Can you get students to read your comments?

by Harry on October 30, 2013

I’m in the middle of grading papers. I started, a while ago, grading the electronic files using Word’s reviewing capacity (track changes and comments). This results in i) it taking much longer, because I make many more comments and ii) my comments and editing being potentially useful because they are actually legible (which they never were before). So, this is potentially very good for the students. But: I have no idea whether they actually read the comments (especially because I make it fairly clear that I am not interested in what their grades are, only in whether they learn a lot, so very rarely get to listen to students who challenge their grades). I just had an idea: I could withhold their grades until they return the paper to me, with a response to every single comment I made. The comment could just be: “ok”. I simply want a mechanism for making them read the comments. Has anyone else done this? Or does anyone have some reliable mechanism for making them read comments?



Jeffrey 10.30.13 at 10:53 pm

Sounds like you want something like this, but for Word files and not computer source code:


Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.30.13 at 11:01 pm

My handwritten comments are apparently illegible to many of my students, so I’m often asked to read them (and I offer to do this in any case), in which case I learn that at least some of them are “reading” them. But as to “making them” read comments, I’m not inclined to go that far if only because I suspect that if they lack sufficient motivation in the first instance to read them sans compulsion or coercion, “making” them read them will not change anything (of course I could be wrong about that). I suspect this is of a piece with my sense that the enormous pressure of late put on teachers with regard to responsibility for “student success” is misguided and misplaced (at least at my institution), tending to ignore or downplay the many variables outside the classroom that need to be addressed in a concerted and systematic manner which serve to undermine our arduous and best efforts to help our students become sufficiently motivated to acquire a passion for learning, a thirst for knowledge, a desire for genuine self-direction and moral autonomy.


Derek Bowman 10.30.13 at 11:02 pm

Allow (or require) essay revisions. This doesn’t require that they read your comments, but it highly incentivizes it. For smaller classes, I’ve also sometimes required students to come meet with me to discuss their grade.

But perhaps the most productive thing, along the lines you already suggest, is to require the student to send you a summary of your comments, identifying e.g. what they’ve done well and what they should improve upon next time. Done correctly that could save you time as well, since you could give individual comments throughout but save the general summary comments for the students to do. And it will help you calibrate your comments to see what kind of message you’re sending to the students. Hmmm. I’m starting to like this idea.


ZM 10.30.13 at 11:04 pm

“The comment could just be: “ok”. I simply want a mechanism for making them read the comments. Has anyone else done this? Or does anyone have some reliable mechanism for making them read comments?”

I guess you’re in a position of authority in the relationship to be able to enact that – but I imagine you might suffer some consequences – some students might take the opportunity to comment back at your comment, to which you could comment back to their comment, and so forth. You’d need to make some sort of explicit limit if you did this.


Derek Bowman 10.30.13 at 11:06 pm


I agree that ‘making students’ do things is as often as not likely to be counterproductive, but offering them tangible short-term incentives, including simple forms of accountability ,can help those students who want to learn follow through with their best intentions.


Substance McGravitas 10.30.13 at 11:07 pm

Class wiki. Assignments are submitted there and you can see who last edits the page.


Glen Tomkins 10.30.13 at 11:07 pm

Wait, you want to make students read? Next I guess you’ll be wanting to make them think.

Where is your sense of boundaries?


iolanthe 10.31.13 at 12:15 am

I also add comments but this is part of the marking process and done mostly for my benefit – I comment as I go through and then re-read looking at the comments and then score so not all that concerned whether they get read by anyone else or not although I do get occasional feedback that the comments are useful.


Sherman Dorn (Tampa) 10.31.13 at 12:24 am

Whatever you find, I want it.


JM 10.31.13 at 12:49 am

I use Turnitin which has a component called GradeMark. Marking in GradeMark means marking up the paper similar to Word. The difference is that I can check whether they have opened the graded version of the paper. In terms of having them read the feedback this is only really useful in the appeals process as I can compel them to address the comments of the marker in order to establish grounds for appeal. It is possible to see stats for the whole class on how many have viewed the comments.
Another way is to have a two-part assessment, where the second part of the assessment is an extension of the first part but it tends to put high demands on markers.


Shen-yi Liao 10.31.13 at 1:04 am

1. I type out about 4 sets of summative, skill-based comments on one page (e.g. the introductory paragraph is excellent because xyz, the positive argument can be improved via xyz). Usually an A paper gets 3 positive comments and 1 improvement comment, a B paper 2 and 2, a C paper 1 and 3.

I only make few comments on the paper itself, and I tell students that they are reminders for me. To go over the details, they should come see me at office hours.

