Commenting Workshop Response 12/2/11

By Nicholas Borner

I came out of this workshop with a greater understanding of how to approach commenting on students’ papers, an aspect of tutoring which has left me confused, and therefore using interpretive methods, in the past. It has happened to me while tutoring that a student asks me to read over their paper and point out where, and in what aspects, they need improvement. And so I would read over the paper, foremost correcting grammatical and syntactical errors that stuck out to me most, without writing down any explanation. Next, I would underline sentences that stuck out to me as having repeated formerly addressed ideas, underlining them in the same fashion I underlined awkwardly worded sentences, except this time, instead of writing down “awkward” in the margins, I would write down, “repetitive.” I would circle words I thought were used well, sentences I thought were perfectly worded, and points brought up in analysis that were well thought out and worded very articulately. But I wouldn’t write any positive feedback; I would simply leave the circle there. After this workshop, I have come to see my faults in commenting from both an educational and psychological perspective.

Whereas I started commenting on, and blindly correcting, grammatical errors, a tutor is supposed to save that for last, only addressing patterns in error reoccurring throughout the paper. My mind works grammatically, and it takes a great deal of will power for me to hold myself from using my pen to mark every grammatical error I see, but by only correcting consistent patterns in error, the student can more clearly see the most persistent errors made, unclouded by minor errors that I obsessively touched upon in their paper. When talking to the student about such grammatical errors, I spoke in English jargon, talking of subject-verb agreement, placement of possessive pronouns and such, and this really doesn’t work, as most students of Expos are more adapt at other fields of study (especially since they’re being tutored in writing) and are unfamiliar with the grammar terms I’m saying at them. The clearest way of helping a student to understand grammatical errors, I’ve found, is to encourage them to say the sentence aloud and notice verbally the error in their writing. One student I tutored this semester, B, would start sentences with “although,” but not attach an independent clause to the dependent clause, leaving fragments scattered throughout her papers. Each time I would explain to her the importance of attaching an independent clause to this dependent clause to form the fully comprehensive idea she had in her head, but B kept repeating this error throughout the semester, until I began to have her edit her own papers, and started having her read these incorrect sentences aloud, when she finally began to understand, through listening to herself speak the way she wrote, the error in her writing.

This workshop also helped me to understand from an Expos student’s perspective, how intimidating it can be to have a page littered with marginal comments and obscure markings. Like I said, I would use the same underlines to point out sentences that are syntactically incorrect, and for sentences that are repetitive, pointing to one-word comments in the margins, littered among many others, to address the issues I saw. First, I learned that I shouldn’t address more than four comments per page, to build up confidence in the students as writers, rather than intimidating them by pointing out every flaw in their writing. I know that if I get a paper back and it is covered in comments, questions and words in the margins, these words all get jumbled together, and I become discouraged in myself. This must be especially hard for students who aren’t as comfortable writing a structured essay as I, and I understand now that pointing out every flaw in a students’ writing at once is overkill, and has proved to cause more harm than good.

A final fault I’ve found in my editing and tutoring techniques is my lack of positive feedback and my avoidance in writing of the most pressing issues of structure, organization, and thesis development. Most of these things I choose to address verbally, but words get lost in time, and as a student sits down to write their final draft of a paper, they’re not going to remember the positive things I said to them of their writing. Instead, they’re going to look at my edits written on their paper and focus on that, leaving room to involuntarily change the best aspects of their writing, and the things they could utilize to improve their writing in the following paper become lost in translation. I encourage the students I tutor to write down my suggestions and take note of things I say, particularly about improving sentence structure and working on ambiguous transitions, but they often don’t take note of the positive aspects of their writing, assuming that as they improve the negative aspects of their writing, the positive things they have done will look even better with the improved paper, but there is a great amount of room for change, and sometimes things that don’t need to be changed will change involuntarily.

This workshop was particularly useful to someone like me who thinks grammatically and finds most enjoyment in proofreading. I have been blindly viewing the tutoring, in terms of commenting and producing feedback, from my own point of view, not even considering how the student must feel when overwhelmed by negative criticisms. When tutoring in the future, I will always keep this in mind, for I see now that while a student may say they agree with my revision or understand what I’m saying when I speak in English major jargon, there is most likely a miscommunication somewhere, and I will try to address these things that become lost in conversation, in writing, without overwhelming or intimidating the student. It’s a fine balance that I can only assume takes practice to perfect, and I plan on putting the techniques I learned in this workshop to practice in the coming semesters.

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