Dr. Claire Coleman Lamonica is the Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Illinois State University, but most of her 40-year career as an educator has been spent teaching writing and preparing writing teachers.  She is currently a Visiting Fellow, Educational Development, at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Windsor (October 24-December 17, 2015). On November 27th, Claire led the GATA Networker in a workshop on “minimal marking.” What follows below is her reflection on that workshop and the ideas at its core.

A colleague of mine at Illinois State University likes to say that “school shouldn’t be a place where students go to watch teachers work hard,” and I couldn’t agree more. It’s not that I don’t think instructors need to work hard.  Teaching is, by definition, hard work. But all too often when I walk down the halls of our university and peek into classrooms, it looks to me as if the only person in the room who’s working hard is the instructor, and there’s something wrong with that picture. There’s something wrong because learning is also, by definition, hard work, and we do our students a serious disservice if we accept responsibility for the entirety of the teaching-learning process without engaging them as equal partners.

Another place this disparity is often evident is in the papers many of my colleagues return to their students. As one who has devoted the bulk of her career to the teaching of writing and the preparation of writing teachers, I cringe when I see a paper returned to a student covered in red ink … even when both the “red” and the “ink” are metaphorical.  (In other words, the ink can be any color … and it may not be “ink” at all if the paper was submitted and evaluated online.) It’s not that I don’t understand and respect the incredibly good intentions that underlie these massive amounts of marking. I know that we see marking student work as an integral part of the teaching-learning process, and I agree that it is … or at least that it can be. But I also know that there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to the quantity of comments and marks we make on student work.

Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain

Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain

I’m reminded, for example, of a paper that my own daughter brought home one weekend several years ago. She needed to revise the text and submit another draft upon her return to her university, but she was almost literally paralyzed in that effort by the sheer volume of (in this case) purple ink that had been poured out on her text in the form of interlinear, marginal, and end comments … not to mention a vast array of lines, arrows, and editing symbols. It seemed that there wasn’t a word, much less a sentence or a paragraph, that her instructor—a graduate student at the university—hadn’t commented on. My heart went out to my daughter, who, handing me her paper, wailed, “I don’t even know where to start!” But it also went out to her instructor, who must have invested an incredible amount of time (not to mention ink) in those comments … which were having pretty much the opposite effect from the one he had intended. This was an instructor who was putting so much effort into his teaching that he wasn’t considering the nature and process of my daughter’s learning … and her development as a writer.

“Writing development,” says Nancy Sommers, “is painstakingly slow because academic writing is not a mother tongue …. The movement from novice to expert looks like one step forward, one step back, one compositional element mastered while other elements fall away. If comments play a role in writing development …, they do so because they teach one lesson at a time. … The whole enterprise of commenting becomes more interesting and less overwhelming when we ask ourselves: What single lesson do I want to convey … through my comments? And how will my comments teach this lesson?” (Sommers xii)

In a recent workshop for GAs and TAs at the University of Windsor (“Minimal Marking: Get the Most Bang for Your Buck in Marking Student Papers”), we focused specifically on the challenges presented by student papers rife with “surface-level” problems; that is, problems with grammar, mechanics, and sentence structure. Marking papers such as these can be particularly distressing because (a) we feel like university students should have already mastered these basic conventions, (b) it’s time-consuming, and (c) it distracts us from responding to students’ insights and ideas.

Faced with these reasons for minimizing the time and effort spent on this enterprise, we turned to a seminal article from the field of composition and rhetoric, “Minimal Marking,” by Richard H. Haswell. In the article, Haswell describes an approach he had been taking to the marking of surface errors:  “All surface mistakes in a student paper are left totally unmarked within the text. … Each of these mistakes is indicted only with a check in the margin by the line in which it occurs.  A line with two checks by it … means the presence of two errors, no more, within the boundary of that line” (Haswell 601). Thus, a line of type that contains a misspelled word and an incorrectly used semi-colon would be marked by two checks in the margin at the end of the line of type.

When Haswell returns the papers to his students, he does so without any indication of their grades.  Instead, he instructs students to go into their papers and—individually or in consultation with their peers—find and correct the errors indicated by the check marks. Only after all errors have been corrected does Haswell release the students’ grades. It’s a remarkably simple and effective system.  Not only did he discover that “students will correct on their own sixty to seventy percent of their errors” (601), but over time, the rate of surface errors in student papers declined “from 4.6 errors per 100 words to 2.5 (52%)” (603). What’s more, it puts the burden of the work of correcting student error where it can do the most good: on the students.  “Crudely put,” says Haswell, “less work for the teacher, more gain for the student” (603).

Toward the end of his article, Haswell speculates that it might be possible to apply this minimal marking approach “to other aspects of writing” (604), and while there is little hard evidence for the specific approach he suggests, which would include finding “the minimal functional mark” (604) that would signify kinds of problems (missing transitions, insufficient evidence, logical fallacies, etc.), there is plenty of evidence that supports, as Nancy Sommers suggests, identifying the most important lesson(s) to be learned by a specific student engaging in a specific  writing assignment and devoting the bulk of our time and effort to addressing that lesson, often in marginal or end comments. In either case, the goal is the same: minimize marking; maximize learning. Let’s make school a place where teachers go to watch students work hard!

Works Cited

Haswell, Richard H. “Minimal Marking.” College English 45.6 (1983): 600-04. Print.

Sommers, Nancy I. Responding to Student Writers. Boston: Bedford/st Martin’s, 2013. Print.


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