Marking a First Draft

If you allow unlimited revisions, the first draft is the entry point into a dialogue between you and your student.  It is the beginning, not the entirety, of a conversation that may progress over several drafts across a period of weeks or months. If you are concerned that allowing multiple revisions of a single assignment will just make your grading load even worse than it already is, than hopefully thinking about it in this way will bring some relief.  If the first draft is merely the first exchange in a dialogue, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong/right with the first draft. So much of the time we spend marking a paper is spent justifying the grade itself, showing what you “counted off” for, so that the student won’t complain.  If you allow for revisions, then the first grade the student sees (I actually don’t even show them the grade they would have gotten on the first draft of the first paper) is merely a starting point.  It is a measure of the distance they have to go in order to reach their goal.  Your job is to show them how to take the first step toward that goal–not the entire route, mind you–just the first step or two.

The following is adapted from a set of talking points I used for a panel discussion on grading during orientation for TA’s.  A lot of what I’m about to say will not be news to some experienced instructors, but if you are considering implementing something like this in your curriculum, here are the mark-up techniques that make it workable.

Use technology to your advantage. Paperless grading has changed my life.  I am slow when it comes to hand-writing, so typing up comments automatically saves me a great deal of time and allows me to say more without needing to ice my hand.  Using Microsoft Word’s review features like Track Changes and Comments can make draft mark-up easier, but the real benefit is being able to save your final comments to your computer for retrieval when you receive the next draft and the next.  That way, you don’t have to bother with asking students to resubmit old drafts, and you won’t have to lug gigantic folders home for grading.  Keep in mind that if you still prefer to mark up the draft itself by hand, you can always do that too.

Triage. Like I said, if you are allowing multiple revisions, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong with the first draft.  I actually limit myself to 3 issues that need to be addressed in revision.  Sometimes, I’ll just mention one, especially is the problem is at the Conceptualization level (see below).  Students can get easily overwhelmed if they get back a paper covered in red ink and a two page narrative response, listing half a dozen issues that need to be addressed.  Give your student an achievable task, knowing that you can always address lower order issues at a later stage.  A colleague of mine talks about tackling draft problems according to a hierarchy of concerns.  Here is my adaptation of that hierarchy:

Conceptualization

Is this a workable topic?

Does the paper have an arguable thesis?

Has the student done enough research to support that thesis?/Does the student have enough textual evidence (if no research was required)?

Organization

Does the macro-level structure make sense?  Are any paragraphs out of place or irrelevant?  Does the argument progress in a logical manner?

Does the student effectively transition between topics both within and between paragraphs?

Are individual paragraphs organized appropriately?  Do any need to be broken up or combined?

Does the paper have an effective introduction and conclusion?

Style

Is the tone appropriate for this sort of assignment?

Does the writer convey a strong ethos?

Is there a preponderance of overly long/short sentences and/or awkward but grammatically correct constructions?

Is the paper wordy? (unnecessary modifiers, overly complex phrases)

Editing

Is the student prone to any particular grammatical error (comma placement, doesn’t know how to use a colon, etc.)?

Any words used inappropriately? (thesaurus fetishism)

Is the paper relatively free of typos?

Originality/Wow Factor

Is the paper presenting an argument that is truly original or is it likely that you have two or more papers in your stack that sound more or less like this one?

Does the paper convey an individual, mature voice?

I have actually used this checklist as a rubric.  Remember that your goal is note no more than three issues that the student can address for the next draft, but the higher up on the hierarchy that you have to start, the less you really need to talk about in comments.  If the student has selected a wildly inappropriate topic, then you are essentially going to be telling them to start over, anyway.  The only reason to say anything about research or even organization would be to simply note that those are problems they may wish to avoid when they re-write the paper.  Any problems at the conceptualization level usually indicate that major overhaul is necessary, so beating grammatical issues to death is only going to waste your time and overwhelm the student.

