Tag: tutoring strategies

Responding to Student Writing to Encourage Revision

Meghan Hancock, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

The University of Louisville Writing Center’s website isn’t only meant for students to make appointments and browse for writing resources. It’s also there for faculty to utilize when teaching writing in their courses. Our Resources for Faculty page provides helpful information from what to expect when your students make appointments at the Writing Center, to how to schedule consultants to come to your class to talk about what the Writing Center does.

We also recently dedicated a section of our website to Resources for Teaching Writing. In this section, we provide some strategies for faculty to think about using when teaching writing in their courses. These strategies grow from topics we have thought a lot about as writing instructors ourselves, and also from common topics we hear our colleagues discussing when it comes to teaching writing in their classrooms.


Below, you will find what we have provided for strategies to help you when you are thinking of ways to respond to student writing in your classroom.

Instructor comments on students’ writing is an important part of helping students become effective academic writers, and can provide the productive feedback a student writer needs to revise a particular assignment. Responding to student writing can be a challenging task, however, particularly when deciding what feedback to include in a response. Too much feedback can be overwhelming for students, while too little feedback can leave students feeling they don’t have a clear direction for revision.

At the University Writing Center, our consultants work with students to help them understand instructors’ responses as well as come up with plans for revision based on instructors’ responses. Here are some strategies, though, that may help when structuring and formatting commentary on student writing, as well as in prioritizing types of feedback.

Some forms of comment have proved to be more effective than others.

Research on student writing has demonstrated that a draft covered in corrections and cryptic comments such as “vague” or “needs more detail” is not as effective as fewer, more detailed comments. Explaining what kind of detail is needed, for example, is more helpful to students. Also, students report that the comments they find most helpful to their writing are those that point them forward to how best to revise the next draft (or complete the next assignment) by suggesting new ideas, strategies, or questions, rather than only making criticisms on the current draft. Finally, pointing out to student how and why a piece of a draft or paper is effective also helps the student learn to recognize and potentially replicate the writing in future assignments.

Different comments can serve different functions in response.

End comments commonly take the form of a letter written to the student about overall or more holistic strengths and weaknesses of the writer’s paper, as well as what productive directions for revision the responder would recommend. Marginal comments are your chance to point to specific places in the paper. These places could be anything from a thesis statement that needs work, to an unclear sentence or paragraph, to a quotation that needs more explanation. End comments can also be a chance to explain how marginal comments play into the bigger picture of the response. In other words, try to refer to some specific marginal comments in your end comments as examples for what the student can work on in a revision.

It helps to distinguish in comments between higher- and lower-order concerns.

Higher order concerns, like overall organization, whether a paper has a clear argument, what kinds of examples the writer is using for evidence, etc., are the most effective places to begin in responding to student writing, as these conceptual issues are much more challenging for writers to address in a revision. Although problems with grammar and style can be frustrating to read, correcting those errors for students is not an effective approach to either revision or teaching grammar and style. Instead, respond to these issues by telling the writer what patterns of error you are noticing in their writing (for example, run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement, or comma use) so they can be more conscious of them in the future.

Explain to students your approach to response.

Different instructors can use very different approaches to responding to student writing. Comments can vary in emphasis, length, and detail. It can be helpful to students to explain how you approach reading their work and what you will emphasize in your comments. Such explanations can be included in the assignment if you wish. In addition, it can be helpful to have students respond to your comments, both to ensure they have read them and to engage in a more dialogic process. For example, if you have commented on student drafts, you might ask students to send you an email in which they explain their plan for revision based on your comments. You can check such email quickly and see if the students plan to address your concerns.

Use other forms of response such as conferences or audio comments.

If time allows, try conferencing individually with students to discuss your written comments with them as well as give them the opportunity to ask you questions if any of your comments are unclear to them. If this isn’t possible, try to dedicate the last ten or fifteen minutes of a class meeting for your students to read your written comments and ask you questions or raise concerns. Some instructors also find success using audio comments that can be recorded digitally and even attached to student texts. For an example of how to use audio comments, see this link.

Try responding at different points in the writing process.