The thought is that with just a series of running comments, it can be hard for students to separate out the really important stuff from the relatively trivial stuff, and if there are too many it can be rather overwhelming. I also use a grading rubric so students can easily visualize the areas in which they’ve done well and the areas in which they need improvement.

2. I don’t put the grade on the summative comments sheet, or anywhere else when I return the papers. I release the grades a bit later.


BJN 10.31.13 at 1:16 am

Current graduate student here. I read my comments and I think that the large majority of students do as well. Something like making them respond I think would breed resentment and by turning their reading of comments into an assignment actually make them less likely to think deeply about them. The students who weren’t going to read the comments are just going to write “ok” for everything anyway. Unless you think their responses will be extremely useful for you, I don’t think mandatory comments will do much but annoy them.


Main Street Muse 10.31.13 at 1:37 am

IMHO, the idea that you must force students to read/respond to comments before they get the grade does not seem right.

Students – the ones that make it worthwhile – will read the comments and learn from them. That’s what matters. The slackers who care nothing about learning will certainly not benefit from being forced to read your comments. If you are in a school where you feel no student is reading your comments, then something is very wrong.

Seriously – a student that must be forced to read a professor’s comments has no business in college.

I remain astonished that there are so many students who care so little about taking advantage of an educational opportunity that someone is paying large amounts of money for them to do…


Kevin McDonough 10.31.13 at 1:38 am

Harry, I can only say that I am greatly interested in what you decide to do (whether go with the policy you suggest in the OP or something else) and how it works. I spend a great deal of time myself making comments using track changes/comments, have found that a small minority of students greatly appreciate it, and I am quite in the dark as to whether the rest read them (though I strongly suspect many don’t). I am very interested in hearing more about effective ways to get students to pay more attention (because, of course, my comments are immensely helpful to anyone who may read them! ).

Interestingly, I found that when I switched to using track changes/comments to do my comments a few years ago, it actually ended up being quicker. Initially, it was slower. But I began using it for so many other things that it became second nature and, eventually, just became the sensible alternative to responding to student work as well.

I’m also interested in the wiki idea. Anyone else find this helpful? Personally, I worry that wikis become too convoluted with too many contributors. At least with track changes it’s just between the student and professor.


Colin Danby 10.31.13 at 1:48 am

I have been using the comments plus track-changes in Microsoft Word for years* and like it a lot, both for legibility and because it has helped me transition toward dialogue and away from short-tempered interjection. The danger is carpal-tunnel; I have also experimented with voice-transcription.

My experience is most students read comments, at least during term-time. I would not worry about forcing them to. If anything the danger, as Shen-yi Liao notes, is that they place too much store in them and cannot sort the central from the peripheral. You end up using summative comments to comment on your comments. I try to use comments to call out good stuff too; I’ve found that students assume that comments mean they did something wrong.

(*Until this Fall, when my campus moved to the Canvas “Learning Management System” and I went along because it has network externalities that benefit students. Canvas makes it easier for me to comment on papers, but has the hideous flaw that it makes it hard for students to find and see my comments.)


Chris Mealy 10.31.13 at 3:10 am

I dare you to make them publish everything on github.


Billikin 10.31.13 at 3:41 am

Well, as a student I often wished to have a back and forth colloquy around comments to a paper, but felt that that would be too demanding of the prof’s time. If you were to offer the opportunity, I think that some students would jump at the chance.


chris london 10.31.13 at 3:56 am

In all my courses each writing assignment is a stage in the construction of their final paper. So in a course on regional development they have to prepare case studies. The first paper is historical context, the second is state policies, the third is citizen (re)action and the final brings all these together as an integrated second draft with conclusions and reflections on what should be done to do a better job of regional development. So they have to address the comments (which are extensive) because I tell them bluntly that if they just mush together essentially unedited first drafts I will fail them. I use this strategy in topical courses such as this, research methods, and project design, it works in all of them as I see pretty substantial improvement as it the semester moves forward. And it results in papers that I can recommend to students in future classes (well when I see new students essentially hitting on the same topic as past ones I encourage them to get in touch).


tony lynch 10.31.13 at 4:08 am

Easy. Get each student – in consultation with you, the lecturer – to set their own essay question(s). Being interested in their topic, they read your comments.


Sandwichman 10.31.13 at 4:23 am

The very best technique is to not write comments on the paper but deliver them orally to each student individually. That also helps make the comments not sound so “cold and uncaring.” But, of course, that requires too much time if you have more than a handful of students. I did it when I had four enrolled in a class. The other thing is to give them a revise and resubmit option. It doesn’t guarantee that they read your comments but, as Derek says, it gives them an incentive.


Sandwichman 10.31.13 at 4:25 am

Also, you can use a revise and resubmit option as a bonus for on-time papers instead of penalizing late papers.