The reason why Originality/Wow Factor is listed last is because these are arguably the most subjective aspects of assessment.  The originality, individuality, and voice of a paper are what make the difference between a B+ and an A in my class, and not all papers are going to ultimately reach that point.  Typically, I wait to talk about those issues until the paper has reached the B level, when the writing task is being addressed effectively but there is just something missing in the way certain parts of the argument are worded or the level of insight in the conclusions the student is drawing.  Surprisingly, originality issues don’t always require major overhaul.  It is usually a matter of fine nuance, and how individual instructors assess that is always, unfortunately, going to be subjective.  That question about whether or not the student really is “saying something new” (and by new, I mean making connections that undergraduates do not typically make, not that the student is making a major scholarly breakthrough) is what I use to assess this category, but you may take a different approach.

Minimal Markup. This is sort of redundant, but it bears repeating.  Unless your student already has a solidly conceptualized paper with a more or less appropriate organizational scheme, do not waste time marking every single grammatical error or awkward construction.  There is no point in copy editing sentences that are going to be scrapped. Use marginal comments to note places where the argument goes off the rails, when the reader is losing the thread, etc.

However, if your student is ready to begin focusing on micro-level issues, still mark copy editing problems sparingly.  Particularly if you want your student to learn something about correct usage or fluent phrasing from the experience, resist the urge to mark every error.  If you mark everything, the student has no incentive to do more than copy the corrections you’ve already made.  You just did their work for them.  Instead, note the first couple of occurrences of a particular problem and then talk about it in your final comments while directing the student to a page in your style handbook or an online resource that will help them learn semi-colon usage.  For fluency and awkwardness problems, I often recommend that the student read their paper out loud to themselves or have a friend read it out loud to them.  Places where the reader falters often signal an issue.

The advantage of this approach is that you can essentially spread out all of the commenting you would do on a single draft across multiple drafts, except with multiple revisions, the student actually has the chance to apply and learn from your suggestions. If you spend more than 15 minutes commenting on each draft, you may be doing too much.

Furthermore, once you receive a revised draft, you can simply lay it alongside the old one (electronic submissions are quite advantageous here) and see what has changed.  If the student hasn’t done what I suggested the first time, I simply refer them to the last set of comments and call it a day.

Comic via PHD Comics.

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6 thoughts on “Marking a First Draft

  1. Seconded, and the “fix-everything,” jeweler mentality that got me through a couple years editing at a university press was *disastrous* when I responded to that first stack of student papers. For one thing, it took a grazillion hours to grade, and made me want to eventually open a bottle of wine while grading (another move that, like copyediting your students’ papers, sounds good in theory). And, for another thing, it made my students confused and scared.

    Less really is more. While reading first drafts, I respond (a la Peter Elbow) with “this is how I’m feeling” comments in the margins. Then, at the end, I type up a brief, discursive paragraph listing one thing that’s working and three things that still need work, along with an “as-is” grade. I then allow students one “big-picture” revision (where they address the macro issues listed in the hierarchy of rhetorical concerns you’ve laid out here), followed by one “polish” revision.

    Students handle this system a hell of a lot better, and I can usually knock out each paper in 15 minutes or less. Which, when you’ve got 4+ comp classes a semester, is a big deal.

  2. Thanks for this! I’ve read about ‘minimal marking’ before but have so far failed to successfully employ it. (BTW, I learn so much about *teaching*, not just teaching writing, from composition instructors.)

    Would you be willing to share a syllabus, or at least the language from it? Perhaps via email if you don’t want to publish. I’m interested in how you set up the multiple drafts deadline. In your previous post on this, you wrote, “I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons.”

    I’d like to see the specifics so that I can work out whether I can make this work in my classes, with several short writing assignments, as I plan for fall 2010.

    1. Elizabeth,

      I would be happy to post a generic version of my syllabus/policies at some point. Thanks for the idea, and I appreciate your encouraging comments!

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