Responding at different stages in the writing process can both save time and offer students clearer direction as they work on the writing. For example, asking for a brief proposal for a paper, or responding to the first two pages, can help catch issues of focus and analysis early in the process and takes less time than reading longer papers.

Read the paper first, before commenting.

Jot down some notes on a separate piece of paper instead, focusing on common themes you notice that you might want to address in your response. This will keep you from commenting too much and will allow you to prioritize what you comment on when you read through the paper the second time. Also, if you are handwriting your comments, try not to use a red pen if you can help it. Many students associate this color with past negative responses to their writing in school and it may cause anxiety for them.

Encourage students to visit the University Writing Center.

We often work with students to help them plan how to revise assignments based on instructor comments and would be happy to work with your students.

Here are some links that might also be helpful when thinking through how to respond to student writing:

Responding to Higher Order Concerns and Lower Order Concerns – The Purdue OWL

“Beyond the Red Ink: Teachers’ Comments Through Students’ Eyes” (Video) – Nancy Sommers

“Responding to Student Writing” – University of Delaware Writing Center

“Using Audio Comments to Respond to Student Writing” – University of Wisconsin- Madison Writing Center

“Responding to Writing of Non-Native Speakers of English” – University of Minnesota Center for Writing

The Dreaded Comma

Jacob Robbins, Consultant

Here at the Writing Center, we religiously emphasize addressing the needs of the writer over the needs of the writing.  In an ideal session, the written work serves only to illuminate the so-called “higher order” needs of the writer such that we can directly help the writer improve not just the piece itself, but also the strategies he or she employs.  However, as any writing consultant with a modicum of experience knows, one must often wade through a great deal of apprehension about “lower order” concerns before broaching larger concerns.  So many students’ attitudes (including my own) about writing are saturated and informed by the red, deleterious ink of overzealous instructors.  By virtue of my past instructors’ methodology, I knew what I was doing incorrectly long before I knew what I was doing well.DSCN1622

There are a great number of relatively minor mistakes whose over inflation causes anxiety in writers of all stages.  Perhaps the greatest offender, though, is the failure (perceived or real) to use commas correctly.  The number of students who come to the Writing Center seeking guidance on comma usage tells me that I am far from alone when it comes to my difficulties.  Their papers bear corrections scolding their comma use, but rarely point out when the student has correctly utilized commas, giving them little understanding of their mistakes.

In fact, it is difficult to outline the rules of comma usage because the term itself is a misnomer. Laws do not govern comma use; rather, it is governed almost exclusively by convention.  Correct comma use was never legislated into the English language.  Instead, we depend on those who came before us to point the way, and a larger academic community to affirm these revered progenitors.  As such, there is no such thing as incorrect comma use in the strictest sense.  This is not to say that incorrect comma use is by any means impossible.  However, achieving this understanding helps us think of commas as tools of effective communication, rather than obstacles to it.   This small, semantic piece of information has helped me a great deal in my struggle to overcome the fear of comma misuse, and sharing this with those I tutor seems to help them in much the same way.  Indeed, my experience leads me to believe that reading aloud best helps with understanding comma use, and is certainly far better than barraging students with technical jargon which I barely understand myself.  Along with helping the student recognize their own voice, reading aloud is necessarily an exercise that indicates pauses throughout when the student naturally stops to breathe.  Pointing these out to the students as opportunities to separate their ideas with commas and let the reader breathe help make comma use far less intimidating.

A Reminder to Myself: Seeing the Bigger Picture

Amy Nichols, Consultant

AmyI don’t know what it is about the summer – perhaps that bit of extra flexibility in my schedule has turned me towards the philosophical – but I recently had an interesting consultation with a student that left me thinking. We worked together on some organizational and grammatical changes to the paper, but had a bit of free time left at the end of the session. On the spur of the moment, I asked where he was from – he had a lovely accent, but I had never asked. He told me he was from South Sudan, and we had a great discussion about our respective home countries.

This experience started me thinking more carefully about the students I meet every day. They represent people groups from all over the world, from all walks of life – and I know that part of my training is to recognize that. But, and perhaps because of that training, it can sometimes be easy to break a patron down into an “eastern” or “western” writing style, into the component parts of their writing.