Peter R 10.31.13 at 5:06 am

There’s a fair bit of research out there that when comments are given out along with grades, most students don’t even look at the comments, and they have essentially zero pedagogical worth. Comments alone work much better though, so it might be something as simple as doing your process as you normally would (i.e. read, write comments, and grade) but only give them the essays back with the comments – and follow up with the grade a week or so later (or allow revisions if you want).


Jeff H 10.31.13 at 6:44 am

My experience being much like BJN’s @12, I find the entire premise of the thread dubious and, frankly, a bit insulting to your students. What, specifically, is the evidence that students don’t read comments in the first place?

What we have here is a solution in search of a problem, I think.


Meredith 10.31.13 at 6:48 am

Ungraded assignments. Amazing how seriously students take them. Not some panacea. Just a part of the whole to think about.


ZM 10.31.13 at 7:05 am

Drawing some threads together here: Can you get professors/bloggers who are hired by the government to read your comments?

I have been reading the Climate Change Authority’s Draft Report, which Professor Quiggin I understand partly authored.

Pp. 102-103 are illuminative. “Figure 9.4 Relationships between 2020 targets, 2030 trajectories and national emissions budgets” in particular.

Global carbon emissions are, in all but one scenario, expected to converge to *zero* between 2040 and 2050. That’s less than 36 years away, not such a long time to me.

The one scenario in which emissions don’t converge to zero within this time frame is “ruled out”.

But the Report so far *fails* to explain how this will be practically achieved, and states addressing climate change would have little economic impact on Australia!?!


Moz of Yarramulla 10.31.13 at 7:57 am

Me too! Some students read the comments now, and for the ones who don’t you’re just making more work for both parties and no-one benefits.

I was one of those students who was passionate about some subjects and “known to the lecturer” (like “known to the police”, but with more guilt), but other subjects I did the minimum and once an assignment was done all I cared about was whether I’d got enough marks to avoid failing. Compulsory subjects in areas I actively want to avoid suck.

Also, Word? Really? There’s no better tool for what you do?


derrida derider 10.31.13 at 8:07 am

Judging by my two student offspring, and memories of my own youth, the poster is worried about nothing. They take, as I took, a keen interest in feedback – limited only by the chronic illegibility of professors’ handwriting.

I’d suggest students who don’t bother reading your comments are interested in neither learning nor future grades and so are not worth your extra time.


derrida derider 10.31.13 at 8:12 am

as for ZM, DNFTT


ZM 10.31.13 at 8:21 am

What specifically do you object to as trollish my dear derider of Derrida?


Alex 10.31.13 at 10:30 am

A lot of UK universities now share what looks like a mammoth hosted Turnitin implementation that provides for marking and comments. Sadly, it’s in the top three ugly websites I’ve ever seen, especially when used on a machine with a small screen. I keep meaning to look into making a greasemonkey script or similar to render it less godawful.


Sasha Clarkson 10.31.13 at 10:38 am

Having been both a teacher and a perpetual student for most of the last 40 years, I feel I can see both sides of this.

I’ve usually read the comments on my work/essays in great detail, but sometimes I haven’t. The times I haven’t were when I felt that the tutor wasn’t particularly interested in engaging with the students. Personal discussions are best.

Although mainly I’m a mathematician, with an interest in history, the most constructive engagement I ever had was an ethics essay I wrote 35 years ago for the late Gordon Dunstan of KCL. I thought I’d written a wonderful essay, but a condition of having a grade was to discuss one’s work with him in a personal tutorial. Gently, kindly, but surgically, he dissected my beautiful prose and then ripped it to shreds. He made me realise that polemic isn’t argument, that you can’t make assertions without giving evidence, etc etc. Then, as I’d taken my medicine, he passed me anyway. I shall always be grateful to him for what this experience taught me, and that he spent the time to discuss my effort in detail.


Metatone 10.31.13 at 11:35 am

So I’m teaching undergrads after a long hiatus. And for my sins they are freshmen.

Being humorous, I’ve had some success with cryptic comments. At least when you hear “I don’t understand this comment” – you know they read it and you have the chance to start a dialogue.

More seriously, I have to say that requiring students to read the comments in a mechanical fashion sounds self-defeating. Students are busy and if you make something a mechanical task then any who weren’t inclined to read the comments anyway will treat it as one more hoop to jump through.

It seems to me that an actual revise and resubmit process is more meaningful, but I struggle with that because given the content I’m supposed to cover (and the way class time is arranged) it would mean sacrificing content – and I’m not officially supposed to rewrite the course that way, at least this term…

I’ve settled on a voluntary process for one of the big papers, I’ll read drafts and make and discuss comments, if students submit a draft and book an appointment…


John Edmond 10.31.13 at 11:39 am

As an example of the degree to which students are interested in feedback:

In one subject I tutored in, the policy was that, for the last essay, we would only provide feedback to students who indicated they wanted feedback. If so, we were to use the time saved by providing more careful, detailed, feedback for the students genuinely interested.

