Do Students Read Professor’s Comments on Papers?

I am in the midst of the worst of all academic seasons– the grading of papers. I just finished about sixty essays on Frederick Douglass and am now grading papers written by students in my Colonial America course.

I grade history papers for the way that the students make historical arguments, rely upon evidence from primary texts, and provide necessary historical context, but I also take a lot of time to grade grammar, sentence structure, style, and other aspects of my students’ prose. (I have been occasionally accused of grading like an English professor). As a result, the papers I grade are covered with red ink and filled with marginal notations such as “AWKWARD” or “UNCLEAR.” I tend to be obsessive about reminding students that the period goes INSIDE the quotation marks and BEFORE the footnote. I have the bad habit of rewriting my students’ sentences. I try to give them a little paragraph at the end of the paper letting them know what they did well and what they could have done better.

I know that most students read my final comments. But I wonder how many of them actually sit down with their papers and pay attention to the various suggestions I make about their prose or style? (Today I am grading some papers written by seniors. I am afraid that I am spending a lot of time on their essays only to have them placed in some folder, never to be looked at again). I like to think that by looking closely at all of my little markings a student might actually become a better writer. Yet I find myself continually reminding the same students, semester after semester, not to justify their right-hand margin or to use the active voice.

Am I wasting my time? If you are student reader of this blog, please help me out here. Do you read the small jots and tittles that your professor puts on your papers? If you are a teacher, do you think the students actually look at all of your markings?

16 thoughts on “Do Students Read Professor’s Comments on Papers?

  1. I agree with Dr. Fea that the type of students who read comments are also the type of students chiming in on something like this. We comment because we are interested in participating in discussion and learning more about what others have to say. I'm not a student, but I've been a student for a long time. I think the general consensus from my classmates would be in 3 camps:
    1. I'm satisfied with my grade. Great, no need to read the comments.
    2. I'm not satisfied with my grade. Why is this professor such a hard grader? (Then read comments and complain about how grammar shouldn't matter.)
    3. I really want to improve, and even though I got X grade, I'd like to see what the professor said about getting better.

    I saw #1 even in graduate school, although to a lesser degree than in undergrad. I personally valued what professors had to say and found it helpful to be reminded of those silly little errors that one might have a tendency to make (I use the comma too much, for example.)

    I hope, that for the students who really do care, professors continue to provide ample feedback. I know we're a minority, but we really do read comments and find them helpful.

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  2. Miriam: I wish we could do this kind of writing and rewriting at the college level. At Messiah College, students only have a few courses that are this writing-intensive. Keep up the good work.

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  3. Thanks for all the posts. It is great to see so many students chiming in to the conversation. I would encourage you all to keep reading the blog. We have an increasing number of student readers and I hope to respond with more student-friendly posts. In the meantime, send your friends the “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” post and encourage them to consider history as a major or minor.

    I find it interesting that those students who responded were all students who do read their teacher's remarks very carefully. Perhaps the kind of students who want to improve their writing are the same kinds of students who are also confident enough in their writing to wade into a discussion on a blog. I know that this is the case with my former students–Mary Lee, Amy, and Susanna. But I also want to thank Adina and “Stars&Amp” for offering their opinions.

    I think Mary Lee is on the mark when she writes: “Realistically, I think most college students look at their grade, realize they are satisfied with the grade, and they don't see a need to improve upon their writing. They care more about the grade than the quality of the work.”

    Adina: I wish more students would have your attitude. How many students really feel “incredibly encouraged” when a prof covers their paper in comments.

    Susanna: Thanks for the kind words. I always had the sense that you did not feel like you were getting your “money's worth” if I did not put a lot of red ink on your paper.

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  4. Hi, I'm a senior at a Massachusetts prep school and just like Adina, I read all the comments teachers give me. I actually think it helps that most of my teachers do not even put the grade on the paper, and that if we want to know our grade we can find out afterwards.

    Of course there will always be that student who only cares about the grade. But I love to read the final long comment first, and with my teachers thoughts in mind, read all the little comments so that the next time I write a paper, I can change my writing accordingly.

