Taming "The Stack"
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

The problem with speeches isn't so much not knowing when to stop, as knowing when not to begin.

— Frances Rodman

by Nancy Vazquez

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2011.


Anyone who teaches writing knows about “The Stack”—that ever-present pile of student papers demanding your attention. If you don’t tame it, “The Stack” can zap your energy, devour your free time, and overrun your life.

But there are ways to respond to student papers more efficiently while still giving students meaningful feedback on their writing.

Instructors tend to assume that their comments on papers are vital to their students’ growth as writers, but research suggests a murkier state of affairs. While instructor comments can help students become better writers, not all comments are created equal. Some comments have little or no impact, and others—such as those in which an instructor makes stylistic “improvements”—may actually be counter-productive because they diminish students’ sense of ownership of their work.  The best comments are specific, encouraging, and given when students still have an opportunity to revise.

Keeping that in mind, we offer eight simple things you can do to improve the way you manage your stack of papers.

Set priorities. Articulate what you want the course (in general) and the assignment (in particular) to teach your students. Do you want them to apply a theory? Summarize a research finding? Argue persuasively using evidence? Define your expectations and limit your response to those issues.

Use a rubric. A grading rubric can be used for both drafts and final papers. A good one will specify what each level of response looks like. The descriptor for an exceptional abstract might say things like “Clearly defines the problem, methodology, and results. Uses precise language. Meets the word limit.”

Comment on drafts. Offering comments on drafts makes sense since your students can consider your suggestions when they revise. On the other hand, making extensive comments, especially suggestions for revision, on a final, graded assignment is futile. Remember: For students, grades speak louder than comments.

Go paperless. Most instructors find they can respond and grade faster online. Systems such as Turnitin’s GradeMark allow you to save frequently-used comments, so you don’t have to rewrite them every time.

Sit on your hands. Resist the temptation to make lots of marginal comments as you read. Instead, read the entire paper and then comment. You might find that the problems that worried you in the introduction are far less serious than the completely illogical argument on page 3. Reading the paper through also encourages you to hear what the student says rather than hunting for errors.

Be specific. Instead of “Expand!” say “On page 2, it might help to state how the naval blockade affected the South.” One or two comments like that are worth far more than pages of cryptic one-word admonitions.

Use peer response. If you give your students specific directions on how to comment on one another’s work, they can be effective reviewers. Peer response also helps students become critical readers.

Begin a dialogue. Require students to submit a short note with their assignments describing the experience of writing the paper and asking any questions they have. This step encourages students to reflect on their work and allows you to comment directly on issues that concern them.

But what about surface errors—the mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are so prevalent in students’ writing?

Research suggests that marking such errors does little to help students improve. Say a student has written a paper that’s poorly focused, thinly supported, and laden with surface errors. If you mark every error and then make an end comment about the lack of focus and support, the student is likely to think all of those flaws are equally troublesome or—more likely—assume the surface errors are the most significant, since that’s what the majority of the marks on the paper address.

If a paper is strewn with errors, return it unmarked and request that the problems be addressed. For a paper with only a few errors, comment on patterns of error or discuss one or two of the most common mistakes during class. And the next time you’re tempted to insert missing apostrophes and correct misspelled words, remember: You’re not an editor—you’re a teacher.