Save Time Responding to Essays: Letter to the Class

Like anything in teaching, improving student writing is complicated, technical, subjective, and --at times--backbreaking. Over the years, I've picked up some writing instruction tenets that I've learned, and that are also supported by research: 

  • ​regularly assign a variety of writing genres, in and out of class.
  • afford students opportunities to receive feedback (the sooner, the better).
  • guide students through the process of analyzing all types of writing.
  • help learners use writing as a thinking tool. 
  • have students practice giving feedback to peers' writing.
  • model how to work through different composition issues. 

Although those methods are important,  instructors tend to focus their attention on a persistent pedagogical problem, how to have a life when there are so many essays to grade. 

A Summary of Time-Saving Solutions for Responding to 120 Essays

​Most students and parents don't realize that it takes five eight-hour days to respond to 120 essays (at 20 minutes per essay), usually composed of weeknights, weekends, and sabotaged vacations. All that time and energy eats into planning, working with students before and after school, parent communication, administrative paperwork and emails, family time, and recuperation. 

This is not a new problem, so the business sector has marketed a number of solutions:  

  • ​Stock comments on teacher stamps and stickers
  • Web based stock comments: Essay Tagger
  • Automated scoring software, such as PEGwriting, which uses algorithms to score student writing based on organization, word choice, sentence structure, and idea development. (Affiliate links)

Indeed, efficiently responding to essays is the subject of many articles. Here are some: 

An old approach involved providing students with a list of comments and "codes." During grading, all the teacher has to do is write down numbers in the margins of an essay to substitute for a range of positive or constructive feedback. Here is the list associated with the responses for "organization." 

1. Good formatting.
2. Excellent attention grabber.
3. Good thesis statement.
4. Well organized.
5. Good transition.
6. Unclear.
7. Show how your point supports your thesis statement.
8. You're rambling.
9. This makes little sense.
10. Try rearranging these sentences.
11. Mix in a paragraph every now and then.​

The electronic version for this would involve using Text Expander (Mac) or PhraseExpander (PC) to write a code in the commenting box of a Google Doc, then having the code automatically converted into a pre-determined comment with links to helpful sites.  

Last I checked, the research on the "response code" approach suggested that students don't pay attention to this type of feedback, thus violating an important maxim: The best writing response is the kind that students will actually use. 

Is it the teacher's job to "correct" every error? According to Knoblauch and Brannon's "Students Rights to Their Own Texts," assuming the role of editor or grammar cop conveys an unfortunate message:

But this correcting also tends to show students that the teacher's agenda is more important than their own, that what they wanted to say is less relevant than the teacher's impression of what they should have said...Once students perceive this shift of agenda, their motives for writing also shift: the task is now to match the writing to expectations that lie beyond their own sense of their intention and method. 

Knoblauch and Brannon suggest that it is much better to ask students questions to facilitate revision, which means reading carefully, slowly, and sensitively. 

This business of teaching students to write effectively and with agency is not an efficient process. Therefore, I'm as surprised as anyone to find a responding/grading shortcut, after all these decades of responding to students' essays. Read on!

An Efficient (and Robust) Writing Response Technique: Letter to the Class

The whole class writing evaluation letter, true to its name, substitutes for providing feedback on every student paper in a class set. The purpose of an evaluation letter is to provide both an over-arching and granular sense of how well the class has performed on their essays. Importantly, the letter re-contextualizes the prompt and summarizes the multiple approaches that students took to satisfying expectations and meeting the criteria. In addition, the evaluation letter suggests ways in which essays generally came up short, why the instructor thinks that is, and what rethinking and revising strategies might be used to improve them. Finally, the letter should serve as model of rhetoric that is skillful and thoughtful, and that also leaves the student with useful examples, insightful ideas, and inspiration to revise and edit.

All that might seems daunting, but trust me, it is a better way to spend your energy than on 120 mini-essays where you're constantly repeating yourself and fighting irritation.

Steps in the Whole Class Evaluation Letter

  1. Before you start to read a set of student essays, get out a legal pad, pencil (I like a good mechanical pencil), eraser, and camera phone. Create 4 rectangles on the legal pad (see image below). Each space will contain one of the following: list of strengths, list of weaknesses, minor error patterns, and major error patterns.
  2. As you work your way through the essays don't write on the student work. Do, however, use the legal pad to write down things that students are doing effectively in one column and ineffectively in another. 
  3. When you come to a fantastic paragraph, take a photo of with your Evernote app to use as an exemplar with students later. 
  4. After you finish reading through all the essays, you should have a good list of effective and ineffective writing moments and at least two examples of fantastic writing in your Evernote

Components of the Evaluation Letter 

Before students begin following along with their copy of the letter as you read it to them, ask them to star (*) parts of the letter that seem most relevant to their essays.

Part I - Heading

Letter to the Class Re: Essay #(Number) - Turned in on (Date)

Dear Period (Number), 

Part II - Review of the Assignment Expectations

Review the prompt, genre, and criteria for success. If you've done a good job with the original prompt--think Soapstone-- than cutting and pasting from the original assignment handout should be speedy. 

Highlight in a brief paragraph what you experienced as you read the student essays. How long did it take to read them? What did you learn about the topic, assignment difficulty, and students?

Part III - Evaluation and Evidence

Describe the extent to which the class generally fulfilled or exceeded the criteria. List the strengths and weaknesses with specific examples. It's important that you write this with enough specificity that each student can locate where her or his paper fits in your description. Don't try to soften your judgements to spare feelings. If the class has performed poorly, be clear about how they missed the mark. 

Part IV - Recommendations

Discuss higher order writing concerns and how students might take to steps to make improvements. Then discuss lower order writing concerns and how students might take steps to improve those. 

After

 Tell students that they should have "starred" at least two things in the letter that related to their writing. Ask if there are any questions about your letter and spend time patiently answering them. If a learner is confused by anything that is not relevant to others' issues, table that question until you have time to consult with the student who is confused.

​ At the end of the question and answer session, ask the class to turn your letter over and write down a revising/editing plan. Then, immediately, give them ample time in class, while you check in with the writers one-on-one, reviewing students' revising/editing plan.

In Conclusion

The time savings for the teacher alone is one argument for employing this type of feedback. What is less apparent until you try out the method is how it helps students see the big picture: the composing moves that have led other writers to success and the types of errors that have made struggling writers' essays less effective. While students tend to think very narrowly about their grammar errors, the whole class evaluation letter provides insight into the entire context of the assignment and student performances.

Over the last couple years, I've formalized the whole class evaluation letter by employing it twice per class each semester. And I've observed that students receive the approach with enthusiasm.

Some might call this procedure lazy, but when they see improved writing, they'll become a believer like me. 

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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd’s Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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