How Can I Handle Responding to Student Writing?


Getting Started

Why include writing in my courses?

What is writing to learn?

What is writing to engage?

What is writing in the disciplines?

Useful Knowledge

What should I know about rhetorical situations?

Do I have to be an expert in grammar to assign writing?

What should I know about genre and design?

What should I know about second-language writing?

What teaching resources are available?

What should I know about WAC and graduate education?

Assigning Writing

What makes a good writing assignment?

How can I avoid getting lousy student writing?

What benefits might reflective writing have for my students?

Using Peer Review

Why consider collaborative writing assignments?

Do writing and peer review take up too much class time?

How can I get the most out of peer review?

Responding to Writing

How can I handle responding to student writing?

Sample Grading Sheets

How can writing centers support writing in my courses?

What writing resources are available for my students?

Using Technology

How can computer technologies support writing in my classes?

Designing and Assessing WAC Programs

What is a WAC program?

What designs are typical for WAC programs?

How can WAC programs be assessed?

More on WAC

Where can I learn more about WAC?

If you give WID assignments, you'll want to provide students with feedback on organization, methodology, etc., and you can easily do this by drawing on what you know as readers, researchers, and writers in your field. If you are uncomfortable commenting on proofreading and editing or stylistic concerns, then get in touch with the Writing Center or Director of Composition for other resources you can direct students to or take advantage of yourself. But editing should not be your major concern as you introduce students to the discourse of your academic community. Please see "Do I have to be an expert in grammar to assign writing?" for some tips on not marking mechanical matters, particularly on early drafts, as well as helpful advice on responding.

For commenting on writing-to-learn tasks, please see "Alternatives for Evaluating WTL Assignments."

Perhaps most important, we encourage all teachers to focus their commenting energies and to consider using a grading sheet designed to match the criteria outlined on your assignment sheet.

In this section, we discuss strategies and resources that can help you handle writing assignments, particularly early drafts of work.

Focus Your Commenting Energy

No matter how much you want to improve student writing, remember that students can only take in so much information about a draft at one time. Particularly because writing is such an egocentric activity, writers tend to feel overloaded quickly by excessively detailed feedback about their writing.

Moreover, because most writing can be considered work in progress, commenting exhaustively on every feature of a draft is counter-productive. Too many comments can make student writers feel as if the teacher is taking control of the draft and cutting off productive avenues for revision.

Focusing your energy when commenting achieves two main goals:

  • It leaves students in control of their writing so that they can consider revising—or at least learn from the experience of having written the draft.
  • It gives teachers a sense of tackling the most important elements of a draft rather than getting bogged down in detail that students might just ignore.

Typically, we recommend that teachers comment substantively on the one or two most important features of a draft, determined either by your criteria for the assignment or by the seriousness of its effect on a reader.

Use a Grading Rubric

Grading comment sheets or rubrics give teachers and students two advantages over free-form grading:

  • Grading sheets of some sort assure that teachers will give students feedback about all the major criteria they set out on the assignment sheet. Even if you decide to use a rubric that ranks students' performance on each criterion on a 1-4 scale (as Ford 2012 exemplifies), students will be able to see quickly what their strengths and weaknesses are as writers for this assignment.
  • Grading rubrics, though time-consuming to develop initially, can save teachers time in the long run, particularly if large numbers of students respond to the assignment. Even composition teachers don't comment exhaustively about each criterion for each assignment; so, too, disciplinary teachers should be aware that they can comment at some length on just one or two points (typically the major strength and the major weakness) and then rely on the rubric to respond to less crucial areas of the draft. If students are concerned about getting more feedback than the rubric provides, you can encourage them to come to your office hours or send you an e-mail query.

For more information about developing and using grading rubrics, please see the teaching guide, Teaching in the Margins, on the Writing@CSU Web site.

Beyond the Basics

Evidence from empirical studies of commenting practices (Connors & Lunsford, 1993; Greaseley & Cassidy, 2010; Stern & Solomon, 2006) consistently shows that teachers want students to focus on recurring features of good writing as appropriate for the specific context of the writing task. In writing studies, we often refer to these features as elements related to the rhetorical context. (See figure below).