Of my 50 students, 6-7? indicated they wanted comments. Of these 6-7, only two bothered to pick up their essays. These two were the ones that least needed feedback.

Amongst fellow tutors, this was considered to be a typical response rate.


ajay 10.31.13 at 12:03 pm

My experience being much like BJN’s @12, I find the entire premise of the thread dubious and, frankly, a bit insulting to your students. What, specifically, is the evidence that students don’t read comments in the first place?

One solution would simply be to consider: are they making the same mistake more than once? If you get a student who, I don’t know, uses an obsolete source in an essay, you write a little note in the margin that says “Prof. Shuttleworth’s book was influential in its time, but his main thesis has been disproved by Dr. Clutterwick’s later research; probably best to avoid quoting Shuttleworth, or if you do, refer to Clutterwick’s work as well”. And if then the next week he quotes Shuttleworth again, then you can be fairly sure that he’s not reading your comments.
Same way you do any other sort of assessment of learning, really: you teach them to do something, and then you watch and see if they’re doing it right. “Always put the safety cover in place before you turn the drill on.” (watches) “OK, Suzanne, you didn’t put the safety cover in place. Make sure you do that next time.”

If, on the other hand, you’re less interested in making sure that their understanding improves, and more interested in making sure that they’re trained up for a work environment in which their behaviour will be constantly surveilled and they’ll be made to jump through a lot of infuriating hoops by management in order to fit some sort of model of the Ideal Employee… then, yes, compulsory checking of comment reading is definitely the way to go.


Adam Kotsko 10.31.13 at 12:04 pm

Allow them to rewrite, and suddenly the comments will be important to them. This also has obvious pedagogical benefits. Obviously it creates more labor for you, though.


Matt_L 10.31.13 at 12:33 pm

A couple of things:

comments are great, but focused feedback is better. So limit your comments to the three most important things the students that the students must change to make their paper better. Commenting on everything from grammar, to argument, through the lit review and evidence can be confusing for the student and time consuming for you. So with each assignment pick the three things you want them to work on and just comment on that. (you could pick five things or just one thing, it doesn’t matter.)

You should be using a grading rubric for grading assignments. There is a nice argument for why you should use them and how to use them in Ambrose, et al. _How Learning Works: Seven Principles for effective learning._ (2010). The same book also has a couple of examples of rubrics in the appendix. If you don’t want to buy the book, talk to the nice people who teach freshman composition in your English Department. Rubrics are great because they streamline your grading, make you, the instructor, give focused feedback and gives the students a goal for their revisions. The catch is that you need to hand out the rubric with your assignment sheet.

Finally, Adam Kotsko is right. Offering rewrites will give the students a terrific incentive to read your comments. Again, the rubric will cut down on the workload (you only have to grade the specific things you asked them to fix). Besides not all the students will want to take you up on the offer of an optional rewrite, even if it is for a higher grade.


Matt_L 10.31.13 at 12:35 pm

sorry for the hastily edited comment. I’m a cup of coffee low. Really, I can spell proofread! Good luck!

Oh, and I’ve had a noticeable drop in student complaints about grades since I started using rubrics.


Harry 10.31.13 at 12:49 pm

Very quickly — I am not insulting my students. I have no reason to believe they don’t read comments. I would just like to KNOW whether they do, and provide some sort of incentive for them to do so if they don’t.


faustusnotes 10.31.13 at 1:21 pm

I have a small class of 6-8 Masters students, all non-native English speakers and with no common language. It’s an epi/stats course, fundamental to completing their thesis – we teach survival analysis, multi-level modeling, survey stats – conducted over 12 weeks with a report to be submitted every week. In 2nd year these masters students are expected to produce a publication for a major journal (our best yet is AIDS but this year we’re aiming higher) so they need to learn not just the stats but also the ability to write a formal paper in English.

In my experience they read all my comments, because by the end of the course their english has improved enormously, and they are able to structure a paper for a major journal. They’re still not fluent and the content is obviously dependent on their knowledge of the methods and the topic they chose, but without a doubt they are paying attention.

I was going to write a long comment about the benefit of comments in word, but I don’t think that’s the point. So I guess the question for Harry is – why has the question arisen now that you’re using digital comments instead of hand-written?


