding. Here are just a few comments from my recent evaluations:
- Extensive feedback on papers was probably the most helpful part both in understanding the material more, and the development of my own ability to work through it.
- Daily, objective, and fair
- He provided very helpful comments on every daily assignment.
- Feedback on the papers made me a better writer.
- Very thorough with his feedback. Far more in depth than most, very helpful
- He always had serious comments that he took time on.
- The essays written for this class were challenging but incredibly intellectually stimulating.
- The essay/term-paper was extremely difficult and time consuming.
- Comments on papers are extremely helpful.
- The most useful feedback I’ve gotten so far has come from Prof. Arvan
- The feedback was helpful.
- Always made comments on homework!
- We were always given feedback: it was very helpful.
- Always gave good criticism on how to do better.
- Allows me to better my writing.
- It was hard to hear sometimes, but definitely helped.
- Told us from the beginning the challenge would be great, but we will all learn if we try.
- High expectations helped immensely.
- Very challenging work and held to a very high standard. However, it was all meant to improve thought and performance and was very helpful.
- Helped a great deal.
- Arvan put a lot of time into his feedback, which helped a great deal.
- Challenges himself and students.
- Arvan definitely gave good feedback which helped me to fix my mistakes and keep me going in the right direction. The feedback was very helpful.
- Most detailed and time taken by a professor to help correct essay mistakes – wants to make you the best possible writer. Respected that.Feedback was always given and helped greatly.
I realize this may come across as self-congratulatory, but what the heck: I am proud of it. ;) And I think it shows -- contrary to the comments over at Daily Nous -- that it is simply false that only "few" students appreciate feedback.
We owe our students better than taking shortcuts. It is high time we stopped criticizing students for being "disengaged" and worked harder to inspire them by going the extra mile ourselves.