Commenting on student work

This section of the toolkit provides guidelines for how to provide meaningful comments to students that they can apply to improve future assignments. Here are some specific guidelines:

1. Be transparent. Tell students beforehand what is important to you, what form your comments will take, and how they will be able to apply your feedback to future work. This manages their expectations and points out the value of your comments.

2. Be positive. Begin your comments by highlighting what is good about students’ work.

3. Focus on what’s important.  Students will infer that the subject of your comments is what is most important so comment primarily on ideas, organization, development and clarity and then turn to issues of style, grammar and mechanics (unless the latter is the topic of your course).

Here are some ideas you might consider:

  • Focus your written comments on one main strength and one main area for improvement. Cover other items with a grading rubric or checklist.
  • Ask students to identify 1- 2 items they would like feedback on and submit these questions with their assignment. Focus your comments on these questions and cover other items with a grading rubric or checklist.

4. Be efficient.  Don’t be tempted to rewrite the paper or comment on every single problem. Instead, point out the changes that would have the biggest impact on the quality of the assignment. For errors in spelling, grammar and mechanics, highlight the first few and then advise the student to correct these items in the rest of the paper.

Here are some ideas you might consider:

  • Use audio feedback. Record your comments instead of writing them down and give them to the students in electronic format.
  • Use group feedback mechanisms. After collecting assignments from the class, generate a memorandum to the class which addresses some of the common errors you’ve seen overall.
  • Give feedback to a sample of students instead of the whole group. In courses with multiple assignments, stagger your feedback to students over the term so that students get detailed comments only once per term.

5. Be timely. It is important to provide feedback when students can still incorporate it, so give constructive comments early on or mid-process on at least a part of the assignment. Don’t invest time putting comments on final products if experience shows that students won’t pay attention to them.

6. Teach students to provide peer-to-peer feedback, not grades. Coach students and provide a clear task and guidelines. This can be time-consuming, but benefits students in their roles as both reviewers and reviewees.

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