Responding To Student Writing; Are You Doing It Right?

Teachers and tutors today spend a lot of their time during work on commenting or responding to student assignments and essays.  The question is, however, are we being helpful, and what is seen as constructive feedback for students? In this blog I’m going to review the thoughts of Nancy Sommers in “Responding to Student Writing“, and discuss some of (what I think) are the key points.

Nancy Sommers outlines at the beginning of her literature piece that one of the most important aspects of responding to a student’s writing is to help them become the reader rather than the writer.  The comments should be designed to allow the writer to criticize and proof read their work, to help them analyse if their writing is communicating their argument effectively or giving the desired effect or impact to the audience.  These comments should be the motive for the student revising their drafts in earnest.

As Nancy Sommers then begins to outline, the common issue with commenting on work (that I have personally witnessed numerous times as a student) is the issue of the teacher imposing what they want written on the writers work.  Instead of helpful suggestions or aiding the writer to understand the text from a readers point of view, they dictate where they want the text to be altered and how.  Rather than looking at the piece of work in it’s entirety, they take it apart and encourage them to chop and change as the teacher has commanded instead of allowing the writer to develop and review the essay as a whole.  Instead of offering concise and clear strategies and thoughts to students, teachers are often giving vague and confusing instructions for pupils to follow.  It becomes a horrible cycle of the teacher saying “jump”, and the pupils saying “how high, what direction, in what style, and would you like tea with that?”, without the student having any idea why they are making the changes and losing the purpose of what they were writing in the first place.

So what makes good constructive criticism? It is highlighted by Nancy Sommers that instead of searching for errors in the literature, we should instead focus on searching for breaks in logic, sentences that confuse us or places where information is simply missing.  We should be aiding the student to read over and alter their own work, to help them improve upon their own writing process and editing.  Through better thoughtful commenting, it is desired that the teacher reinforces the writers purpose in the essay and also supports their development within written work as a whole.

When training to become a writing mentor it is stressed that we are to help improve the writer, not the writing.  In this piece of literature Nancy Sommers really highlights the critical points as to why this is so important in our role, as well as how we can do it better and avoid the common pitfalls that numerous teachers seem to fall into.  It’s vital to divert your attention as a mentor from the surface errors (such as grammatical mistakes) of a piece of work and help your peers to evaluate their writing with their own purpose and thoughts in mind. As Nancy Sommers suggests, be mindful with your responses and help the writer develop with their own opinions in tact, for if we edit the essays for them, what good will that do the writer in the long haul?


2 thoughts on “Responding To Student Writing; Are You Doing It Right?

  1. Well done Emily… I agree that you have outlined the key messages portrayed in the piece of writing.
    On reading the article I found there to be little criticism with Nancy Sommers opinions on common mistakes by teachers/mentors. I too have been the victim of blunt and often confusing comments left on my work. I believe that as healthcare students we are very much made to fit the assignment with little allowance for flare or opinion and it sometimes restrains students from expressing themselves and experimenting with different styles of writing. I sometimes feel that in order to achieve a high grade I am always referring to the learning outcomes and making myself “fit into the box”.

    As a mentor I too hope to take on the guidance given by Nancy in this piece and aid students in reflecting and critiquing their own work. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of proof reading and negative feedback. I hope we can all be encouraging and motivating and become the mentors we would want to have aid is with our work. Thanks for this Emily 😊


  2. Interesting comments Emily and Steph. Sommers’ article is older than me even, yet the struggle faced by student writers is all too real even to this day. The struggle with contradictory, vague and often negative feedback on written work. All too often student’s feel compelled to alter their work to suit what the supervisor wants so the end result is work that the writer cannot identify with but a piece of work that has been done merely to get a good grade. I would say this is evidenced by how we have our assignment supervisors and to achieve your desired grade you sort of have to try and think how your specific supervisor thinks otherwise your grade might be compromised.
    Looking at the given examples in the paper, I would say the second piece is clear and communicates what the writer wants to say. Personally, I understood it and the message it meant to convey so I’m not sure what the comments are suppose to add to the work. This raises the issue of feedback that makes you wonder whether the assessor has actually read the work in its entirety before commenting or if the comments are made without first understanding the what the writer wants to say. In all honesty, I will admit to doing the same whilst looking through work written by friends. On occasion I have had to pull back, read through the work and then make appropriate comments.
    I suppose on the other hand, it is also down to the writer, to have conviction in their ideas and to seek feedback that ensures that they express these ideas. You often hear students saying, ‘I don’t know what the tutor wants me to write’ but the onus is on the writer to formulate their ideas and develop these in a way acceptable to the tutor whilst also meeting the module outcomes.
    So what is the way forward? Feedback needs to be earnest and as Sommers says, an extension of the tutors voice, reinforcing what they have said rather than mixing their messages. Student’s also have a responsibility to write what they say they are going to write and say what they are going to write otherwise how can anyone give them helpful advice?
    And always, where the writer has done well, the writer should be told they have done well at any stage of the writing process.

    Liked by 1 person

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