I’ve been grading papers half my life, so I think I know a thing or two about how it should go. Here’s a simple point that, I think, is not always clear to the grader him or herself (I’ve found it necessary to explain this to newbies, when advising them about how to do their jobs); that is almost never clear to the students themselves; that really ought to be to made clear – and made explicit – to all involved. There are two basic functions comments on papers can serve.
1) Explaining/justifying to the student why she got the grade she got, not the higher grade that, perhaps, she hoped for.
2) Communicating something significant that will teach the student to be a better writer/thinker.
I think graders try to do 2 but feel vaguely obliged to make 2 do double-duty as 1. And students typically expect 1, although many of them are also healthily open to 2. But 1 and 2 often come apart. It’s damned hard to provide anything that would really be sufficient to accomplish 1 in a general way. And even harder if you’re trying to do 2, too. And 2 is more important, and do-able, so basically you should just do 2. Clear your head of the vague feeling that you should be doing 1, except a bit around the edges, in the natural course of doing just 2.
Since students expect 1, you need to make it very explicit that you are doing 2 instead. ‘I’m going to pick something – your writing, your organization, your understanding of some point, something – and I’m going to spend my time and energy trying to give you a good lesson in how to do that one thing better. So if my comments consist entirely of nit-picks to the effect that your introduction is badly written, that shouldn’t be taken to imply that I didn’t read the rest of the paper, or that nothing was wrong except the introductory paragraph, or that the grade was a pure function of what went wrong in the first paragraph.’ (Obviously there’s no need to be a puritan about this. You can include a few general gestures towards 1. But don’t dissipate that precious, terribly finite quantity of time and energy, per paper, you need to accomplish 2.)
Students often want 1, more than 2, because they want to feel that the process – your standards – are reasonably transparent and fair. Students also want to be able to come in and ask about grades. All this is totally reasonable. So you need to accompany this statement that you will only be doing 2 with suitable assurances that 1 is available in a wholesale way, in office hours, etc., but it just isn’t provided, retail, in individual comments on papers. You grade fairly, but you don’t provide a separate, sufficient proof that you grade fairly, on each individual paper.
This semester I’m trying something a bit different. I’m telling students that they have to ask me, specifically, for help on particular aspects of their papers. Writing problems, thinking problems, something specific. Every paper should conclude with a little self-criticism (needn’t be a lavish self-flagellation or anything like that) indicating where they think they need improvement. My comments will be directed accordingly. If they fail to provide a little self-criticism, they get skimpy comments. So far what I’ve learned is that next time I should encourage more specificity in specific self-criticisms. (I’m getting a lot of ‘dear prof., please comment on anything that you think needs work!’)
Possibly this whole do 2) not 1) business is very obvious to most of you out there who are my fellow graders. But students don’t get it, so you need to give them a little ‘how the enemy thinks’ talk, explaining why it makes sense for things to go this way. I’ve found it really helps.
But, since this is the internet, it will probably turn out that I am very, very wrong. I am probably not a competent grader at all, since I have said these outrageous things! We shall see!