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Improving Student Motivation via Micro-Commenting on Papers

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I've written and spoken passionately about the need for us to think better about grading and feedback. When feedback isn't fast, it's a triple loss.

  • Our quality of life decreases as we drag papers around with us for weeks.
  • The usefulness of the feedback decreases because our kids, when they get the work back a week or two later, are like a group of athletes whose coach hasn't told them how to improve from the game they played until a week or two after the game.
  • Our students' motivation around mastering writing decreases just like yours might when your administrator doesn't give quick enough feedback after an observation, instead leaving you a smidge more frustrated, annoyed, or apathetic.

None of that's to make us feel guilty. To paraphrase The Godfather, it's not personal — it's only business. We just take a step back and say, “All right — then how do I do feedback quickly?”

And so I've written about that:

But I've gotten some earnest and amicable pushback on these ideas. Isn't this way of thinking about feedback and grading a bit ruthless and utilitarian? Does it dehumanize the process, turning us into an army of robotic, cold, calculating graders?

My answer is that it had better not.

As our colleague Matthew Johnson in Ann Arbor, MI has argued, the notes we put in the margins of kids' work are relationship-building. Often times, for those of us with 100+ kids on the roster, margin notes are a primary means through which we build relationships.

I think of it this way: with those notes in the margins or on the simple rubrics that I use, I'm trying to help my kids to believe

  1. that I care about them and know what I'm doing as their teacher;
  2. that this work matters because it's fun and challenging and rewarding;
  3. that they are writers — people who push to elevate their powers of communication;
  4. that they can get better through effort, and that they *are* getting better; and
  5. that they can succeed.

It doesn't take paragraphs to do this — on a recent pile of student work, I averaged 20-40 words per paper — but the words I use obviously matter.

Here are some kids that crushed it:

  • “Tate, continue doing what you're doing. Push for maximum knowledge. Pursue your curiosities. We want utter domination of world history material. Know it! And have fun :)”
  • “Hannah, you are doing awesome. On your way to total mastery.”
  • “Really impressive, Chlomeister.”
  • “Ho. Ly. Cow. Mastery.”

Here are some kids that are trending well and getting better:

  • “Eli, your knowledge is really improving. Keep it up, my dude.”
  • “Really impressive, Chlomeister.”
  • “I'm really proud of you, kid. You are mastering this material.”
  • “Really strong writing and knowledge, Trentino. This is super promising.”

Here's a kid that struggled — meaning that they have started to show signs of doing the work, but they're far enough behind at this point that they still didn't do as well as I'm sure they hoped they would:

  • “Keep after it, Allie — we'll fix these after school.”

And here are some kids that I'm worried about:

  • “Aub, come in after school if you need help w/ rewrites.”
  • “LG, let's chat about mandate of heav.” [sic]

My classes are not very differentiated in the sense of lots of student choice and individualized learning tasks. Part of that's a time issue on my end, but a bigger part is that it doesn't seem to be the most important way to differentiate for young people. The place to differentiate is in how we seek to help each child believe the five key things. I love that about the beliefs — they are things that all of us need in order to be motivated to do something, but they are also not things that we all arrive at along the same paths.

These micro-comments on papers are one way that I do that.

So no, I don't dehumanize my work with kids, even the work of grading and feedback. It's possible to do this work at a deeply human and loving level without letting a stack of papers languish in your work bag for weeks.

The first step to getting there, of course, is to believe that it can be done.

One Response to Improving Student Motivation via Micro-Commenting on Papers

  1. Ica Rewitz December 12, 2018 at 12:28 am #

    I really appreciate your tips for faster grading on writing assignments. This is one of those things that just kills me and takes up so much time! So I’m working at it. I’m not sure how much progress I’m really making, but I’m working at it!

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