Essay marking advice
March 30, 2009 4:41 AM   Subscribe

TAs, profs, teachers, markers: give me your best stock phrases for essay comments.

I’m a TA in English and I have a stack of essays coming my way today from my early modern literature class. I’ve been marking these students for the whole school year and I’m sure I’ve repeated my standard essay phrases in my comments at the end to many of them. I use the “shit sandwich” method: start off with something nice, then give criticism of the essay, then end with something nice. It’s not so difficult with the essays that are, say, 78% or higher, but for the middling essays, especially those in the 60s, it’s difficult sometimes to find anything kind to say about their work – it’s not bad, but there’s nothing really fantastic there either. I usually say something very general like “You have some interesting ideas here” or “you make some good points here” at the beginning and then launch into a “However…” in the next sentence. At the end of my comments, I usually say “Good job” or something to that effect for any essay above 72% (usually where the average hits); for those lower than that, I usually suggest that they come see me if they want to talk about this essay in order to improve for the next. But as this is the last assignment before the exam, the latter option is now off the table. Help me expand my repertoire of comments so my students don’t think I’m simply recycling the same comments over and over again!
posted by pised to Education (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'll think of more later... but my favorite nice/PLEASE EXPAND comment was always "good start, but i need to hear more"
posted by hellogoodbye at 4:50 AM on March 30, 2009

Well, as a former university student, I dislike the "shit sandwich" approach. It's a bit of one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away and it removes value from the positive things you say (and definitely stink of meaningless of cliche).

As it is the last essay, could you possibly summarize how you think this person has progressed over course? Even if they have been consistently mediocre, at least they've been consistent? Or even if this is still mediocre, can you as their TA detect some improvement? I would have appreciated that since my prof knew nothing about me except my final grade and maybe my name. Maybe even a "good luck in future courses" (although, not if they did really bad and it comes off sarcastic)

When you say, "you make some interesting ideas here" it would help if you are specific and point out which points you're talking about and most importantly, why did you find them interesting? That I find is much more helpful than a small ego boost before the great fall.

Also, I'm sure it would still help to offer you time before the exam for any last minute guidance you could give. (unless you are also super busy with exams).

I think it's great that you're making an effort to be a good TA, so few do.
posted by like_neon at 4:59 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

What I really appreciated this year in taking an distance-ed course was the TA giving suggestions on how to improve specific points, instead of just a generic "good essay, watch your spelling" or something like that.

"This idea is really interesting - I like how you mention [concept X] and reference it to [event Y]. You could have also considered adding in a bit of analysis about [person Z] and how that would have been relevant."

This, to me, shows you actually read the damn essay, which matters more than you'd expect. This would also be a good model for constructive criticism - don't just say why they did it badly, but explain how it could have been done better with specific examples.
posted by Phire at 5:28 AM on March 30, 2009

Be specific. Anything else doesn't help me as a student figure out what you wanted or what I could improve. So these canned phrases? Not helpful. "You have good ideas" is useless because, hey, I know *I* think they're good ideas - which bit did you respond to?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:36 AM on March 30, 2009

I used to be a TA for a public speaking course. That's it own delightful kind of hell, listening to thirty-three speech virgins deliver five amateur speeches per course per semester. After a while I decided that the best way for me to give feedback was to make a simple for with my criteria on it. (Well-researched, well-argued, interesting topic, well-organized, well-written, well-presented) and then give feedback in each area. I didn't bother trying to start and end with good points, I just worked through the form, giving my suggestions in each area. For truly bad efforts, there were a ton of suggestions to give, but the form lends the appearance of greater objectivity. Students seemed to take it better than if I had given the very same feedback without the template. Because I was also forcing myself to be more specific, the cliche level dropped considerably.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:05 AM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

simple form, that is
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:06 AM on March 30, 2009

Pointing out instances of passive voice were helpful for me.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:22 AM on March 30, 2009

Are you putting short comments throughout the paper to show the specific areas that need improvement, in addition to a few sentences at the end? I always found that it was important to do both in order to really teach them how to improve - lots of students don't know what passive voice is unless you point it out specifically. If a student has tons of grammar or structural mistakes throughout, one time-saver is to just correct the first page.