TM 10.31.13 at 1:48 pm

My complaint as a student always was that I rarely got comments or feedback from profs, and that many profs don’t care to actually evaluate student work. I have seen massive grade inflation and students writing complete nonsense and never being corrected by their instructor. It is fairly common for students to take away that as long as you write something, you have fulfilled the assignment. It is also well known that the grading of the GRE writing assignment is strongly correlated with the number of words written.

These observations may not apply to all departments and certainly not all instructors but they are very common. A consequence is that students educated in such an environment can’t handle actual critical evaluation. Which btw is also true for many of their profs, sadly.


LFC 10.31.13 at 1:49 pm

ajay @34: the purpose of comments is not only to point out specific mistakes, eg, you’re citing obsolete X instead of up-to-date Y, but also to remark on things like whether the argument/discussion/exposition is well structured, well reasoned, well written, whether the use of evidence overall is handled convincingly etc.

I like the suggestion upthread about separating the grade and the comments. I.e., you comment on the paper but only tell the student the grade after he/she has sent you an e-mail saying that he/she has read the comments and proving it by indicating which ones s/he found esp. helpful, which ones s/he wants to push back on (if any) etc. A related suggestion is to comment on the paper, withhold the grade, and let the student give him/herself a grade based on his/her reading of the comments. Then you get an e-mail from the student saying “I’ve read yr comments and based on them I think I shd get grade X” and you email back “you’re right; [or alternatively]: actually you got grade Y. But thank you for reading the comments and thinking about them. I’m sure you’ll do better next time [or whatever].”

P.s. I’ve done only a little teaching so take the above FWIW. As a student I read all the comments on my papers. Some were quite helpful. Once I had the annoying experience, though, of a reader taking me to task for not having mentioned something that I had in fact mentioned in an endnote that the reader hadn’t bothered to read.


LFC 10.31.13 at 1:50 pm

(I have a comment in the moderation queue)


Harry 10.31.13 at 1:56 pm

I’d actually like to see the long comment about the benefits of comments, etc, in word. The answer is… well, as a result of the technology I am spending more time doing it, so am more concerned that my time is being spent valuably (the comments I write are not for me, they are for them); also, it seems to me that the costs of checking whether they have read the comments are much reduced by the technology. And — I was grading papers by seniors yesterday, and whether or not they read my comments is really up to them, but I have in my head a group of freshmen (more correctly, freshwomen) that I am also teaching, for whom I do feel responsible to prompt them into good learning habits that will serve them better at a place like my own institution over the course of their undergraduate careers. I disagree strongly with those above who suggest that if students don’t read comments that is their problem, at least for incoming freshmen — they are not used to the kind of feedback that I give, and nobody has taught them what to do with it, or how to cope with being in large lecture classes or… lots of other features of the institution, and I think I, as a pretty privileged professor even as professors go, have a responsibility to teach them some of that.


Harry 10.31.13 at 1:57 pm

Thanks LFC. No idea why it got stuck.


faustusnotes 10.31.13 at 2:05 pm

Harry, I don’t know about freshwomen – I only teach graduates – but in my limited experience (and in my own experience) yes, freshwomen are much more inclined to not give a fuck. But that’s not something you can change, is it?

re: word comments specifically, I started writing but then realized I couldn’t separate any special benefit of word comments from old-fashioned hand-written comments. I feel like there is something there (legibility?) but I don’t know that I can specify it. I correct my students’ english (as I said, they aren’t native) in track changes, so I guess that is a very different thing to hand-written corrections (for one,it’s much more legible and coherent), but I also build up a kind of teaching atmosphere through the comments – one of encouragement, gentle cajoling, admonishment where prior comments haven’t been listened to, and positively-phrased explanations of why such-and-such a phrase or technique is wrong. I have no evidence on which to base this statement, but I feel like the digital comments enable me to be simultaneously more involved with my students work, more positive and encouraging, more critical and more informative. But I can’t say why, exactly. Do you feel the same?

i should probably say, a lot of Asian students come to a Masters degree (in my experience) with a very different understanding of how to construct a logical argument, and track changes + comments makes it very easy to explain to them how to do it in a “western” (for want of a better adjective) style. I think it’s more immediate than written comments. But I can’t say why.


Trader Joe 10.31.13 at 2:15 pm

Echoing some of the comments above.

I like using a grading ruberic and make that available along with a sample “A” paper to give an idea of what types of formatting and approaches make for good communication – particularly for younger students they rarely have a clue that having things like section headers, bulleted lists, data tables…(obviously depends on type of paper)…make a work look more professional above and beyond content.

I type my comments on a separate sheet, not embedded in the document – sometimes that leads to extra referencing, but I think it encourages looking at the comments.

