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Comments in the Margins

  • Respond to your students’ work as a reader rather than a critic. Register your confusion, surprise, or even delight in your comments on their work and in your conversations with them. Reacting as a reader helps your students think about issues of audience—“you mean I should care about good punctuation because it helps the reader get my point?!” It also makes your assessments more defensible.
  • Focus your notes in the margins on just two or three higher-order issues, such as accuracy, argument and organization. (Students can’t make real headway on more than that; they’ll just feel overwhelmed by all the ink.)
  • Try to avoid making generic statements. Instead, respond briefly to the particular point to guide their thinking as they reread the work. Instead of “relevance?” for example, you might say, “I’m surprised by this statement—how does it relate to the preceding paragraph’s point?” Rather than writing “confusing,” say that you’re confused and ask the student writer, “do you mean X or Y?”
  • Respond to each student writer according to their abilities, to “where they are” as writers. For a sophisticated writer, you may insist on the finer points of style; for a more marginal writer, by contrast, you may push for even the most conventional argument.
  • Don’t forget to say what you’re enjoying about their work (assuming there is something!), such as good insights into the material.

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