But overall, I think it's fine to reuse trite leading phrases like "good job" or "interesting, but..." as long as you follow them with specific reactions or advice.
posted by susanvance at 7:33 AM on March 30, 2009

Former English TA here (and heading into round 2 this fall, god help me). I know the exact frustration that you're talking about. Sometimes, it's really difficult to find something constructive to say about an essay. When it's a literature essay, I've found that when I have a really hard time making comments, it's often because the argument isn't that great/inspiring. I come up against a feeling of "so what?" or "why do I care?" In the end, though, I think that's helpful information in and of itself.

I find it very helpful to be extremely concrete. For example, as you're going through the essay, sometimes it's easy to speed by stuff the student is getting right because it seems second nature to us. If they chose the right place to pull out a quote from the text in order to illustrate their point, that's positive. "You chose a really great moment to pull out of the text in order to make this argument." Even broad organizational elements can be turned into a positive comment. "I like the way you've structured this essay; the progression of thought does a really great job of building on your thesis." Hell, sometimes even having a clear thesis is cause for celebration!

I guess my basic point is that it's always easier to find concrete places in the essay that go well, even if you have to look at the really small/obvious stuff, than it is to make a stock comment bend to every individual. Your constructive criticism is still there to tell them where they go wrong/where they can improve. And remember: no matter how helpful you want these comments to be, the vast majority of the students are going to glance at them and then focus on the grade. Unless you require a revision, most students don't actually care all that much about what you have to say. It's sad, but it's true. The ones that do care will seek you out.

Oh, and Postroad, your comment is entirely unhelpful. Many of us in academia do consider teaching to be an integral part of our career, not something that's distracting us from porn and TV. If you don't have anything applicable to add to the conversation, don't clutter up the thread.
posted by theantikitty at 7:33 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

The best comment I ever got on a paper was in response to a technically well-written but probably rather boring art history essay. I didn't put a whole lot of thought into or try to do anything interesting, so my TA closed out her comments with, "Writing is like ice skating -- you went with the safe routine. Next time, try for the triple lutz!"
posted by natabat at 7:47 AM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

What has helped me is to use a combination of three things when I respond to student work: 1) comments and corrections in the paper itself and its margins, 2) a grading rubric with point allocations for specific requirements, and 3) a brief final comment at the bottom of the rubric.

When writing the final comment, I try to identify the things that, if the student bothered to address them, would have the greatest positive impact on his/her writing. Since the specifics are addressed in the body of the paper and in the rubric, I find that I don't have to use my final comment as some sort of justification for the grade itself.

I don't think sugar coating or glad handing has much value in paper comments. I try not to be excessively negative, but it would be disingenuous to make some sweeping statement about "good points" and then slap a 60% on at the end. If I can tell that the student had some enthusiasm for the subject, or some deeply personal (even if irrelevant) connection to the work, I mention it, of course. Specific advice on which areas are most problematic (e.g. documentation, argument, some specific problem with grammar), as others have noted, is far more valuable.
posted by wheat at 8:26 AM on March 30, 2009

Hey — occasional Philosophy TA here, not English, but your dilemma sounds familiar.

The way I look at it is, you don't have to praise everyone, but you have to make it clear you're taking everyone seriously. Really force yourself to assume that everyone's smart, everyone has their own ideas they want to express, everyone wants to do well in the class, and they're all just struggling with different parts of that process.

(Of course, those assumptions aren't always true — especially the part about wanting to do well — but it's hard to judge from a kid's writing whether they're a brilliant slacker or a highly motivated but technically awful writer or what. Just give them all the benefit of the doubt and move on.)