For B&C papers I allow a rewrite that can award up to 5 points for addressing the deficiencies – the UP TO portion is stressed though. Getting enough to earn the higher grade will require some effort. Lower than “C” or non/pass papers require a conference. No one ever rewrites an “A” so its hardest to tell actually if any of these comments are taken to heart.


faustusnotes 10.31.13 at 2:19 pm

Incidentally, how many of the people commenting here give a “how to write…” lecture early on? I have a lecture devoted to presenting statistics and epidemiology, delivered at the end of first semester. The stats/epi class I mentioned above starts in second and all the reports are expected to follow the lessons of that first class. I try to tie it in with our journal club (also weekly). I think that learning the presentation is itself a big deal, and I learnt it on the job (never at uni). Is this what others here have found?


ajay 10.31.13 at 2:47 pm

I have no reason to believe they don’t read comments. I would just like to KNOW whether they do

Change the location of your next class. Inform the students only by writing the new location in red pen in the margin of their essays. Observe who turns up where…

More seriously, the rewrite idea sounds good, but it does have the effect of reducing the amount of ground you can cover (because they’ll spend a lot of time rewriting essay x instead of writing essay x+1, as you will reading them). Maybe just do that on the first few essays, rather than all of them?


faustusnotes 10.31.13 at 3:00 pm

I think the rewrite is a bad idea. You’ll be way too busy and the effort will have diminishing returns.


Trader Joe 10.31.13 at 3:34 pm

For a 5-7 page paper exploring a topic or delivering a view-point with citations, the basic – show me you can research, show me you can think, show me you are literate paper, it allows some reemphasis on whichever of those three “show mes” fell short. At some length of paper or level of coursework a rewrite doesn’t serve the right purpose.

Your comments suggest masters level work – I’d expect all those 3 show mes as a given, so at that level of paper I’d fully agree, any serious deficiencies need to be addressed differently.


Henry Grodsk 10.31.13 at 3:37 pm

I once wrote “Are you sure?” in the margin of an early draft of as student’s MA. Subsequent drafts contained the words “are you sure?” So she was reading the comments…


ZM 10.31.13 at 4:47 pm

“i should probably say, a lot of Asian students come to a Masters degree (in my experience) with a very different understanding of how to construct a logical argument, and track changes + comments makes it very easy to explain to them how to do it in a “western” (for want of a better adjective) style. I think it’s more immediate than written comments. But I can’t say why.”
As was mentioned in the “is law an undergraduate degree” thread jack, for an MA you can pretty easily switch general disciplines. I found moving from a narrative based and more strictly analytical (ie. not explicitly normative) style of writing – where you had fairly free choice as to what primary sources to use for close reading etc- in the humanities, to an explicitly normative discipline, which was multidisciplinary but where professors (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) mostly preferred quantitative analytical methods ( by the way – why is game theory not just considered argument by allegory?) and a “report” style presentation method (sometimes meant to be persuasive in the style of an editorial/advertorial type thingamajig), exceedingly frustrating to say the very least.


James Wimberley 10.31.13 at 5:11 pm

The Oxbridge tutorial system basically spends most of the teaching resources on feedback. This may go too far, and it’s notoriously expensive, but the thread suggests that a shift would be worth investigating.
Can you harness peer pressure to solve Harry’s specific problem? Give the commented paper to another student to discuss with the author? You would need to create an incentive for this.


Derek Bowman 10.31.13 at 5:36 pm

Faustusnotes ask, about lack of motivation for first year students, “But that’s not something you can change, is it?”

Of course you can. Like many of the commenters here, you seem to assume that for any given group of students it’s simply a given fact that some of them care and others don’t. But that’s just not true. Most college students are enrolled for a reason, and most of them intend to put forth an effort and to learn something. However, weakness of will, frustration, distraction, etc can get in the way of that. It’s not your job to hand-hold your students in doing their work, but there are ways of arranging your classes that make it more or less likely that students will be engaged and follow through on assignments.


Stradlater 10.31.13 at 7:49 pm

I’m an undergraduate who always reads his teachers’ comments (insofar as they are legible), but if I were for some reason not inclined to look at a graded paper, one thing that would motivate me to do would be to accept a revised version of the paper a week later or something. The revision would presumably be graded on the extent to which I addressed the teacher’s original complaints. This could be its own grade or maybe the revision would give me a chance to improve my grade on the original paper. If the revision were its own grade then I would turn in the revision no matter what, but if I just had a chance to improve my grade then I might decide the assignment is not worthwhile assuming my initial grade were sufficiently high; so maybe making the revision its own assignment would best ensure that everyone read the comments. Someone above pointed out that this scheme is costly to the teachers, but I think this is the only downside.


adam.smith 10.31.13 at 8:18 pm

I like the general idea of requiring responses to comments, but what you (Harry in OP) are proposing sounds too much like a chore and an obvious “I want to check whether you’re reading my comments” policy to me — to me that sounds somewhat insulting to students.
One of the things that I (and assume countless others) do to check whether students do required readings is to require them to send or post a couple of sentences of comments and/or questions. But I don’t _just_ use that to check on them, I also use them to structure class to varying degrees.

