Unconditional Teaching start

Revision-oriented supervision of student writing

Tyll Zybura, 27. Oktober 2017

Feedback that is given on late-stage draft versions of student writing instead of on finalized papers is more meaningful to students because they can immediately use it for a revision of their work. Especially if the feedback is an appreciative response.

Grades are not feedback, feedback on final submissions is useless

I came to teaching with several years experience tutoring undergraduate students in writing ungraded academic essays, but when I started supervising graded module papers, I was disillusioned and frustrated by two aspects of the process:

  1. The grading process, which requires me to put a multidimensional assessment into a single numerical evaluator (the efficacy of which has been disproved by research in education studies for decades), and its underlying power dynamic, which foregrounds hierarchical dependencies rather than that it facilitates scholarly discourse.

  2. The experience that the extensive feedback on finally graded papers, which I wrote to compensate for the uselessness of grades-as-feedback, still had little use-value for students who weren’t allowed to revise their papers – and who consequently often declined to even collect my feedback.

There is so much literature on the problems of grades and grading that I’m not going to go into this further, the above were my immediate practical concerns to which I found the following practical solutions.

Feedback on drafts is useful, grading becomes a by-product

As an additional step in my supervision process, I ask students to submit late-stage drafts of their papers instead of finalized versions. To these drafts I react with a written response and a preliminary grade, which students can accept to be entered into their transcript after a mere formal finalization of their paper or which they can attempt to improve by revising their drafts in addressing my feedback. I hand out the reponse to students in a personal consultation during my office hours so that we can discuss next steps and strategies of revision. After they have submitted the final paper they receive the final grade and a very short comment on their revision.

Students experience this as a welcome opportunity: My feedback suddenly becomes meaningful for academic work they are still currently engaged with. It loses its quality of mere evaluative assessment but becomes part of a scholarly dialogue in which they see their work being taken seriously. As students become aware of their own agency in writing by reacting to my expert feedback with re-writings, they take their own work more seriously and the formal grade becomes less important as the intrinsic motivation to perfect their own work increases.

Of course, the power dynamic of the grading practice is not eliminated by this process, but it is somewhat mitigated because I have to make my assessment criteria as explicit as possible and I have to justify my assessment in terms that allow students to influence it to the better: By making feedback concretely constructive and by offering a re-assessment of revised work, I open myself up to students’ active participation in the grading process.

This does not mean that I take responsibility for the revision or that students ‘simply’ write what I want to read: Often I just point out problems I had with unclear terminology or with muddled argument structure and let students come up with their own strategies of clarifying their point.

I have written up an extensive explanation of the specific way of writing appreciative responses to student writing which I have found to be most effective; it also includes notes on time management.

Writing didactics recommends this practice

Although I have developed this strategy without much knowledge of established writing didactics, I have found that it is recommended practice by John Bean, an authority in the field:

The best strategy for improving student writing is to make comments not on finished products but on typed late-stage drafts. (An alternative is to permit rewrites of papers so that you treat ‘final versions’ as if they were drafts in progress.) The purpose of the comments is to provide specific advice on what needs to be added, changed, or reconceptualized for the final version. Composition research suggests that unless students do something with the teacher’s comments – by making the revisions suggested – the teacher’s commenting time is largely wasted. Comments, in other words, do not transfer well to later papers; they need to be applied directly to the work in progress. My own personal strategy is not to read drafts but to permit rewrites […]. This method allows me to comment on papers as if they were drafts in progress and yet assign a grade as if they were finished products. Students who are satisfied with their grades do not rewrite (thus cutting down on the number of resubmissions I receive). I have settled on this method because it has been more effective for me than commenting on drafts. The quality of writing I initially receive is higher (students, not wanting to rewrite, try to turn in their best work on the first try), and for some students, the desire to improve their grades motivates serious revision. Whichever method you choose, the point of your commentary is to stimulate and guide revision.

—John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001, p. 235.

I have not found Bean’s distinction between late-stage drafts and final versions to be so relevant in practice – my experience is that students always turn in their best work: the best they were able to do at a particular time in a particular situation. It’s just that they often aren’t aware of how they could (easily or with difficulty) have improved it – and that is my job to facilitate. What is important is that students know that their best work is encouraged but that they will in any case receive serious feedback with the potential to be used in a revision.

Revision should be optional

Sometimes colleagues wonder why – when I have already implemented revision-oriented feedback – I don’t make it mandatory. There are two reasons:

Pragmatically, as Bean also points out above, students who don’t want to revise lighten my work load. As is, about 50% of all students who write term papers with me make use of the opportunity to revise – the ones who don’t revise are either satisfied with their grade or simply choose not to invest more work.

Ethically, though, it is important to me to respect their choice in the matter of how they prioritize their time. It regularly happens that a student whose paper I graded a mediocre 3.0 or worse1 and whom I gave pointers for easy revisions that could have improved the grade declines the opportunity to revise simply because they just needed a pass grade, or because they have more pressing exams coming up, or because they don’t feel like spending more time with the paper, or because of personal reasons that force them to invest their time into other activities (usually work or family). I don’t need to make life more difficult for these students by imposing a revision on them which they are not motivated to do.

Grading is always a subjective practice, nevertheless its criteria need to be made explicit

In the initial consultation with the student who wants to write a paper with me, I give them a handout with my assessment rubric. I briefly explain to them what the categories mean and how they can use it as a reminder and a check list before they submit their paper.

Importantly, I stress that having a rubric does not mean that the ticks will translate linearly into a grade – objectivity in grading is a dangerous illusion. Still, when I write my revision-oriented responses, I will use the rubric to make a first assessment and then go into greater detail on important points.

As academics, we often underestimate what a mystery the rules of our discipline-specific discourse community are to students – of which writing is just one aspect. The rubric, together with my explanations and a response that actually refers back to the criteria, is a tiny step of making these rules more transparent. For many students, simply having the rubric gives them greater security in writing – literally something to hold on to. But some also begin to ask meta-questions of why certain points are so important, which is one of the steps of becoming a scholar. 2

Summary: Stages of supervision and writing

In a nutshell, these are the stages through which my students and I proceed when working on a paper together:

  1. Initial personal consultation: We agree on a topic and a writing schedule. I clarify formalities and my assessment criteria. I hand out the assessment rubric for reference.

  2. Independent writing process, the student can ask for supervision when needed (this rarely happens).

  3. The student submits a late-stage draft version of the paper. I promptly (ideally within one week) write my response and we discuss it in a personal consultation. We agree on aims and a schedule for the revision.

  4. The student independently revises and finalises the paper.

  5. The student submits the final paper. I re-read it, compare it to the draft, grade it, and briefly comment on the revision. Then I enter the grade into the student’s transcript. (Some few students ask for an additional consultation to discuss their revision in person, but I don’t make that obligatory.)

  1. Grades: The German university grading system ranges from 1.0 to 5.0, with varying systems for intermediate decimal steps. Compared to the US system: 1.0–2.5 (very good to good) = A / 2.6–3.5 (satisfactory) = B / 3.6–4.0 (sufficient) = C / 5.0 (not sufficient) = F. ↩︎

  2. “Meta-questions”: For example, many students have no idea why we have such strict rules for using and citing sources, and thus why plagiarism is such a big deal. This is not at all self-evident but needs to be explained – and the explanation is surprisingly complicated. In our supervision work, I think we have an obligation to clarify our own standards of scholarly work and those of our discipline again and again. ↩︎


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