|image from http://www.hilaryhodge.com/category/uprising/|
I've been doing something similar with the writing students do for my classes. Before they hand in an assignment, I give them a worksheet that asks them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their response to the assignment, as well as any additional information I should know about their writing process. These worksheets often end up being the prompts for my own final comments on their papers. It turns out (to my surprise) that students can be very self-aware writers--they often recognize the problems in their papers before they hand them in, but don't know how to solve them. When their assessments of their work deviate from my own, they often reveal students' confusion about the relationship between college paper criteria and effective writing (no, big words and complicated sentence structures don't necessarily make a good paper).
It is, I've discovered, expedient to write my final paper comments on these self-assessments, in direct response to the student. It is, among other things, a way to avoid what Dale Bauer calls the "shit sandwich": "the teacher offers a thin slice of vague praise, adds lots of ugly corrective comments, and tops it off with some mayonnaise and another half-heartedly pleasant slice of a conclusion" (see also "Another F-Word: Failure in the Classroom"). Halfway through a large stack of papers, when the grading doldrums set in, it feels far less onerous that producing a set-piece of carefully calibrated praise and criticism. It also--I hope--reinforces the idea that writing is, after all, about communicating ideas, not jumping through collegiate hoops.
The biologists have me wondering, though, how I might build in an additional step, one that encourages students to reflect on strategies for overcoming the weaknesses in their papers. Not just "yup--you need to work on X and Y" but "how are you going to improve X and Y?" In the context of interpretive writing (rather than acquiring and demonstrating knowledge of course content), asking students to articulate these things can turn into an exercise in required b.s. production. So clearly such a step would need to take some other form. Perhaps, instead of handing back papers at the end of class and letting students go off on their own to read the comments, it would be more effective to build in an immediate exercise in paper revision? But the form that would take will have to await a future blog post, once I figure out how it might work.