Why not do the same for comments? Require them to give _you_ feedback on your comments, something like “write a short paragraph on which comment(s) you found most helpful and why”. That will require them to read the comments and I imagine it could actually be interesting for you to skim their comments, but you don’t have to – you can just give them x-amount of credits for handing/sending it in.


ascholl 10.31.13 at 10:49 pm

I had several stints during my college career when I was a poor, unmotivated student. And I always read comments, and find it pretty much impossible to imagine a situation where I wouldn’t: there were times when I wouldn’t go to class, or do the readings, or approach assignments with any sense of seriousness. But if I took the effort to write a paper — even a poor paper! — simple narcissism would demand that I read any feedback. Writing even a short, crummy paper requires orders of magnitude more effort than reading the instructor’s response. Maybe I was unique, but I honestly think that ignoring comments is probably about the last bad habit that you need to worry about students picking up.

(Actually absorbing and acting on the comments is another thing altogether, of course.)


SC 10.31.13 at 11:22 pm

Has anyone tried Substance McGravitas’s suggestion of a class wiki? I don’t teach so I can’t try it but whenever the issue of commenting on student papers (and related issues) comes up, I make the same suggestion. Other than a poet or two who used it for shared class projects on specific poetic styles/techniques (quite successfully, I think), instructors tend to say “Oh, the kids will never get a wiki.” or “That’s too public.” or some other lame excuse. It seems like a perfectly reasonable suggestion to me and if I was running a class and I wanted focus on interacting with student writing, I’d set a wiki or three.


PatrickfromIowa 10.31.13 at 11:45 pm

Gee, if you want to know if they read your comments, why don’t you just ask them? And while you’re at it, you could ask them if your comments help them, and which comments help least/most.

If you want to encourage engaged reading of comments, do it as part of drafting and revising a paper on a topic they care about. On the final draft, grade don’t comment.


ascholl 10.31.13 at 11:57 pm

@22: “There’s a fair bit of research out there that when comments are given out along with grades, most students don’t even look at the comments, and they have essentially zero pedagogical worth.”

Could you point us to an example of this research? You very likely are correct, but I find this result dramatically contrary to my experience & expectation. For the vast majority of 18 year olds — even bright, literate 18 year olds — simply trying to arrange a thousand words in a cohesive fashion requires significant effort. Even with a superb secondary education, they just haven’t had the years of practice that most folks need in order to make writing reasonably easy. Comments validate the effort that even the most trivial paper requires. Speaking only for myself, the quantity&quality of instructor comments was probably the single biggest factor determining whether I remained engaged an a course: they were more important than the dynamism of lectures, class discussion, or even my initial curiosity in the subject. My (perhaps dead wrong!) assumption would be that the vast majority of comments are read, and that pretty much the only time they’re ignored is when a student is so embarrassed/ashamed of their work that they feel unwilling to face the response.


millicent friendly 11.01.13 at 12:53 am

Through the combined magic of procrastination and poor academic IT I stumbled this term onto a solution I’m very happy with: hand back the commented papers as usual at the end of class, but without grades on. Post the grades on the online system a few hours later. My freshmen stand about in the room at the end of class, frozen in a deathly hush as they pore over the comments trying desperately to guess at the grade implied. I’m asked to explain illegibilities far more often than before. (Often a way for them to edge into a more general discussion — illegibility has its uses.) Still no guarantee of uptake, of course, but it takes no effort on either side, is not at all resented so far as I can tell, and you might as well get the baser elements of human nature working for you.


Jeff H 11.01.13 at 7:58 am

I’ll go slightly further than ascholl @60. Such a conclusion is completely contrary to my own experience and that of virtually everyone I interacted with in university, and almost equally contrary to my limited experience teaching at a university level, much of which conformed to the worst stereotypes of unmotivated students in other important respects. This seems so wildly implausible to me that my first instinct would be to look for methodological flaws in the research; only if an exhaustive search failed to find any would I begin to consider regarding such as study as even prima facie evidence that its conclusions were actually correct.


ajay 11.01.13 at 10:34 am

60, 62: I found this surprising as well but I’ve been educated by US friends never to express surprise at the weirdness and inexplicability of anything that happens at US universities. (“You have compulsory swimming? Really?” Yes, we do. “Your students sleep in bunks, three to a room?” Yes, of course. etc.)


subdoxastic 11.01.13 at 4:13 pm

@ ascholl & JeffH

Presenting an evaluative grade at the same time as a comment(s) is widely regarded in Ed. Research as counterproductive.

