Commenting on Student Papers

1. Finding something that matters

The ability to find something that matters in student work is one of the greatest assets a writing teacher can have.

When I examine my own practice of commenting on student papers, what I see myself doing is trying to (mis)read in the student’s text something that bears on things that matter, and to respond to that something, and engage with that something, and be in dialogue (key word) with that something even if it is only nascent and half-there.  I want to be in dialogue with that valuable something in the student’s paper even if I am half-creating it as I read.

Usually this dialogue is mainly an interaction in writing – her paper and my comment.  At first it may be a dialogue which the student hardly knows that she is capable of having.  I may find a kernel of worthwhile thought in the student’s writing which she was unaware of.  But that’s okay.  She’s learning.

When I say “something that matters,” to whom does it matter?  It must matter both to me, because I am the student’s reader, and to her, because she is the writer.

One thing that consistently matters a lot, according to me, is this: critical, reflective thinking happens in writing when a paper takes up a problem or question whose resolution is not obvious.  The starting point of the student’s writing, then, is a question rather than a thesis.

Almost inevitably, such a paper must point out steps toward a resolution of the problem, but it can seldom conclude by pretending to a perfect or final resolution, because by doing so it will have denied the full complexity of that issue.

Arguments that can be definitively concluded go something like this:

“I hope to show” —– “if . . . then” –— “therefore it follows.”

Most truly puzzling problems also require the use of “on the other hand,” “but,” “yet,” “however,” “and yet,” and “nevertheless.”  These movements of thought are signs of the more mature, independent thinking we want students to become capable of, because they admit complexity into the work.

2. Strategies that actually make commenting on papers easier:

1. When you get a batch of papers from your students, read them over quickly without commenting on them at all.  Ignore your complicated thoughts about students’ ideas, your worries about their errors, your questions about how to help them.  Ignore any impulse to write a comment or correct a mistake, no matter how small.  Just read them through quickly.

Then put them aside overnight.

Then read again, and this time make comments.

I call this “Teach While You Sleep.”  You drop the papers down the well of the unconscious, and it thinks about them for you overnight.  The next day, your thoughts about them are already somewhat formed before you even begin — and (in my experience) the papers look magically better, the errors less worrisome.

2. When you start to write on a batch of papers, write your thoughts about each paper to yourself as fast as possible.  This makes the task easier in two ways.  Since you are writing to yourself, you don’t have to be tactful and are free to think and say what you really think.  Since you are writing quick notes to yourself, you don’t have to say everything.

Then, when you take these notes to yourself and convert them to comments addressed to the student, you will be very grateful that you have recorded so many insights.

It is easier to have insights into a paper when you don’t simultaneously have to address the rhetorical problem of how to present them to the student.  (Or decide on a grade, or justify it.)

3. Resolve from the start that you will make no more than three major points in your comments about a paper, on the grounds that the student can only take in so much at a time.  Decide on your priorities on the basis of the assignment’s function in your course, or on what you know to be the individual student’s needs.

The Simmons College Writing Center’s 3-2-1 formula for commenting:

3 comments on higher order issues

2 comments on grammar/mechanics

at least 1 mark per page.

3. A spectrum of possible positions to take while commenting on a student’s writing

or, conceptions of the teacher’s role

I believe one can, and generally one does, take more than one position in the course of commenting on a single paper.  I offer this list to open up the range of possibilities.  Basically what I’m trying to say here is that there’s more to do than correct and grade.


1. JUDGE.  Declares something to be good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable.  Gives grades.

2. DOCTOR.  Fixes the paper, or tells how to fix it.


3. INFORMANT.  Provides student with necessary information she doesn’t seem to know.  This could be information about mechanics, or conventions, or expert knowledge of the discipline.

4. READER.  Reports what happens in your mind as you read the student’s paper and try to construe its meaning.  The assumption is that the student can make good use of an intelligent reader’s responses.


5. SUPERVISOR.  In this context, I mean “supervision” in its root sense of “view from above” or “overview.”  A supervisor, then, is one who helps another to have an overview of some work.  A supervisory comment tries to help the student become aware of, and reflect upon, her own ways of thinking and writing – for instance, assumptions that she brings to the writing.  Such a comment might validate what a student does, or suggest the limitations of her thinking, or try to get her to consider other approaches.