Experienced writers know that all writing occurs within a communication context involving the writer, target readers, goals for the text (aka purposes), the focused topic, and specific discourse features (for instance, IMRD format, disciplinary citation practices, and even appropriate word choice options). We can flesh out the larger contextual constraints by thinking about not only what readers already know about the topic but also how a particular text fits into the existing body of texts on a topic. We can add historical constraints (for example, print or Web delivery of a document now available that were not options 10 years ago). The larger context for a document also often includes elements of urgency or the specific occasion for a text to appear now. In other words, the rhetorical context that writers work within is layered and complex, and writers must be attentive to both the goals and constraints they deal with as they construct and revise texts.

In addition to this rhetorical framework, writers and teachers know that certain features of texts make them easier or harder for readers to understand. As writers develop proficiency, they and their teachers hope to see texts drawing on those textual features more and more effectively. Across disciplines, readers identify these features as a clear focus, appropriate and relevant support for ideas, clear organization, and finally clear sentences.

If we combine, then, the key elements of rhetorical context with textual features that ease reading, we might come up with a list like the following:

Hierarchy of Rhetorical Concerns

Audience, Purpose, Occasion
Focus: Thesis, Reasons, Unity/Coherence
Development: Reasons, Evidence, Explanation
Style/Mechanics/Conventions: Readability, Care and Polish, Patterns of Error

And we could flesh out these features by asking key questions about how we understand texts:


Who is the writer's audience? Is this an academic audience? What are the expectations?


Is this piece of writing intended to inform? Analyze? Explore? Summarize? Argue?


What idea, proposal, proposition, or experience does the text take as its central concern?


How easily can the reader move from sentence to sentence, as well as from beginning to end of paragraphs, sections, and the text overall?

Is the writing organized in a coherent way?

Do transitions guide the reader through the logic of the paper?


What kinds of evidence does the audience expect? Does the context demand clarification through examples, data, etc.?

Style and Conventions

What style is appropriate for the context in terms of audience and purpose? What register or level of formality is appropriate? (For instance, can the writer use "I" in this context?)

Are there locations where the writing is hard to follow or comprehension is disrupted? If so, can I discern why? Is the problem with sentence structure or word choice?

How does this hierarchy of concerns help you as a responder to student writing? By starting higher on the hierarchy, your comments will have the greatest impact on the revisions (if you're commenting on an early draft) or on the long-term development of the writer you respond to (see Elbow, 1997; Hodges, 1997; Lunsford, 1997). Focusing on the lowest level of the hierarchy usually draws the writer's attention to a specific and local issue, not one that will help the writer improve on a larger scale. So as you think about focusing your commenting energy (in other words, choosing your battles carefully), look toward the higher levels of the hierarchy to choose those one or two features to comment on.

In this same spirit, notice that in the examples included in the additional resource section for this question the features on the rubrics begin with those highest on the hierarchy included above. Typically, rubrics move from most to least important criteria from the top to the bottom of the page, and careful ordering of criteria reinforces the hierarchy of rhetorical concerns at the same time that it helps you choose a battleground from higher on the hierarchy.

In large-scale empirical studies of teacher commentary, Connors & Lunsford (1993) and Stern & Solomon (2006) found that the most common substantive comment on student writing asked for more detailed evidence or support for points (56% of all comments other than editorial marks in the 1993 study and 43% in the 2006 study). You will be in good company, then, if you focus your feedback on similar issues in the papers you collect from students.

Unfortunately, empirical research also shows that responder feedback is often focused more narrowly and often targeted toward the lowest level of the hierarchy of rhetorical concerns. Stern & Solomon replicated the Connors & Lunsford 1988 study of all comments with remarkably similar results: 52% of papers had comments about grammar and punctuation; 49% had comments on word choice and awkward phrasing; 24% of papers had comments about spelling errors. Greaseley & Cassidy (2010) surveyed lecturers about what issues most frustrated them in student writing. In their findings, "Problems with language, grammar and expression were the most commonly reported source of frustration when marking assignments, accounting for 26% of all the comments" (178). As they further explain, at least some of the frustration expressed by survey respondents seems to derive from how easily students could address issues simply by proofreading more carefully. As Greaseley & Cassidy point out, reminding students of the frustrations readers encounter in badly edited text might help students improve this aspect of their writing.

