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a question for the crowd

Stuck under a pile of my own grading, but I have a question for you: do you think the final comment on an essay is an essential piece of the puzzle?

I comment expensively throughout essays, because I’ve always felt it’s more useful for students to have concrete feedback, where I say, “Hey, this thing you are doing RIGHT HERE is good/bad/effective/ineffective.”  I write a lot.  I have a particular felt-tip pen I like for marking (in orange or in lime green), and I will use up one pen per round of essays.  No shortage of qualitative feedback, is what I’m saying.  Students always comment on how much they like and appreciate my in-esssay feedback, and students who read it and work with it do tend to improve.  I’m insecure about 90% of my life as a teacher, but my commenting is solid.

I also use a mini-rubric that I learned in grad school on all essays: TOGS, which stands for thought, organization, grammar, style.  Students get a mark for each piece of that puzzle and then an overall mark.

Here’s my confession: I think my final comments are worthless.  Either I rehash the commentary in the paper or I have nothing else to add.  I realized last time around that almost every essay starts with “You have good ideas, but…” or “This is an interesting essay…”  So I told myself I would nix the final comment, and encourage students to pay attention to the far more useful comments within the text.

Except, I can’t.  I can’t stop writing these meaningless at worst and repetitive at best comments at the end of student papers.  I’m not convinced of the pedagogy of these final comments, and I know students only improve if they engage with the in-essay questions and comments.  So what the hell is my deal?  When did I get married to the final comment?  And why is it that even when we think our pedagogical choices through and feel like we have sound reasons for the choices we make, it remains so hard to let go of the received wisdom of all the teachers who have taught us before?


13 Responses to “a question for the crowd”

  1. Good points all — I think the tendency is for students to go to the end and read ONLY the final comments (since it’s often near their grade for the essay). I need to be better at in-text comments. Thanks for making me think about it further!

    Posted by seaphotog | February 28, 2011, 7:24 pm
  2. I agree about students skipping to the end, especially since that’s what I did, hehe!

    That said, if you’re commenting so extensively in-text, I don’t see the purpose of just rewriting all of that at the end, even (and maybe especially) if it’s just for student convenience.

    My preference (and granted, I teach composition) is to comment in-text on things like mechanics, claim/evidence/analysis relationships, organization, and style. In my end comments, I usually address how well the student has achieved the purpose of the assignment and/or what revisions need to be made concerning content.

    Posted by Ben V. | February 28, 2011, 8:12 pm
  3. In some ways I know what you mean about the redundancy of final comments, but I use them as a place to summarize and distill my margin notes. I find that sometimes my comments throughout students’ papers aren’t necessarily logically-related or that there are so many of them that students could potentially become overwhelmed by the amount of information when they’re trying to revise. So I find it really valuable to write a short note in which I give the writer the gist of my comments: “you did this well, but you still need to work on this.” I also find it helpful in terms of grading; I can use my final comments in order to explain, more cogently than scattered margin notes could, the grade they’re being given.

    That said, writing the final comment seems like a lot of work at times, so I empathize with your ambivalence. I also feel oddly bereft when I try to forgo them.

    Posted by Aviva | February 28, 2011, 8:37 pm
  4. I tend to go the opposite direction when grading. Sometimes my comments in the paper are scarce and I save up all my thoughts for the final comment. I do think students just skip to the back and read the grade and the final comment. So few of them take the time to go through each stroke of the pen to understand their mistakes.

    You end of paper comments aren’t useless. I took a “shortcut” method once of never saying “You have a good paper … ” or “good job, but … ” and I got zinged because I was too harsh on them. They need that reassurance. It may seem worthless to you but to them, I think the compliment sandwich gives them that little bit of self-confidence they need to survive.

    Posted by Jessica | March 1, 2011, 4:16 am
  5. I see the final comments as a conclusion that is built on the rest of the comments. Would you find it acceptable if your students said that they didn’t write a conclusion because it would just “rehash the commentary in the paper” or because by the end of their paper they “have nothing else to add”?

    Posted by John | March 1, 2011, 4:27 am
  6. I came upon this post as I am writing final comments for a stack of essays. I’ve always been a big end note person, but as I’ve been teaching more, I find myself writing less there and letting my marginalia do most of the work. This is especially true for intro classes, comp classes, and other classes where students are there because they have to be, not necessary there because they are interested in the subject matter or continuing in the field.

