When Commenting on Student Writing, Use This Shortcut with Extreme Care
By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center
I’ve encountered both good and not so good practices for tutoring and teaching writing over the past twenty years, and the difference between the two often comes down to how to best use a tool.
There is one tool in particular that I could not do asynchronous paper review half as well without. For me, the brand has changed over the years as I began with Typeitin by Wavget then used Spartan Multi Clipboard and now use TextExpander by Smile, but all do the same thing: paste previously written comments on a paper. I’d recommend any of these clipboard programs to any tutor or instructor who regularly reads and responds to student writing online.
When so many students new to academic style need help with the same matters of formatting and citation, essay structure, paragraph development, and sentence grammar, a clipboard can save hours of typing the same feedback over and over. Using a prewritten clip also guarantees that the feedback on the fifteenth paper in need of page formatting or source integration is as thoughtful and detailed as it was on the first paper. With a few key strokes, you can insert a clearly written response that more than draws attention to an area needing attention but also suggests a strategy, provides an example, and/or recommends a resource to help the student take the next step, so the student not only understands the feedback but knows what to do with it or at least where to begin.
Yet as wonderful as ready-made, well-written comments are, feedback also has to be relevant, useful, and personal to be substantive and pedagogically sound. Clipboard programs are no shortcut for close reading and critical thinking, nor are they a substitute for the reader-writer connection paramount to tutoring, teaching, and learning writing. Clips only work well in tandem with personalized feedback.
When using a clipboard to comment on papers, consider the following best practices:
1. Reread every comment you insert, every time. Comments need to accurately identify and explain the issue in the highlighted text. If you insert a comment for a fragment, and the comment describes the issue as a clause missing a subject or part of the predicate, but the text being highlighted by the comment has both a subject and predicate and is a fragment because a subordinator is making it a dependent clause, you’ll want to modify the comment or create a new comment for your clipboard that addresses the specific issue as exemplified by the student’s writing.
2. Use the clip only as a template. Modify the pasted clip by adding specifics and deleting unneeded details to ensure your comment is useful. If you have a clip on how to format an in-text citation that explains the elements needed, punctuation rules, and variations between quotations versus paraphrases, and the student has only misplaced a period, after pasting in the clip, delete the extra information. Further, praise the student for his or her strong grasp of citation format!
3. Use the specific language from the student’s text. If you have a clip to help a student identify and edit inconsistencies with grammar such as subject-verb agreement, your comment may only be useful if you also indicate which word is the subject and which is the verb in the highlighted passage. Don’t assume the student will know. Here’s an example:
Original Clip: Since the subject for the plural verb “___” is the singular noun “___,” the subject and verb do not “agree,” making your point unclear. As you edit, you’ll want to give subject-verb agreement extra attention to make sure both are singular or both are plural. You’ll find a terrific review of subject-verb agreement in the recorded KUWC workshop here. I hope you find it helpful as you revise and edit your paper, ____!
Personalized Clip: Since the subject for the plural verb “come” is the singular noun “the nurse,” the subject and verb do not “agree,” making your point unclear. As you edit, you’ll want to give subject-verb agreement extra attention to make sure both are singular or both are plural. However, sometimes when a prepositional phrase, such as “on nights” in the highlighted sentence, comes between the subject and verb, it can make the subject harder to identify. You’ll find a terrific review of subject-verb agreement that also addresses the use of prepositional phrases in the recorded KUWC workshop here. I hope you find it helpful as you revise and edit your paper, Julie!
4. Be discerning. Once you have a large database of clips, it can be a little too easy to insert comments; however, too much feedback, even when well written and personalized, can hinder more than help. Comments should address the questions or concerns stated by student in the message with the paper submission, your sense of the highest order concerns for the purpose of revision first and editing second, and what is appropriate given your assessment of this student’s writing skills in the context of the class the paper is for. Ask, would detailed comments on citation format be necessary for a 100 level IT course? Probably not. Would a long explanation on how to write a thesis statement by useful to a graduate psychology student writing a case study assessment? It’s unlikely.
5. Finally, back up your clipboard program regularly. Developing a good database of clips takes time. I know because in the seven years I’ve been tutoring online, I’ve had to start over a few too many times. Computer and hard drive crashes no longer have to take your clips with them, however. Use the backup options of the clipboard program you choose, save your good work to the cloud, and enjoy the time you save by using a clipboard by shifting your focus to personalizing your already well-crafted comments.