Other empirical evidence also points to the importance of praising students' successes and efforts. Greaseley & Cassidy also asked their survey respondents to note those elements of papers that most impressed them:

What lecturers find most impressive in assignments: critical analysis, perspective and argument:
  • Analysis of reading rather than description
  • Critical debate supported with appropriate literature
  • Critical comment on the literature (author A takes this view in contrast to author B—what they both fail to account for fully is ... or—an alternative interpretation can be offered by ... or this does not account for the problematic nature of (this concept), etc.)
  • Engaging with the topic at a deeper level and clearly demonstrating an ability to see different perspectives and to be able to present these within their assignment and develop reasoned conclusions
  • Presence of voice—a sense that the author has a 'political' stance or indeed conviction. This comes through in the way arguments are constructed but also how evidence has been gathered, presented, interrogated and then evaluated. This sense of 'voice' is not always necessary as some subject matters perhaps do not call for that kind of passion. However, the better essays are usually written by those who have a clear and still developing authorial identity—some students approach essay writing holistically so everything about their process is a personal investment (182-3)

Even with clearly identified elements of success, however, multiple studies (Connors & Lunsford, 1993; Daiker, 1986; Sommers, 1982; Straub & Lunsford, 1995) show that teachers praise students relatively infrequently. Although Stern & Solomon found that 48% of their paper sample included some positive overall comment, in every specific category of commentary the negative comments outnumbered positive comments, sometimes by 2 or 3 times as many instances of negative commentary.

Bottom line in responding: take the time to praise, focus your energies on just one or two elements from high in the hierarchy of rhetorical concerns, and leave the editing to the students.

Sample Grading Sheets


Chamely,Wiik, D.M., Kaky, J.E., & Galin, J. (2012). From Bhopal to cold fusion: A case-study approach to writing assignments in honors general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 502-508.

Connors, R., & Lunsford. A. (1988). Frequency of formal errors in current college writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle do research. College Composition and Communication, 39(4), 396-409.

Connors, R.J., & Lunsford, A.A. (1993) Teachers' rhetorical comments on student papers. College Composition and Communication, 44(2), 200-223.

Daiker, D. (1989). "Learning to Praise." In C.M. Hanson (Ed.), Writing and Response: Theory, Practice, and Research; pp. 103-113. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Elbow, P. (1997). "Grading Student Writing: Making It Simpler, Fairer, Clearer." In M.D. Sorcinelli & P. Elbow (Eds.), Writing to learn: strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines; pp.127-140. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ford, J.D. (2004). Knowledge transfer across disciplines: Tracking rhetorical strategies from a technical communication classroom to an engineering classroom. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 47(4), 301-315.

Greasley, P., & Cassidy, A. (2010). When it comes round to marking assignments: how to impress and how to 'distress' lecturers. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(2), 173-189.

Hodges, E. (1997). "Negotiating the margins: some principles for responding to our students' writing, some strategies for helping students read our comments." In M.D. Sorcinelli & P. Elbow (Eds.), Writing to learn: strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines; pp. 77-89. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kreth, M., Crawford, J.A., Taylor, M., & Brockman, E. (2010). Situated assessment: Limitations and promises. Assessing Writing, 15(1), 40-59.

Leydens, J., & Santi, P. (2006). Optimizing faculty use of writing as a learning tool in geoscience education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54(4), 491-502.

Lunsford, R.F. (1997). "When less is more: Principles for responding in the disciplines." In M.D. Sorcinelli & P. Elbow (Eds.), Writing to learn: strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines; pp. 91-104. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Polizzotto, K., & Ortiz, M.T. (2008). Design projects in human anatomy & physiology. American Biology Teacher, 70(4), 230-234.

Shaver, L. (2011). Using key messages to explore rhetoric in professional writing. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 25(2), 219-236.

Sommers, N. (1982). Responding to student writing. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 148-156.

Stern, L.A., & Solomon, A. (2006). Effective faculty feedback: the road less traveled. Assessing Writing, 11(1), 22-41.

Straub, R., & Lunsford, R.F. (1995). Twelve Readers Reading: Responding to College Student Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Related Resource

For more information on grading criteria, see "What makes a good assignment?"