The Mighty Red Pen

One of the most frustration aspects of being a teacher is the inability to communicate properly with the students. With all the good intentions considered, the instructions do not always lend with the students as one would hope. Especially in terms of offering feedback on their written assignments. The negligence of the person who wrote the piece while commenting on it is certainly a major issue that needs to be emphasized. This tends to happen when the instructor feels overwhelmed, or dismissive due to personal reasons, but most of the time it is simply lack of knowledge about how to properly handle it.

The article, Writing Comments on Students Papers, by John Bean is a fantastic read that offers many key points. I have specifically chosen this article because my biggest struggle has always been with offering proper feedback to my students on their writings. My intention was not only to present it in the class but also to study it. I can safely say that the article has met with my expectations. It is one of the most informative and effective articles included in our course. There are so many things to extract from it and utilize in the future.

The first major issue the article addresses is the lack of sensitivity in comments on the papers. Instructors tend to reflect their irritations on their feedback on the paper by removing the person from the equation; neglecting their feelings and distinct personalities. The point of commenting, in itself, is to facilitate improvement. That aspect seems to be lost for many. John Bean introduces the quote by William Zinsser in the article that explicitly reflects that point:“The writing teacher’s ministry is not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words.” A key concept of solving this issue seems to be mitigating. It is basically mixing positive feedback with the negative in order to “mitigate the feelings of inadequacy” of the student. Thus, “evoking feelings of hope and confidence rather than failure” becomes the goal of the instructor.

It is also beneficial to remind ourselves of our roles during the writing process for a more efficient instruction. John Bean describes two specific roles that we should consider: “At the drafting stage, our role is couch. At the end of the writing process, our role is judge.” This is an interesting distinction that could help raise sensitivity and allow for a more considerate approach to commenting. The drafting stage is when the students display their strengths and weaknesses in writing. As “the couch”, we need to offer them “good advice and warm encouragement” at that point in order to facilitate improvement. Students also adapt revising, which means “seeing again” and not just editing. Couching them to improve their vision is definitely a crucial role that needs to be realized. Although it is possible to exercise both the roles of couch and judge simultaneously, a solid distinction could easily prevent risky confusions for many.

As a way of preparation for the writing process, John Bean states that “making our pet peeves known to the students” before they began is also a good idea to avoid a certain amount of frustration later on. These “pet peeves” are meant to include specific mistakes that most writing students frequently make. That way, focus of errors could be shifted from more general ones to more personal and individually specific ones.

The article also introduces a hierarchy for the concerns that need to be observed. Certain types of error tend to be more concerning than others. So, the attention of the instruction should be directed toward the more concerning issues primarily. These higher-order issues include things such as ideas, organization, and development. They tend to be more rhetorical and they form the necessary foundation. These elements also cause stronger discontent for the students in case of struggle; specifically constructing the introduction paragraph and identifying a thesis. Sometimes, the draft “follows the order of the writer’s discovery process and the thesis becomes clear only in conclusion” due to that struggle. Hence, the instructors need to focus on them more during the drafting stage. The lower-order issues such as grammar, spelling, and style could be addressed better at a final stage. John Bean suggests instructors to encourage their writing students to utilize “old/new contract”, which is linking the old concepts with the new ones, in their writings for better cohesiveness and avoid confusion for the reader. Simply put, the beginning sentence of a paragraph serves as a link to a known information and the new one is introduced later.

It is also important to note that the amount of errors found on a student paper could be misleading. A closer observation might reveal links or correlations among those errors because a specific error might be simply repeated throughout the paper. That discovery would make the commenting about the mistake much easier for the instructor, and much easier for the student to comprehend it. By simply tracing it to its source, a repeated error could be eliminated more efficiently.

Something else that needs to be touched upon, even before getting into comments, is making sure the student’s writing follows the assignment as expected. The article does not appear to go into details of this particular issue but it could be quite crucial. John Bean simply mentions that the student needs to be informed in case his or her essay is not compatible with the given topic and unfortunately there is no in-depth analysis of the impact of informing the student. Based on my own experience, students who struggle with writing, especially second language learners, tend to be extremely discouraged by that information. Often times, those students simply refuse to rewrite their papers because they believe that they utterly failed. This is a perfect topic of discussion for the class that I’m actually planning on bringing up.

The final point of importance to extract from the article is proper end comments. John Bean states that the end comments should encourage revision for excellence. He warns us by saying:“Do not justify your grading” in the end comments. Instead, he offers a three-step template to follow for a more effective and encouraging alternative. The first step is pointing out the strengths. As stated above, “evoking feelings of hope” is very important. The second step is summarizing a limited number of problems that need to be figured out. These problems need to be prioritized for the reasons mentioned earlier. The third, and the last, step is offering specific recommendations for revision. The more specific and clear the recommendation, the better. If possible, offering examples would also be a good idea.

Overall, this article was simply excellent. The author, John Bean, addressed many important issues and offered sound solutions, or possibilities, that will certainly improve writing pedagogy for many instructors –including me. Correcting students’ papers might be overwhelming at times, even frustrating, but it is absolutely important to remember the student who is eagerly awaiting an encouraging feedback. As the author suggests in the article, we should “not grade it as a teacher, instead criticize it as a reader” for a more personal connection with our students.


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