Monday, October 22, 2012

Troubling Margins: What to Do with Teachers' Comments

Students are often perplexed by teachers' comments written in margins of their papers.

In a study in 1993 Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford evaluated 3000 student papers with teachers' comments, and only 9% of comments consisted of "nothing except praise and positive evaluation" (Connors & Lunsford 210). This could mean that students read 91% of teachers’ comments with indifference, ambivalence, confusion, frustration, or a feeling of being overwhelmed or defeated.

This blog post, however, is not about blaming the teacher. 

Instead, I want to focus on what to do with 91% of potentially troublesome comments students read.

The first reaction many students have after reading a negative, or not-so-positive comment, is an emotional one. The second second step many students take is to store the essay away and never look at it again. Although reacting emotionally is only natural, students can recognize their emotional reactions and take the comments for what they are worth. 

In most cases comments are not meant to be hostile but helpful, which is why students should take a second look after a little time has passed.  Often students do not reflect on the parts of the essay the comments are referring to, which can lead to the initial confusion and negative emotional attachment. Therefore, taking time with the comments during the second look is also a good idea.

This is not to say that comments are always easily understood with a little time and effort. Teachers’ comments are sometimes altogether confusing and illegible. In the Writing Center at Eastern Illinois University, I have often looked over comments with students, and in some instances the student and I arrive at no real conclusion but for the student to contact the professor.  

In the video posted below, "Beyond the Red Ink: Teachers' Comments through the Eyes of Students," students from Bunker Hill Community College in Boston comment on how they feel after reading disheartening comments.  In the video, Adam Zalt says, “My teacher wrote ‘bad’ on top of one of my sentences. I didn’t know what that meant. What does ‘bad’ mean?”  I do not have an answer for Adam, but I do know that it is worth looking into. 

Setting a meeting with the professor to discuss the paper and the comments he or she left is always a good idea. Sooner better than later. In many instances, students may find his or her initial negative emotional reaction was unwarranted and will have a better understanding of what is expected for the next essay.  

If you watch the video below, listening to how students react to teachers’ comments may help you feel a better. It does for me. Maybe the comfort is knowing we are not alone.

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