The thing about assuming everyone wants to write well is, it gives you a convenient way to frame your responses: you're giving advice on how to reach that goal. No thesis whatsoever? Rather than "This essay has no thesis statement. -10." you can say something like "Hey, it looks like you're having trouble finding something to write about. Here's what I do in that situation." Decent thesis, lousy support? "You've got a point here, but you're not doing it justice. Here's some ways you can be more convincing." Good structure, boring topic? "Looks like you've got the hang of this. Next time don't be afraid to try something more controversial — here's some questions to think about if you want to push this farther."
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:30 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

My favorite constructive comment from an undergrad professor on a paper was concise and spoke volumes. It wouldn't have worked if I didn't already know that he respected my work and ability, however. Next to a baroque monstrosity of a sentence where my rhetorical reach exceeded my grasp and I even stooped to use the word "heretofore," my professor left a single word in the margin, in loopy script with every serif swirled into a huge, gaudy curlicue. That word was "Barf."
posted by dr. boludo at 9:10 AM on March 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: To be clear, I'm looking for the "bread" of the shit sandwich -- I have no problems with the "shit" part. I give lots of suggestions and specifics in the main comments, which usually take up about a page of handwriting on the Works Cited page. I'm also noting "good!", "awk.", the dreaded passive voice (which is my pet peeve), etc. throughout the essay. I actually quite enjoy marking (and I've been doing it for a long time now), but I absolutely dread the bread part of the comments. So basically I want ways into my criticism of the essay and ways out.

Thanks to everyone so far!
posted by pised at 9:21 AM on March 30, 2009

Former TA here: I always think that it's good to write "good point" when a student has some insight into the matter at hand. Then you can always extrapolate from there, by saying things like "I would like to see you explore this more (who, why, what, when etc.)" Or when they've fully looked at one aspect and not others say "You should use this approach throughout" or even "less of this" (draw an arrow to a bad bit and later on "more of this" (draw arrow to good bit) then explain why. I really try to be as constructive as possible with criticism. Sometimes when things are factually incorrect that isn't possible, but when it comes to matters of forming arguments, writing style and the general form of the essay I really do my best to explain why I don't like one bit and why I like another.
posted by ob at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2009

I only TA'd for a few years, but honestly I never worried too much about the "bread" parts. If the paper is shite it is shite and no amount of nice comments is going to change that.

Something along the lines of:

"I'm really trying to find something good to say about this essay, but am having a hard time of it. If you care about getting anything other than a D (many students are perfectly happy with a D on a paper and a C in the class if you are teaching a gen ed requirement) you should be [doing all the constructive advice I am giving you] and getting help from the writing center/your professor on future papers."

If there is one good paragraph or one good idea you can bring that up and say why specifically it is good, but if there is nothing... well what can you do?

But then again I found TA'ing to be a very frustrating and soul crushing job so you might want to take my advice with a grain of salt.
posted by ephemerista at 10:02 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Current TA here. I mentored with two different experienced TAs before I was on my own. One used a very specific rubric, only grading on specific items (even grammatical items); another used the "shit sandwich" method. Grading under either method was problematic for me because my students weren't showing any improvement over the course of the semester. Under the "shit sandwich" method, students seemed to focus on the positive and seemed unaware of how problematic their problems really were.

So now, on my own, I focus on giving clear, specific criticisms. When something is working well, I'll underline it and say so, but otherwise I focus almost entirely on areas where the students need to improve, be they higher or lower order paper issues. This means that I spend much more time grading problematic papers, but, frankly, those are the students that need the most attention, anyway.

