Marking Papers for Growth

I mark papers for students. The student is the audience.

Marking Papers for Growth

This article is part of the “Teaching Deep” series (checkout #TeachingDeep on Twitter). The purpose of these posts, as outlined in the introduction, is to perform a sort of deep cleanse of my teacher soul, to reflect on the practice and the art of teaching. Each post will be grounded in an examination of something that I’m doing (or have recently done) in my classroom as part of my teaching practice. Typically, it will be something that I’m not super-thrilled about. Perhaps you’ll identify. Hopefully, you won’t!

Teaching Deep: An Introduction
Teaching without reflection is just throwing stuff against a wall and hoping it sticks.

As the term comes to an end, I find myself with a growing stack of papers to mark. Okay, it’s not a literal stack of papers. (Did you read my last post?) The digital inbox grows. By the end of this week, I will have 80 papers that I need to mark before my school’s grading deadline in a couple of weeks.

To teach deep, I have to ask myself a few questions:

  • What is my purpose in marking these papers?
  • How do I mark these papers?
  • What should I mark on the paper’s text?
  • What should I put in my general comment on the paper as a whole?

I’ll try to address these questions—and in this order!—below. But first, I want to make this clear: the thinking below reflects how I’d like to do things. This whole series focuses on trying to cease bad pedagogy in hopes of creating doing things better. While I’ve done everything that I write about below, I know that I’m not always consistent. This is a reminder to me! Hopefully, you will find it helpful too…

Marking vs. Grading

Let’s get on with it! Let’s talk about marking papers for growth!

You may notice that I’m not saying that I have “papers to grade.” A couple of reasons for that—

  1. The verb “to grade” implies judgment, and judgment has a negative connotation. Moreover, students and teachers get focused on grades and grading in a way that I just don't like. I want the focus to be on growth.
  2. As we continue in this series, you’ll come to understand that my antipathy for grades and grading influences my idiom: I do my best not to grade anything. But more on that in the future…

Rather than grading papers, I prefer to mark them or comment on them. These marks and comments will, when I’m at my best, convey what the student is doing well and what the student needs to improve on for their next assignment. The marks give me a sense of where the student is, of course, but their real target is the student.

I mark papers for students.
The student is the audience.

That seems like an obvious statement, but in recent years I have, at times, slipped into something that looks like marking for students, but really isn’t: marking for grade justification.

I’ll be honest. When I read a paper, I can typically tell early on where this paper will sort out: A, B, C, D, or F. I’m not always right, but I’m pretty darn accurate. If I’m not careful, if I’m not attentive to what I’m doing, then the task of marking papers can become an exercise in which I put enough down so that I feel like I have justified the grade that the student has earned.

Marking to justify grades is not helpful. This is what I call “grading papers.”

Mark What Matters

The other pitfall that I’ve slipped into is marking everything. When a student hands me a paper, I will immediately start to notice small things: the margins aren’t 1” as per MLA specifications, the student misspelled my name (happens more often than you’d think), or maybe their title isn’t capitalized properly.

For each student, I have to ask myself: “Is this what matters?”

Most of the time, it’s not.

If my real purpose is to improve the clarity and conviction with which my students express their ideas, then I have to think about issues like diction, syntax, and structure long before I can get into the nitty-gritty of proper page formatting. I need to be able to read the dang thing and understand the thinking. That’s most important, not whether or not the student properly formatted their parenthetical citations.

Some teachers will bristle at this. Some will say that I should be as thorough as possible in my marks. I understand that point-of-view. I’ve done both. I’ve marked papers to where I had written far more than the student. I’ve also marked papers where I have left almost nothing on the paper itself, but big, sweeping comments at the end.

The best marking, in my opinion, comes somewhere in between. What do I see that could help the student to take the biggest step right now? Focus on that. Mark with a sense of urgency. Mark with an eye toward making the greatest strides now.

This morning, I was looking at a paper where the student spent 75–80% of each paragraph offering summary of a text we’d read. I am trying to get students to move more toward analysis. I’m looking for your commentary on the text, I tell them. I want to know what YOU think it means. Moreover, I’ve read the book! I don’t need you to summarize every part for me. Just give me enough so that we all know where we are in the text and what’s going on.

Since I noticed that the student had done this in several paragraphs, that’s where I focused my attention: let’s move away from plot summary and toward critical, analytical commentary. Show me you’re thinking!

Were there other problems? Of course! No piece of writing is without potential for improvement. But what is the most important thing to mark that will help this writer take her game to the next level? That’s what I need to focus on.

So, I commented on those things, as well as a handful of other common mistakes that were made along the way.