One source: Brookhart, S. M. (2008). Feedback that fits. Educational Leadership, 65(4), 54-59.

A precis:
1) Focus on work and process—effective feedback describes the students’ work, comments on the process the student used to do the work, and makes specific suggestions for what to do next. General praise (“Good job!”) or personal comments do not help.
2) Relate feedback to the goal—it needs to describe where the student is in relation to the learning goal. It helps each student decide what his or her next goal should be. Self-referenced feedback about the work itself is helpful for struggling students, who need to understand that they can make progress as much as they need to understand how far they are from the ultimate goal.
3) Try for description, not judgment ***Certain students are less likely to pay attention to descriptive feedback if it is accompanied by a formal judgment, like a grade or an evaluative comment.*** For these learners, point out improvements over their previous performance, even if those improvements don’t amount to overall success on the assignment. Then select one or two small, doable next steps. After the next round of work, give the student feedback on his or her success with those steps, and so on.
4) Be positive and specific—describe how the strengths in a students’ work match the criteria for good work and how they show what that student is learning. And it means choosing words that communicate respect for the student and the work. Your tone should indicate that you are making helpful suggestions and giving the student a chance to take the initiative.

The *** section above deals specifically with ‘certain learners” a generic term describing any number of aspects of learner motivation (one such example is found in:
Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-8.

Unfortunately JeffH I’m not in a position to do an exhaustive search for you to disprove the research findings. I can start you off by noting that the majority of the research in this area deals with elementary and secondary school students.

But your approach to the issue does largely conform to the research in teachers’ approach to educational research and assessment practice– largely dismissive and resistant to change. See:

Brown, S., McIntyre, D. (1978). Factors influencing teachers’ responses to curricular innovations. British Educational Research Journal, 4(1), 19-23.

Brown, S., McIntyre, D. (1982). Influences upon teachers’ attitudes to different types of innovation: A study of Scottish integrated science. Curriculum Inquiry, 12(1) 35-51

Desimone, L. (2002). How can comprehensive school reform models be successfully implemented? Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 433-79.

Doyle, W., & Ponder, G. A. (1977). The practicality ethic in teacher decision-making. Interchange, 8(3), 1-12.

Young, V. M., & Kim, D. H. (2010). Using assessments for instructional improvement: A literature review. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 18(19).


panaceus 11.03.13 at 2:17 am

61’s solution looks good. I had thought a technological answer might be easiest. Send an email giving students the grade, then track whether or not they actually open the attached file containing the comments–but there doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to do that.


ajay 11.04.13 at 10:55 am

“Send an email giving students the grade, then track whether or not they actually open the attached file containing the comments–but there doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to do that.”

No, but you could send two separate emails: one containing the grade, the other the comments. Tracking email opening is fairly reliable, isn’t it?


ascholl 11.05.13 at 7:08 pm

@subdoxastic Interesting stuff, though I don’t see that it contradicts my strong&narrow intuition: students read comments. The quoted bit seems concerned w/ creating useful comments, which really is another matter altogether, if perhaps a more important one. Also, saying that descriptive feedback has more power when presented separately from evaluative feedback (a claim I find very plausible!) is hardly the same as saying descriptive feedback is useless when placed beside a grade. I’m not pretending you believe this, but it sure looks as if you think the folks you responded to might believe something equivalently nonsensical.


bianca steele 11.05.13 at 8:37 pm

Not really relevant, but it occurs to me my last comment on John Holbo’s thread kind of incorporates a comment on a final exam question about pragmatism (which I was too shy and public-school trained to ask for clarification on at the time), so I’ve been thinking about that one, even if it took nearly thirty years.


auntadadoom 11.05.13 at 9:15 pm

From a purely technological point of view, Google Docs might be a good solution for the exact functionality you’re asking for.

There, you can insert comments just as you would with a Word doc. It keep a running log like a chat log when a student responds to a comment or marks it as “Resolved” — so you can check in the log a couple of days after you provided comments and see that they’ve taken some action on each one. You can also opt to receive emails when they do this, but that might lead to a flood in your inbox.

You can also share 1-to-1 very easily, so your student can let you see the paper without letting the whole class see the paper (and the comments).


Henry (not the famous one) 11.06.13 at 3:20 pm

I apologize for being so late with the obvious comment, but wouldn’t this be an excellent marketing opportunity for Mr. O’Brien’s Buchhandlung service? Be on the alert for student comments such as “Yes, but see Adorno’s reply to Benjamin,” “reductionism is its own reward,” “more in Thoreau than in Engels,” usw. I’d be particularly suspicious, in fact, of those commenters who use “usw.”

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