Category Archives: Time Management

Tip #5: What are some useful tips on commenting on a student’s paper?

Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Commentary[1]by Adria Bader

Commentary DO’s:

  • Read a draft all the way through BEFORE you begin to comment on it
  • Spend at least 20 to 40 minutes commenting on a single draft
  • Use a number/comment system instead of LONG marginal comments
  • Raise questions from a reader’s point of view; note points that may not have occurred to the writer
  • Focus on the overall problems of content before looking at surface level errors (i.e. grammar, spelling)
  • Phrase comments clearly and carefully (The average Joe should be able to read the commentary and understand what needs to be changed.)
  • Make comments text-specific, referring specifically to that writer’s draft (NO “rubber stamps” such as “awkward” or “unclear” or “vague”
  • Direct comments to breaks in logic, disruptions in meaning, and/or missing information
  • Structure comments to help writers to clarify their purposes and reasons in writing that specific draft
  • Offer SUGGESTIONS, not commands, when possible
  • Comment through the use of questions (“This sentence confuses me a little; can you reword it to make it more clear? OR “Could you make a stronger transition between these two points?”)
  • Look for unexplained “Code Words” in the draft and ask the writer about them (“What exactly does `Different aspects’ mean here?”)
  • End comments should include the main STRENGTHS in a writer’s draft as well as 2 or 3 of the most important things that need improvement
  • If something appears too complicated to write in the commentary, just mention that you have something that you would like to talk to the writer about when you have your conference.
  • If the writer is not sure that they have understood the assignment, and you aren’t sure either, don’t be afraid to tell the writer to talk with his or her professor


Commentary DON’Ts:

  • Don’t write commentary in red ink
  • Don’t turn the writer’s paper into YOUR paper
  • Don’t contradict yourself (“Condense this sentence,” followed by, “You need to be more specific and develop this paragraph.”)
  • Don’t overwhelm a writer with too much commentary
  • Don’t take forever in your commenting on a draft: remember, the writer needs ample time to revise.


For another perspective, here’s a link to a related (brief) article entitled “The Rhetoric of Paper-Marking, Or A Wheelbarrow for Sisyphus” by Ray Smith, Director, Campus Writing Program at Indiana University, Bloomington:

It appeared in the Teaching Resources Center Newsletter; Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1997


Tip #3: Are there other kinds of writing students can do besides essays?

There are many types of writing that you can infuse into your courses.  While the level of reflection varies in these different types, you can still  gain many of the benefits of WAC with even a short writing assignment. Here are some writing activities that don’t require much time and preparation of instructors, but that still can deepen students’ learning[1]:

  • “Talk-back” notes: jotting down important points, confusing spots, places of disagreement as if talking to the author.
  • Reading logs: making regular, free-choice responses that link personal experiences with the content of texts.
  • Focused reading notes:  tracking a key theme or concept in a flow chart or under column headings.
  • Summary/response notebooks: dividing a page in half to summarize on one side and to comment on the other.
  • Interviews: inventing questions & using a text to provide the “interview responses.”
  • Genre switching: responding creatively to a traditional text format, e.g. the autobiography of a pancreas, a poem about an isosceles triangle, a newsletter about what students learned in a 3-week period in chemistry.
  • Microthemes: summarizing reading assignments concisely on note cards.
  • Translations: writing a difficult passage in one’s own words, deliberately avoiding any language that the author uses.
  • Explications of visual aids: interpreting the meaning of a graph, map, table, image, etc.—or designing a visual aid to clarify a particularly challenging textual passage.
  • Multiple-choice or short-essay questions:  turning in weekly questions on reading assignments that become part of an exam the next week.
  • Headline essays: collecting newspaper or magazine headlines on a topic (e.g. math in the news) and writing a short summary of how those headlines add up.
  • Visual to Verbal Mini-projects: Putting together posters, power-point slides, or handouts that summarize a reading assignment.  Students orally present, then write reflections on what they learned.
  • Ticket-out-the-Door:  writing down the key lesson from the day’s class and/or questions or lingering confusions.  Instructors collect these before students leave class.

Tip #2: How do I manage all of those writing assignments?!

Responding to and/or evaluating student writing need not take a great deal of your time [1].

  • Provide most of your feedback informally as students plan and write, then evaluate the final product quickly.
  • Having conferences with students saves you time and can increase clarity, as they can ask you questions. You can hold quick in-class conferences while students work individually or in groups.
  • Build in other readers before you. Have students receive feedback from their peers; recommend or require that they attend the Writing Center.
  • Not all writing has to be long. Rather than assigning one very long paper, assign several short ones or have them write a series of drafts, of which you read only one. Rather than only requiring “formal” writing, have them do more informal writing which may be used in class, or collected at random.
  • Don’t read everything you have your students write. Collect, read and grade their writing randomly.
  • Prioritize. Decide what is most important to you in each assignment (Format? Clarity? Demonstration of knowledge? Audience awareness? Spelling?) and evaluate based on your top priorities.
  • Don’t evaluate or comment on everything in a paper; focus your evaluation on two or three aspects that are most important to you (and that you identified as being most important in making the assignment).
  • Don’t correct students’ errors for them. Point out the most significant shortcomings in the paper (based on your priorities) briefly, then require that they make the corrections.

[1] From