Mark with a System

This is another area that I’ve gotten away from. I used to have a system for marking papers that allowed me to get through each student and feel like I’d given everyone the same amount of attention. The system kept me honest, ensuring that I shortchanged no one. Moreover, it also kept me efficient. As I wrote my general comment, I had a format that I could follow, that I could trust.

I don’t know why, but I’ve gotten away from that system. The result has been some uneven work. Some students get more attention than others. (Though, I know there’s an argument to be made here: some students certainly require more attention than others!)

I need a system that I can rely on to ensure that every student walks away with the following:

  1. the feeling that I actually read their piece,
  2. what they can work on to make the piece better.

Let’s address each of these in turn.

I Read Your Work

Most of my students put a great deal of time into writing their work. I know this because I have them do quite a bit of it in my classroom. If they aren’t putting time into it, then they’re doing a great job of fooling me!

If a student has put a great deal of time into producing something, I suppose I view it as a common courtesy—and a moral obligation—to take it seriously.

I remember many years ago, the summer before my first year of full-time teaching, I happened to meet a middle school English teacher. He and I were helping a mutual friend move into a new house. We both stopped for a break from the summer heat and grabbed a bottle of water. Naturally, we got to chatting, as teachers often do, and he decided to give me the tricks of his trade.

“I’m not particularly interested in whether their writing is any good,” he said. “I just want to know that they’ve done it. Doing it is enough for me.”

He then told me that he had a very simple system for grading:

“If they did it, then it gets a 100. If they didn’t, then it gets a 50. I can grade a set of papers in a few minutes! That's the secret, my friend.”

While I understand that many teachers have way too many students (my most at any one time was 125), this method is appalling to me. Not only did this teacher break the sacred trust of his station, but he also insulted his students by not taking their efforts seriously.

Do some items need to be marked simply for completion? Sure! As I teach a writing process, for example, I like to see that students are tracking along and working through planning, drafts, and revisions. Occasionally, especially with students who need this sort of accountability, I’ll take up an item just to check that it’s there.

But I just can’t do with this with a full-fledged essay that the student has planned, drafted, revised, and rewritten. The student has crafted the paper and deserves an audience. I am obligated to give it to them!

A student who feels like the teacher is reading their work will put more into it, I think, than a student who knows the teacher is just going to give it a big, fat checkmark regardless of the time spent crafting it.

I want my students to know that I’ve read their work.

I Know Where You Need to Go

When we take a student’s work seriously, when we demonstrate that we’ve read it, we earn the student’s trust. Now what do we do with it?

We offer them our sage advice!

After I’ve read a piece, I want to offer the student more than just criticism; I want to give them a roadmap:

  • Here’s what you could do to make this better.
  • Here’s something that you might think about for all of your writing.
  • Here’s something to try. See if it works for you!

We don’t have to offer up every little thing that the student needs to do. We don’t need to drown them in red ink. (Don’t drown your students in anything: red ink, homework, etc. Just don’t.) Similar to the marks described above, focus their attention on the most important thing that they can do that will give them the best chance at improving on their next shot.

This is important for two reasons.

First, when we target our feedback at the biggest need, then the student can set that need as his top priority. If you are struggling to write complete sentences, then I’m not really worried about whether or not you’ve got the comma in the right place. I need to get your thoughts out. Target the feedback there. If you don’t, then the student might end up focusing on less immediate concerns. That’s not what you want.

Second, targeted feedback like this saves you from feeling that you have to mark every single thing that you see. This can be exhausting, time-consuming, and counter-productive. Don’t do it! Be efficient. Comment on what is needed in the moment and save the other stuff for the next time around.

We have to remember that teaching is a long game: a marathon, not a sprint. We do this piece today and that is sufficient for today. Tomorrow, we'll tackle the next thing.

The System: SE2R

If students feel like their work was taken seriously and they have a roadmap for where to go next, then we’re doing pretty well.

Here’s what I’ve been doing in recent days that has helped me to get on track. First, I mark the paper as described above. I target my feedback on the text to the things that I think are most helpful for that writer. Maybe this kid really needs to work on commas, but that one needs to work on using the literary present. Whatever! It’s their paper and their needs.

Then, when I move to my general comment, I go to a system that I took from Mark Barnes: SE2R.

  • Summarize. Start by offering the student a short summary of what they’ve done. Spit it back to them. “You wrote a paper about ———.”
  • Explain. Tell the student what they’ve shown you about their knowledge and skills. Have they shown you that they can do X? Then tell them! Have they shown you that Y is still a struggle? Give them that information too! Focus on the important things that you’re looking for in the assignment.
  • Redirect. Give the student the resources to address the areas that need to be addressed. This could be referring to notes from previous classes, comments on previous papers, or as simple as, “Come and see me during office hours so that we can work on it together!” Whatever the right strategy is, give it to them. You’re a pro, so you know what the student needs. Don’t hide it!
  • Resubmit. Once they’ve taken action on the feedback, encourage them to show it to you again.

