Asking the Right Questions: Effective Responses to Student Writing
You have come up with a brilliant assignment, and now you have thirty—or three hundred—essays, research papers, or lab reports in front of you. What do you do next? How can an instructor respond to student writing in a way that gets students excited about revision, or about the possibilities for their next paper, instead of provoking in them the gloomy thought that they can't write, never could write, and never will be able to write? How do we make the best use of our own time, while giving students the information they need?
Honest, specific praise is our first important task, though we may think of it as a bonus, something to soften criticism. In fact, since most student writers know even less about their strengths than about their weaknesses, our praise can not only help them pay attention to what they do well, but encourage them so that they feel confident in risking more—for us and for themselves—in subsequent writing. Maybe the research paper, essay, or lab report is making a subtle point, has good supporting evidence, or has some place where the student writer does a fine job of synthesizing the ideas of outside sources. We need to begin by acknowledging this, to help them build on what is already working.
But how do we deal with the weaknesses of the piece in front of us? We could spend forty minutes an essay, and many of us do, marking every error. This may not be the most effective strategy. Unless they are rewriting for a grade, many students will merely skim responses. And even if they are going to rewrite the essay, when we do the editing, that takes away some of their opportunity to learn. This kind of editing can focus too much on sentence errors, and so give the impression that these are more important than structure or intellectual issues. With this method, we're in danger of producing a crop of students who write timid, bland prose that aims to avoid errors, not to take risks.
We can, however, thoroughly edit one page, or even one paragraph, indicating that the whole piece needs this level of rewriting. In this editing, we can address not only ideas, but also grammar, style, length of sentences, and issues of audience. (And, if this is the first paragraph, we can strike out phrases like "From the beginning of time," "For all of human history," "Men and women are very different," or any other wild generalization.) This mini-edit gives the student a sense of how much work the writing needs, without being overwhelming.
Asking questions, much more than marking errors, will push the student to deeper levels of thinking, to synthesizing and supporting their ideas, to developing arguments. First, we have questions we can ask ourselves. We don't have to ask all of these every time, but if we incorporate them into our thinking, they become automatic, a quick mental check-list.
(These are also the kinds of questions we can give as guidelines to peer groups.)
Individual disciplines, particularly in the sciences, may require additional questions. David Porush's extremely helpful A Short Guide to Writing about Science (HarperCollins 1995) gives, among other useful points, questions that one can ask specifically about lab reports, articles, and scientific research papers. These questions range from "Why would another researcher be interested in this work"? to "Am I describing (circle all that apply) the results of research? A new methodology? A new theory? A new interpretation of old data?" to "Have I defined my technical terms?"
With the above issues in mind, we can develop specific questions for our students. These can help them make explicit the connections that will allow a reader to follow their reasoning: "How did the logistic arrangements of the Assyrians make them the first long-range army?" or "What do your data show about the effect of the immunosuppressants on the enzymatic action?"
When we're commenting, rather than questioning, we still need to make sure students know exactly what we mean. We see our students' writing so clearly that it can be hard to remember that when we write "good point" or "unclear" we may be confusing them. The more precise we can be, the better: "Good connection between Freudianism and the Symbolists," or "Not sure how Cholly's remorse relates to the previous paragraph, or to your main idea." This kind of comments shows them what they either haven't yet thought through, or haven't yet clearly explained.
By offering accurate praise, asking a few key questions, and giving specific comments, we can challenge students to extend their own thinking. In the process, they develop skills and understanding they can transfer to their revision or to their next piece of writing. Instead of feeling discouraged, they're excited by the possibility of creating clearer and more complex work. And we too have something to be excited about: their future writing. Because, as it turns out, every writer has the capacity to do remarkable work. If we ask the right questions, we just might help our students discover that capacity.
Sarah Stone is a Lecturer in the College Writing Programs. She has taught in South Korea and Burundi and has written four ESL textbooks/workbooks. In January 2002, Doubleday will publish her first novel, The True Sources of the Nile.
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