Positive Spin

by Nancy Vazquez, UWC Director

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2009.

It’s easy to find what’s wrong with your students’ writing and harder to find what’s right. But focusing on what students are doing well may ultimately be more useful in helping them to improve.

From grade school on, most of the feedback students receive on their writing focuses on what they’ve done wrong: spelling errors, comma mistakes, vague wording, awkward sentences, rambling paragraphs. They may see the occasional “Nice!” or “Good example” in the margins, but most writing teachers focus on what they think needs “fixing.” As a result, students often approach a writing assignment feeling defeated before they even begin. They’re like dogs that have been kicked by a previous owner; they’re wary and worn down.

The implications of that are significant. Imagine you’re trying to learn—at someone else’s insistence—something you find difficult, say, playing cricket or knitting an afghan. Imagine that most of the feedback you get from your instructor (or superior) is negative: “No, that’s wrong.” Or maybe at the end of every session you receive an assessment (“C-”) and only a word or two of explanation: “Sloppy work!” How eager would you be to keep making an effort?

That’s not too far from the way we try to teach writing. We offer students little chance to practice, and our reaction to their work is mostly negative. If that approach doesn’t seem to be working, maybe it’s time to change how you respond to student writing.

Offer students specific praise whenever you can do so honestly. Students find detailed feedback more credible and more helpful: “I found the research you cited on page 2 persuasive.”

Be leery of “but.” Faculty often try to blunt negative comments with token praise, a tactic students see right through. A comment like “You started off well, but failed to meet the goal of the assignment” isn’t really a compliment.

Listen to what students have to say. Put the need to evaluate aside, at least initially, and respond to your students’ words as a reader first. Tell them not only where their writing confuses you, but also where it holds your interest.

Ask students to reflect on their own work. Have students write a brief reaction to their work when they submit it. If they already know their conclusion is weak, you might not need to point it out.

Include praise in peer response. When students read their peers’ work, ask them to identify the most persuasive sentence, the most interesting paragraph, or the idea most worth expanding.

Ask questions. Rather than making comments, pose questions that encourage students to think about their subject more deeply. Remember: responses, whether in the form of questions or comments, are best offered on drafts, so students have a chance to consider them as they revise.

Write your comments on a separate sheet or rubric. Avoid writing directly on your students’ paper. This is a radical notion, but one that can transform how you read student work. Writing all over your students’ papers is a bit like interrupting them in conversation. They’re trying to tell you what they understand about the Renaissance or crustaceans, and you keep jumping in to criticize: “Wordy!” “Awkward!” If you feel that you need to comment on specific sentence-level issues, have students insert line numbers—easily done on the computer—so you can refer quickly to a particular sentence.

Confining your comments to a separate place will also make you less likely to correct every error, which does little to help students make fewer mistakes in the future.

Even simply pointing out every error can be detrimental, though, since it takes the focus off of other writing concerns that may ultimately be more significant.

When you return a paper with all sorts of surface errors marked, you’re sending the message that correctness is what matters most. Of course, correctness does matter, but good writing is not only error-free. It’s also thoughtful, engaging, logical, amusing, persuasive, and/or informative. After all, when you come across a journal article you want to share with colleagues, you don’t say, “Take a look at this article. It’s surprisingly free of errors!”

So, what should you do about errors? You might comment only on patterns of errors, discuss common errors in class, offer handouts on recurring problems, or ask students to help each other proofread.

Whatever method you choose, try to direct most of your attention not to the misspelled words, but rather to the meaning those imperfect words are trying to convey. Putting meaning ahead of mistakes may ultimately be the most important thing you can do to make writing a more positive experience for you and your students.