This is a simple system. Once you get the hang of it, it doesn’t take long. I like to give my comments as audio feedback, a luxury that I know not everyone has. When I give an audio comment, I feel like students can hear my tone better than when I write my comments out. (Some students really need to hear my voice to know that I'm not hypercritical or angry.) Recording audio feedback, for me, also tends to go more quickly than writing feedback, at least in my experience. When I’m finished reading a paper and commenting on the text, then I skim back over those comments to get the big picture, I hit the “record” button, and I just talk to them as if they were sitting with me.

Here’s a couple of transcriptions from actual student papers turned in a week or two ago (names changed, of course, and a few corrections here and there to eliminate some “um’s” and “uh’s”):

Hey Josh! I really enjoyed your take on the line between life and death in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Your analysis of Leonie’s relationship with Given struck me as particularly thoughtful. Leonie’s dependence upon the ghost of her dead brother definitely mirrors her dependence on the drugs that she uses to escape her responsibilities. Yet, Given is a constant reminder of those responsibilities. I love this cycle that you’ve uncovered! That particular section shows me that you’ve got the skill to analyze this text and express it clearly in your writing. The other section of your paper does not show this quite as well. Your analysis of Richie gets a bit muddy. Part of this is that you jump back and forth between different events in the novel rather than couching your analysis in one particular section. You might try choosing one of Jojo’s interactions with Richie as an anchor that you stick with throughout your analysis. Dig into it just like you did with Given and Leonie. Give that a try and then come show me what you’ve got!

Here’s another from the same assignment:

Howdy Esperanza! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the fluidity of family roles in Sing, Unburied, Sing. I especially like the way that you traced Leonie’s abdication of her responsibilities along with the growing sense of responsibility that Jojo feels. Moreover, tying this to Jojo’s coming of age, his sacrifice of a goat in the opening scene, and Leonie’s inability to even provide him a proper birthday cake, shows me that you can dig beneath the surface of a piece of literature and find the symbolic meaning. Great stuff! The content of this essay is really great, but we do need to work on one particular grammatical error that I see in here again and again: THE DREADED COMMA SPLICE. Remember that a comma can’t be used to join two independent clauses unless you have a coordinating conjunction. In one of the comments in the text of your paper, I left you a link to a Grammar Girl article on comma splices. Read through that article, use those strategies to fix some of these comma splices, and then show me what you’ve done.

Yes. I really do use the word “howdy.”

If you look at those statements, I think you’ll find SE2R in there: Summarize, Explain, Redirect, Resubmit.

Growth Before Grades

If you can avoid putting a grade on the paper, then absolutely do it! The grade is not the prize. The grade is a report that we are forced to give because the system demands it of us.

What’s important here is the learning. If a student skips over your feedback to get to the grade, then you’ve lost the battle. Your feedback will only be seen in the light of that grade: “Mr. Hebert gave me a B-. I better look through here to see if I really earned that.”

Nope. That’s not the conversation that you want to have. You don’t want to talk about grades because students will place more importance on the grade than on the learning. For many kids, especially in the college preparatory contexts where I’ve worked, the grade becomes the primary reason they did the work.

We don’t want to reinforce that.

We have to disrupt this grade-focused thinking as much as we can. We have to take back learning and growth as the goals of our courses. Any steps, no matter how small, that you can take in that direction are a win.

How can you do this? The simplest way may just be this:

  1. Return papers without grades but with good, targeted feedback.
  2. Ask students to reflect on the feedback. You can do this in any number of structured ways, but the easiest might be for them to consider which area they need to work on the most. This will require them to read and interpret your comments.
  3. Ask students to resubmit something that shows that they are working through that particular issue. They don’t necessarily need to rewrite the whole paper every time. Look at the comments above. I really wanted that second student, Esperanza, to focus solely on a grammatical error. That’s fine. Let’s get that particular skill figured out!

Once they’ve gone through this reflection process, then they can have their grade. I guess it’ll be like dessert after a particularly nutritious (and hopefully tasty!) meal.

When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve felt tiny shifts in student attitudes. They come to understand that, in my classroom, grades were not going to be the focus. They would need to show growth before they were shown grades.

That’s what you want to do! Mark those papers for growth. Give the students actionable feedback and then get them to act on that actionable feedback. (Too much action in that sentence? Well, I teach writing: I love an active voice...)

Happy marking!

Photo by Thomas Vimare / Unsplash


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