Before I was born, my dad was involved in a terrible car wreck that left him needing multiple surgeries. He was heavily sedated but remained conscious while hearing the doctors talk about fixing his hip the next day, “just the way you’d talk about fixing a car.” And I have to ask myself – do I, in some ways, reduce these students to the things in their writing that I can help them “fix,” and does that help or hamper my ability to do so? For doctors, I imagine that (at least in cases of trauma) focusing on what you can improve is an important mechanism that lets you do your job efficiently and effectively. And my father didn’t criticize his doctors for reducing him to his component parts – by doing so, they were  doing their job. But for my very different work of helping writers improve themselves, reducing an entire person to whether their writing meets certain criteria might interfere with being able to see the very things (their own creativity, the way they articulate ideas verbally rather than on paper, etc.) that will let them improve.

None of this is original thinking, of course. One of the first things we were taught at the beginning of last fall was to pay attention to students’ emotional well-being – if someone is crying because their paper is due in five hours but they’ve been away at a family funeral, the first focus is on that total person, on helping them get to a point where they can work on the paper. But in the rush of appointment after appointment and juggling life and schoolwork, it’s easy to begin to have a kind of surgical focus on papers and organizational structures. It’s easy, in short, to forget that key idea – that in front of me there is a human being with a complex existence outside of our interaction, and that paying attention to who someone really is can help me be a more effective writing consultant.

All’s Fair in Love and the Writing Center: Adapting to Unfamiliar Genres

Michelle Day, Consultant
At the Writing Center, we always say that we will work on any type of writing. Once, that even meant working on a love letter.
Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, I have been hoping I might get to tutor another lovestruck student (no luck yet). But I am now realizing that, having never read, received, or composed a love letter, I have little context for the conventions of that writing genre: how it should be organized, how it should be formatted (do college sweethearts expect a “Works Cited” page?).
Affectionate missives are not the only genre my Writing Center colleagues and I have little experience with. So why do we always ask clients to bring in anything and everything they’ve written and want help with? And how do we navigate unfamiliar genre waters?
Here, I’d like to draw on the expertise of some of my fellow consultants’ blog posts to show how I might approach tutoring a student on composing written declarations of love.
  • On January 22, Scott Lasley wrote about the importance of consultants seeking to learn from a tutoring session, rather than just teach. By being curious and willing to learn, he says, “we not only see what other writers are doing, but we also open our minds and by extension, our writing, to new areas of intellectual exploration.
  • On January 28, Katelyn Wilkinson wrote a post about how consultants who aren’t “creative writers” can still provide helpful feedback to clients who want to work on a poem, short story, or other creative work. She suggests that tutors first establish the goals of the writer for the piece and give feedback on specific places that do or don’t work toward those goals.
  • On February 4, Lauren Short argues that “just as we have a closet for getting dressed, we also have an arsenal of skills for writing papers.” She encourages writers to experiment with different techniques, genre, and language in order to find a unique writing style—a process we at the Writing Center would love to be a part of.
All of my co-workers’ advice plays into how I would approach tutoring a client on a love letter. Like Katelynn suggests, I would need to first know the client’s goals for the letter. Does the writer want the letter to sound polished and formal or more conversational? Does the writer know if the recipient reciprocates his/her feelings? How vulnerable is the writer willing to be? What is the ultimate message (besides love) that he/she wants to communicate? Asking those questions about rhetorical purpose can give me a framework for evaluating whether specific parts of the letter are working toward that purpose.
Second, I would need to take Lauren’s advice and hep the writer to work within his/her personal strengths and style. Writing in a way that makes the writer feel comfortable would be essential to drafting a heartfelt, natural letter, rather than one that sounds forced and uncomfortable. And, identifying some of the writer’s strengths might help him/her play to those strengths on future writing assignments.
Finally, I would need to remember to learn from and listen to the client. Pretending like I have a complete grasp on all genres of writing wouldn’t make me any more familiar with how to write love letters. So, it would be important for me to focus on my own strengths—examining the rhetorical effects of certain ways of writing—and let the writer be the expert on what the end product should look like
This is a much oversimplified version of the process we go through to provide assistance on unfamiliar genres, and there are likely a lot of other strategies consultants use. How do you approach tutoring on a piece of writing you’re not accustomed to reading or writing?