6. FELLOW LEARNER.  Acknowledges how the experience of learning feels – the pressures, risks, satisfactions, anxieties, etc., inherent in it.  This stance does not entail any giving of advice; rather, the goal is to accompany the student.

Recommended Reading: Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford, “Teachers’ Rhetorical Comments on Student Papers.” College Composition & Communication 44, 214.

4. Some questions to ask about student papers

when the writing is of a critical, reflective nature:

accompanied by some suggestions about commenting, in italics

Does the paper have a point or problem to explore (a thesis or guiding question)

which you can find clearly expressed on the page

so that you can readily keep it in mind while reading?

If so, great.  Why not let the student know this?

Or do you have to ferret it out for yourself?

If you do have to, and you can, you might share what you find with the student.  Plus, of course, point out that the reader shouldn’t have to dig for the central issue.

Or is it only partially expressed?

You might be able to point this out and put questions to the writer which would help her complete the articulation of her central idea.

Does the paper’s thesis or problem have some basic flaw – e.g. insufficient specificity, key terms poorly defined – that affects the entire paper?

If this is the problem, then giving the student guidance on this one aspect could improve the whole paper.

Does the paper go where the introduction leads you to believe it will go?  Does it pose one question, then answer another?  Does it propose to make one argument, then argue something different?

You can respond to this by telling the student what expectations her intro created in your mind and pointing out how she went elsewhere.  In the next draft, she then has to choose between the paper her intro predicted and the rest of the paper she actually wrote.

Is there an unstated idea (perhaps an assumption) in the paper which, if stated clearly, would make the whole paper clearer?

Again, pointing out this one key piece of the puzzle might lead to all-around improvement.

Are there underlying assumptions that cause problems with the entire paper?


Does the paper simplify issues too much in order to attain coherence?  Does it jump to an artificial “happy ending” (of an intellectual kind) in which truly challenging issues are “resolved” by a series of simplistic shoulds?

In my experience, this is a common problem.  It does at least mean that we are giving students challenging material to work on.  We need to push them to deal with the true difficulty of the questions at hand, instead of trying to minimize that difficulty.

Is there enough evidence to make the paper more than a series of assertions?

Does the writer make full use of the evidence that she brings in?  Is the evidence she cites sometimes stronger than she realizes?

Conversely, does the writer use evidence to “prove” something that it doesn’t prove?

Are there gaps in the argument, connections which are said to be logical but are not?

Is conflicting evidence, or opposing argument, conveniently omitted?

Does the writer inexplicably omit readily available evidence which would support the point she is making?

These are all things that a comment could point out.

Would a re-ordering of the already existing paragraphs solve some of the paper’s problems?

Sometimes a painless yet powerful form of revision is possible.

Or does it need to be re-thought on a deeper level than that?

This is where it gets hard to specify a generally applicable approach.  However, one powerful technique is to ask the student to outline her first draft and then to work with that outline, rather than the whole text.  I would suggest that the student number the paragraphs, reduce each paragraph to one sentence (a challenging task in itself), then look at these numbered sentences and ask: What’s missing here?  Is this the best order?  How does each item follow from the preceding? and related questions.

Are there enough signposts of coherence and transition (overt reminders of the paper’s structure) to keep you on track as a reader?

Or are there too many, so that the effect becomes mechanical and laborious?

Are the paper’s points over-explained, as if you, the reader, were a dolt?  To put it another way, can the writer say what she means without saying it again and again?

Has the writer allowed herself enough idiosyncrasy of voice and thought to give the impression that she’s alive?  Or has she tried to make herself into an academic common denominator?

Are you offered the opportunity to witness the process by which the writer makes sense of something?

Does the paper give you a sense of discovery, or does it exist simply to present a foregone conclusion?

Is the paper worth reading?  Can it pass the “So what?” test?  Does it address a question sufficiently difficult to pique your curiosity and hold your attention?

If the paper can’t pass the “So what?” test, is this because it proposes to argue something with which no one could disagree?  Because its problem has too obvious a solution?  Because the problem, while difficult to resolve, is nevertheless trivial?  Because of your own personal prejudices as a reader?


You can download this document here: Commenting on Student Papers