1. You may be getting tuned out. **
You may have asked yourself the question at some point: “Are my students even reading my comments?” And there’s a lot of scholarly debate about this point. Despite what popular opinion may be among professors, research seems to show that most students want feedback and tend to read and follow feedback if it’s useful and there’s something at stake to integrating that feedback. However, if students get the sense that the feedback isn’t beneficial or is too difficult to incorporate, students tend to tune out. You’re too talented to be playing to an empty room. You wouldn’t spend 20 minutes lecturing to a classroom of students who’ve put their headphones on. Don’t spend 20 minutes making comments that won’t be read. If students aren’t reading and revising based on your comments, we recommend both altering the type of feedback you’re providing and finding ways to incorporate your feedback into assignments so that students have to respond to your comments (more on that later).
2. Writing too many comments makes it difficult for many students to prioritize the major issues with their papers.
One of the temptations that professors have when responding to student work is to try to correct everything. But this can be counterproductive in a lot of ways, as well as a major waste of your valuable time. Pointing out two hundred flaws in a paper, down to the level of the comma, might be what two of your students really want and respond well to, but if your other thirty students don’t even look at your comments because they’re overwhelmed, is that the best possible use of your time as an educator?
3. Your time is much more valuable to your students as a discipline expert than as a writing tutor.
The university didn’t hire you to be a grammarian or prose stylist. They hired you for your disciplinary expertise. This point is really important. We consult with a lot of professors who see it as their duty to help students master every element of writing, and that instinct is what drives them to be educators, and usually very good educators if they feel this way. However, it might be useful to think of this issue in terms of where your value to the student is highest. It makes no sense to have a highly-trained neuroscientist spending large chunks of their time teaching elements of grammar or prose style. The same goes for a microbiologists, historians, or criminologists. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address common writing issues that tend to afflict student writing (more on that shortly), but you certainly shouldn’t let editorial-level issues impact your primary focus.
4. Your students probably aren’t publishing their work, and even you need a copy editor when you do.
We academics have such a strong bias for reading highly-literate, heavily-edited writing that it often comes as a shock to the system when we see work that’s developmental and not fully formed. But try to remember how much work goes into your own writing to make it that refined. What students write is developmental work, and as much as it may pain us to see comma splices, poor word choice, and clunky prose without addressing every last flaw, addressing every flaw is a waste of your time and won’t help your student’s development in most cases. Try to remember just how many mistakes you correct in your own work over a much longer period of time than your students usually have to produce their work.
5. You won’t be there to edit for them when it counts.
When you edit student work, you’re not teaching them as much as doing their work for them. The old adage about giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish is useful to think about here. Unless they’re already expert writers, which they’re probably not, your students need to learn how to write for themselves. Don’t be their editor, be their educator.
And you’re probably thinking, “But if I don’t correct their mistakes, how will they ever learn? What should I do about things like sloppy grammar and poorly organized work then?”
Here are a few options that will generally be much more useful to your students than spending hours draining your red pen dry.
1. Tell them about it!
This idea may seem contrary to our previous point about it making no sense for an organic chemistry professor or a neuroscientist to spend a lot of their time teaching or even talking about grammar. To be fair, it is a difficult and complex problem. But it’s an important one. If a student has issues with grammar and style, we’re not advocating for you to give them a B, ignore it, and shrug. Let the student know. You’re right to think that your students can’t correct problems they don’t know about. They can’t. So make the student aware in a general sense. Tell them, “Hey, you’ve got some very good ideas, but your writing style and grammar have issues that you should work to correct if you want your ideas to shine through.”
There are useful resources you can and should recommend to your students, and we suggest you familiarize yourself with some and recommend them. In addition to the many free online grammar websites and classes, there may be courses in your college or university’s course catalog that you can recommend. You can also recommend the campus’s writing center for students who may need a little extra help. Or if you’re old school, like me, you can always recommend a book like my quick and trusty grammar guide. Choose a couple options and endorse them. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t just ignore the problem, because you’re doing your students no favors that way. You will do them a favor by making them conscious of the issue, and a good way to do this is to…
2. Discuss grammar and writing in the context of image management. ***
There’s a lot of debate in academia about whether grammar should even be addressed in college writing. You’re welcome to disagree with our stance, but in the professional world, grammar is one of the most important elements of a piece of professional writing. Workplace research consistently shows that workers judge their colleagues’ ideas, abilities, and competence based on their writing, and writing with obvious and basic flaws reflects poorly on the writer. This isn’t a question of what’s fair or not fair or how the world should be, this is the world you’re preparing your students for.
Your students’ future writing will come to represent a major part of their professional image. Every composition your students write in a professional context will be like a walking job interview for colleagues, clients, and employers to judge them by.
Encourage your students to start dressing for success in college now so that their writing gets them taken seriously in the workplace later.
3. Don’t identify obvious flaws, highlight them. ****
Studies have shown that when professors identify the presence of a mistake, students are actually very good at finding and correcting their writing mistakes on their own. If you highlight a sentence or an element of a sentence that has a grammatical flaw in it, it’s both less time consuming for you and more educational for them to go back through the paper and fix their own mistakes. So if you have the time and you just can’t stand the idea of letting a minor mistake slide by without some intervention, don’t correct, highlight.
4. Identify 2-4 of the most important elements the student could address to improve their drafts the most.
Your students’ brains are a lot like your brain. They can only do one thing at a time, and that goes for learning lessons too. Instead of commenting on every flaw in a student’s paper, we recommend triaging a paper in the same way a medic might triage a patient at an accident scene. What are the critical issues that your student can fix to keep their writing from being dead on arrival? You wouldn’t want to see a paramedic applying a band-aid while their patient was struggling to breathe. Get your students focused on the major issues in their writing rather than the superficial ones.
5. Think about assignment design to set your feedback up for success.
This one goes to our very first point about students not reading feedback or not acting on it even if they do. If you find that students aren’t reading the feedback you offer, you can (and probably should) incentivize them to do so. You could offer to raise grades on resubmissions, or you could require resubmissions before awarding the grade at all. You could also write this issue directly into your rubric, as in, “- 10 points for professor feedback that remains unaddressed in draft 2.”
That should help ensure that the sage advice you’ve spent your valuable time offering actually gets both read and heeded in some fashion.
So that’s it. Five reasons not to edit, and five better strategies to help both reduce your grading time and make it more useful to your students. We hope that these ideas and techniques help to make your life easier and your teaching more effective and enjoyable for both you and your students.