Don’t Correct Composition Papers; Don’t Grade Them. Read Them!

Correcting Papers

When composition teachers complain they have a pile of papers to correct, they are invoking out-dated assumptions about composition, namely that there is something wrong with our students’ papers, and our primary job is to seek out those errors and eliminate them. Such teachers count fragments like a judge bound by the Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out Law, condemning a paper that has too many fragments.

Even if the argument is persuasive and the evidence convincing.

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The same error-based approach causes us to give “diagnostic essays,” which imply that the student’s writing is sick, and the teacher, as the doctor, needs to cure the student. The crusaders against error wield a red pen like a scalpel, cutting out cancerous redundancies, incising festering run ons until the paper is a bloody as table at the morgue. (Read more about it “You’re Sick,” Says the Diagnostic Essay.) However, as Ken Robinson insists in his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?“, a person cannot be creative if they are afraid of making mistakes.

How often have we complained that our students don’t really revise their papers, not in any meaningful way? They make surface-level changes, changing a few words, restructuring a sentence, adding a comma. Mechanics are important, of course, but how can we ask students to address larger issues of argumentation when we scour their sentences for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors? In “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers,” Nancy Sommers shows that students primarily think of revision as rewording, rather than an attempt to develop, reorganize, and support their ideas and implies that teachers are primarily to blame for training students to scour the surface of their papers, rather than digging more deeply into their thoughts.

Of course most teachers who take this error-based approach point out a few strengths, but never as many as the mistakes.

Please don’t correct your students’ papers.

Grading Papers

“Grading papers” is better than correcting them, but the emphasis is still on evaluation, on judgment. Students in classes like these submit their papers to a tribunal. “A” is for “acquittal.” The charges are dropped. The student is free to go about their business.

Every other grade is some form of punishment. “B” puts a student on parole. Neither good nor bad, judgment is deferred, as long as they commit no more crimes. “C” is for “castigation.” You could have done better! You should have done better! You would have done better if you had only tried harder.

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“D” says, “Dimwit! Dunderhead! Delinquent!” And “F”! A black spot in the hand. FAILURE! No good piece of shit! How did you ever come this far?

No surprise that some students avoid the fear of assessment by not turning in their papers, even those who come regularly to class, as Rebecca Cox explains in “The Student Fear Factor” from her book The College Fear Factor. No wonders students are reluctant to take risks in their writing with judgment hanging over their heads like a noose.

Don’t grade your students’ papers, at least not at first, at least not as they are trying out academic writing for the first time at the college level. Give them a chance to grasp for ideas beyond their reach before you slap their hands. No one was born with ability to write a masterful essay.

Read Papers

When we say that we are going to read our students’ papers, we are telling our students that we are primarily interested in their ideas. We suggest that they may be able to offer us new perspectives, persuade us, maybe even teach us.

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It has taken me years to fully embrace the portfolio method, but now I am convinced. Withhold the grades for the first half of the semester, at least, if not the entire semester. Let your students test their ideas, take risks in their writing, try out new ways of expressing themselves, and develop new identities as academic writers.

I tell my students, “I am not going to give you a grade on this paper until you have revised it for the midterm / end-of-semester portfolio, but if you would like to know what grade the paper would get today, you have only to ask.” I do write down these grades. Then, if a student does not revise for the portfolio, my work is done. When students do revise, they have to describe in detail the changes they have made with examples in a cover letter and mark them in their papers. I do not have to reread everything, just the revisions.

If a paper is not passing, I inform the students immediately, not in terms of “failure,” but in terms of “Let’s meet and talk about what you need to do to raise this paper to the level of college essay.” Most students know when they have written a paper that is below par.

In the meantime, give feedback, by all means, but call it “Strategies for Improvement,” showing them where they can develop their ideas, clarify their points, reorganize their argument, add examples and evidence.Also, be sure that you point out at least as many strengths in their writing, as positive feedback is probably more effective in the long run, saying “These aspects of your writing are working well. Do more of that!” I admit sometimes it is difficult, and I often fall back on statements like, “You make some good points,” or “You write with an engaging personal voice.” If nothing else, I write, “I can see that you have potential as a college writer.” Even though I may have a hard time seeing it, everyone has the potential to improve their writing abilities.

When they have a fairly solid grasp of the structure of an argument, turn to lower-level issues of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, which are, of course, important since they help the writer communicate their ideas and give readers an impression of the competence of the writer. I just don’t think we should repaint the house if the foundation is crumbling.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t address grammar until the end of the semester. I give “Mini Lessons” in class, pointing out common patterns of mistake that I have seen, having students analyze flawed sentences, and eliciting principles for better grammar. I offer connecting words and punctuation as tools of the writers trade. I teach specific wording and sentence focus.

Does it really matter if you say “correct” or “grade”? Yes, the words we use do matter because they communicate to the students the purpose of our review. And the words we use affect how we think and act, as I argue in my book Narrative Madness, so saying you will “Read a paper,” helps you to focus on what matters. When we read a students’ paper, we engage with the creative and curious minds of our students.

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