“Um…did I do something wrong here?” Responding to Student Writing

In responding to Peter Elbow’s “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” I’d like to begin with an anecdote of my own.  After a class in which I had for the first time handed back some low stakes writing to students with my comments, a student approached me with a look of concern on his face.  “Um, I was wondering about these comments” he said.  “OK, what can I help you with?” I responded.  “Well, I mean, did I do something wrong here?”  I was somewhat surprised.  My comments  (all two of them) had tried to interact with the student’s thoughts, suggesting further directions he might consider.  When I explained this to the student, he seemed relieved, and we went on to talk about possible directions for his paper.  Yet I couldn’t help feeling that his relief was probably a result of his grade not being effected and that my comments had failed to achieve their purpose all the same.

It is little wonder, then, that Elbow’s essay was especially interesting to me.  I found myself in near total agreement with his position on writing comments, and appreciative of his recognition that writing good comments was both more important and more difficult than often assumed.   Elbow’s breakdown of different levels of commentary is a helpful and practical way of thinking about and practicing responding to both low and high stakes student work.  His emphasis on supportive responses and use of simple cues (such as the straight and squiggly lines) provides me with a model which I can productively use. By providing several examples of good comments, Elbow illustrates how the theory works in practice, which is again very helpful, as I can intellectualize his points without necessarily knowing what a good comment will actually look like.  His suggestions for practical application I also found very useful, such as forward looking comments on final drafts, reflective cover letters, and refraining from comments on a first reading.  I hope to fruitfully employ all of these suggestions.

One thing Elbow does not mention, but I believe would be useful, would be an explanation to my students as to how and why I am commenting on their papers, and how my comments might differ depending on the type of assignment I am commenting on.  This way, students would have an idea of what to expect, and how they might use these comments to further their work.  Perhaps this would be one way, along with writing better comments myself, of establishing a more firm writer/reader relationship which many of my students are only beginning to get a feel for.  And perhaps, instead of that student worrying that comments equal a failing grade, I might, on occasion, have that student walking away thinking about what he might write next.


Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” New Directions for Teaching and     Learning 69 Spr 1997: p5-13.

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One Response to ““Um…did I do something wrong here?” Responding to Student Writing”

  1. Yair Solan says:

    I also found the Peter Elbow piece to be quite interesting, Matt. And timely, too, as I will soon have to comment on and grade my students’ first formal paper of the semester. Among the points I found most helpful in Elbow’s article was his observation that “students can seldom benefit from criticism of more than two or three problems” (12). Accordingly, it makes sense to read a paper all the way through before making comments, and then selecting only a few issues to focus on. Like Matt, I appreciate Elbow’s suggestion of making forward looking comments on final drafts. Like the sequence of low stakes writing/rough draft/revision/final draft, such forward looking comments emphasize writing’s status as a continuous process. In this way, the final draft of a paper is not simply the end of an assignment, but is actually a kind of bridge to the next assignment of the semester. This allows students to build upon what they have learned — and enables them to further develop their writing skills — rather than simply having them start over when they begin their next writing assignment.