    But for my upper-level English classes, I still try to write extensive end notes because I think (hope) those students are more likely to read, understand, and act on them. My sense of my composition students is that if they see a “B” on an essay, the vast majority of them will file it away and perhaps glance at my 500/600 words without engaging with them. That’s why I’ve stopped.

    But upper-level students are more engaged, not only in the subject matter but in their writing as well. So I see the value in a substantial end note. In those, I try to zoom out from my very specific comments on the essay and give them a broader perspective of the essay and their writing, to point out general strengths and weaknesses, and to talk to them like writers rather than students. Maybe this last point is why I still do it. I always appreciated end notes on my writing as a student because the professor seems to be talking to me not as an evaluator but as a fellow thinker. So I guess that’s what I try to do.

    Wow. I had lots to say. Maybe that right there’s the reason I can’t let the damn end note go.

    Posted by SW | March 1, 2011, 6:37 am
  7. I think the final comment is a good place to summarize the in-text comments, note patterns, and reiterate what they’ve done well in addition to what still needs work.

    By the way, I have to say that I love the typo of “comment expensively” for “comment extensively”! It works on such nice levels — especially at the speed at which you’re going through pens.

    I’ve drifted in the other direction. I’m accepting papers electronically, which means using in-text comments is very time-consuming, so I’ve been using instead a very detailed rubric and extensive summary comments, with comments on particular points in the essay noted either by quoting a passage or by keying to page and paragraph. However, I’m not at the moment teaching first-year composition, and I think when I do so again, I’ll either need to go back to taking papers on paper, or use the reviewing toolbar for in-text comments. I do use this function now for papers that have extensive lower-order problems.

    Posted by Heide | March 1, 2011, 7:55 am
  8. As a grad student both giving and receiving comments on papers regularly, I really like end-of-paper comments. When I get them, it’s useful for finding patterns and looking at my progress paper-to-paper over a year or so. When grading my students, I find that it saves me time if they come in to talk to me about their class performance or why they got a particular grade. I can’t remember the details of each student’s paper, and it’s much faster to glance at the final comments than to page through the whole thing. Usually those summary comments are enough to jog my memory.

    Posted by Beth | March 1, 2011, 12:33 pm
  9. I’m with you on the final comment. I did that for a whole semester of exams last year, and finally realized that I was either skimping on the in-text commenting to have something to say at the end, or using the same vague phrases over and over. I’ve decided to hold final summary comments for only the very neediest essays – those where I need more room than the margins allow. Otherwise my job is to give them feedback on what they’ve written, not re-write it for them.

    Posted by Kirstin | March 1, 2011, 1:54 pm
  10. I think the final comments can add real value. If you use a lot of marginal notes/corrections, it can seems to students that technical aspects of the paper are more important than they are. The final comments can be useful for focusing on what students did well overall and what they need to do next time (or in revisions) to improve their grades.

    They are a lot of extra work, though.

    Posted by Rachelle | March 3, 2011, 9:12 pm
  11. I suggest trying harder at getting rid of the final comment, especially since you put a lot into the commentary throughout! It will actually force students to thoroughly read all of your detailed comments rather than skipping to the end.

    Great blog by the way!

    Posted by Dr. Cynicism | March 14, 2011, 7:39 am
  12. I just finished grading my students’ midterm papers and due to time constraints I opted out of the final comment blurb for the first time and I now prefer this method. However, I do think the end-comment vs. margin comments is a matter of style. I communicate best with in-line comments so the end-comment blurb was always a bit redundant for me. But a colleague of mine uses shorthand in her margins and summarizes the comments of the paper in her final blurb.

    Sidenote: I LOVE the TOGS idea. I use a mini-rubric that accounts for critical reasoning, organization, and grammar/spelling, but I think TOGS is a better system, I’m totally stealing it!

    Posted by The Disgruntled Academic | March 23, 2011, 6:43 am
  13. I had a similar struggle with end notes, but discovered that they became more meaningful when I gave them a sense of direction– looking forward to the next assignment or project. I used in-text notes to comment and highlight issues specific to the particular paper, and my end note to briefly summarize and then begin making suggestions for areas of focus in the next draft/paper/semester. It also helped that I did most of my grading digitally so I could flip back and review last paper’s recommendations, but many of my students commented that the forward looking notes helped them tie papers together and see their progress across the course of the semester

    Posted by ApDubs | March 26, 2012, 12:37 pm

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