So if your students aren't improving, you might consider discarding the bread of the shit sandwich entirely.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:23 AM on March 30, 2009

Sometimes I integrate my bread/shit, particularly on the lower end of the grading scale. These tend to be papers which are overly descriptive and not very analytical (and usually poorly structured). Using very concrete examples, I can comment (along these lines) that they described/raised some important something (issues? ideas? topic? etc.), but that in order for that to really shine it needs to be developed analytically (significance? placed in disciplinary/historical/theoretical context? linked to course themes? what did other academic sources contribute to that fascinating bit?) so that we can really see the importance of x (what they did well), and that all of that needs to be presented in a logical progression so that we can really see all the developments of x. YMMV.
posted by kch at 1:07 PM on March 30, 2009

I know how you feel, but after your clarification midway through the thread, I started thinking that the solution might be to just accept that you're going to be using some stale bread. Since you make an effort to write marginal comments that deal with concrete examples (things they did well, specific problems), I don't see much of a problem with just launching into a few final comments with "Some good points, but the paper is held back by..." It doesn't strike me as particularly tasteless, or particularly necessary either. You've already done the work that's going to be specifically helpful to them, and, to cautiously agree with ephemerista, sometimes there's no positive generalization to be made about a paper.


About like_neon's closing remark: "I think it's great that you're making an effort to be a good TA, so few do."

Do you have TA experience, or is your information based on your background as a "former university student"? I'm curious, because like most grad students, I know a lot of TAs. They, and I, work for many more hours than we get paid for, so that our students don't get shortchanged. And I can't even count the number of times I've written long, caring comments on papers that never even get picked up, or that painstakingly address concrete problems which blithely reappear in the student's next essay. Yes, there are some TAs who are lazy, but in my experience, they make up maybe 5%. The rest of us are out there busting our balls for lousy money and zero prestige. At the very least, it'd be nice to get some recognition for our effort. So, while I thought your reply made some good points, your conclusion can kiss my ass.
posted by Beardman at 10:30 PM on March 30, 2009

This isn't exactly what you asked, but a good nose for sorting the students who give a damn about your feedback from those who don't can be invaluable. That way, you can direct the bulk of your unique thoughtful comment energy towards those students who will actually read and digest them.
posted by Kwine at 12:36 AM on March 31, 2009

Also, a favorite go to if you're looking for a new one in desparation: "This isn't as clear as it could be." This can mean anything from what it says to "You wrote this on your iPhone on your way to class." But it sounds vaguely egalitarian and harmless as criticisms go; after all, what writing is as clear as it could be?
posted by Kwine at 12:42 AM on March 31, 2009

It's great that you want to improve your ways of responding to student writing. Too many grad students and instructors don't care enough about this.

First of all, quit it with the sandwich metaphor. Formalistic approaches to writing limit one's ability to think critically. In other words, you should eschew the shit sandwich for the same reason you should avoid five-paragraph essays: they're too simplistic.

Instead, tell the student what works and what doesn't. You're practicing rhetorical criticism as an instructor, and your job is to explain how effective the essay is at making an argument. Be specific, and be descriptive.

Also, no one said you have to prove to the student you've read his or her work by writing platitudes on it. "Good point" and "awkward" are among the worst of these. No student needs to be told "good point." The student's entire essay should be a good point. Remember what Orwell wrote about tired language. (If a surface-level usage or style error annoys me, I circle it and maybe write "fix this" and move on.)

More advice:
1. Here's a different formalism to try: come up with two things that worked, two that didn't, and two ideas for the student to improve her writing.

2. Student conferences are your friend. They demonstrate your engagement with the student's work. In a conference, be prepared to discuss the work with certain expectations in mind. Here's an example: tell the student "one criterion for fulfilling this assignment is your engagement with source quotations;" and then go on to tell the student what you like and don't like about that criterion.

3. Ditch the rubric. Rubrics are fine for beginners; however, when you're more experienced with responding to student writing, you'll find that they're mostly ineffective at helping the student improve his or her writing.

4. Talk to other TAs. Ask them to send you their typed comments on student writing. Type your own comments. Send these to other TAs. Meet up in groups outside of practicum to bitch about students and professors.
posted by hpliferaft at 6:39 AM on March 31, 2009

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