    You can always tell who reads your comments. If nothing changes the next time it's either because they don't care what you have to say about their writing, or they didn't read it. Simple.

    But to simply answer your question: I think more students read your comments then you think.

    Hope that helps, Elizabeth

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  5. I am a student and I can say with all honesty that I do read all of the comments that my professors write on my papers, and that they often help me grow as a writer (I had no idea what a split-infinitive was until I took my first history course). I do agree with Seth, however, that comments on first drafts are incredibly helpful. I do not always return to a past paper when writing a new one, but I always look back on a first draft when writing a final draft, and I think that it is at that point that the small comments make the most impact. Finally, I wanted to tell you that it is incredibly encouraging, as a student, to receive a paper back that has been extensively commented on. It makes me feel as though the professor cared about the work I put in and about me as a writer, which according to your blog is certainly the case. So thank you!

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  6. Prof. Fea,

    For me it depending on the professor, I'm not lying by saying with the papers you returned to me I would go over everything with a fine tooth comb (is that the saying even?) but I don't know if on a whole college students do pay attention. I know with my history papers because it was my major I wanted to seek out every little item that had been noted, marked and commented on. I don't think it always helped the next paper be written better necessarily but I did find that when I wrote my papers in grad school the lessons I learned in my undergraduate classes helped me write them better. I never felt like too much was written when it came to comments on papers, I strove to understand the comments and try to use them for the next assignment. I didn't get nearly as much feedback from the majority of my professor's as I did in the three classes I took with you. I think the students who choose to ignore or overlook the comments that the professors take the time to write are doing themself a disservice. With two parents for teachers, I know how long grading takes and how much longer it takes when you spend time with each paper so that each student is getting more then just a grade, but also a commentary to help them understand what worked, what didn't and why. I don't know how to make people wake up and realize this but that seems to be the bittersweet truth. We want the certain grades, we want the praise but we don't want to take our medicine when required. Okay, off my soap box! Merry Christmas to you Prof. Fea, I love following your blog, looking forward to what you post in the new year!

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  7. As a former student of yours, I definitely remember looking through and reading all of your comments. I'm not sure that, if you put grammatical comments, I sat down and studied the grammatical things I did wrong. However, I think getting enough papers with the same markings on them would make students get the hint.

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  8. As a former history student, I always read the comments because I wanted my papers to be the best they could be. Honestly, I think most don't, or if they do read them, I don't think they remember the comments or go back and review them when writing their next paper. They put it in their folder and forget about it. I forget which prof it was, but after they turned back our papers, they mentioned verbally the main mistakes they saw in our papers. I think this was more effective because the prof had the students' attention and was able to reach more the of students. Students seemed to write this information down in their notes.

    Realistically, I think most college students look at their grade, realize they are satisfied with the grade, and they don't see a need to improve upon their writing. They care more about the grade than the quality of the work.

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  9. I teach a year-long high school history course divided in to trimesters. For the first trimester students submit a partial rough draft of their essay (introduction and one of their ideas). I don't assign a grade, just edit grammar and give advice about content. When I grade the first trimester's essay I comment extensively because they also have an essay due at the end of the second semester. When they submit the second essay they must also resubmit their first, with the understanding that I am looking for improvements. Some students clearly read the comments, others clearly do not, but I think my course structure gives some encouragement to check comments and make improvements.

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  10. Seth: Thanks for comment. I regularly give my students the option to write drafts. The problem is that too many of my students take the option. This ends up to be a lot of grading–especially when you are teaching big survey courses with no grading assistants. (One of the great “joys” of teaching at a small liberal arts college!). What I ended up doing was telling students that I would read drafts for content only and encouraged them to go to the campus writing center for improvement in style.

    But your comments have caused me to rethink this a bit. If I really want to train my students how to write, I should probably give more attention to style on the rough draft and perhaps less attention to it on the final draft.

    Sometimes I am tempted to write summative comments at the end of the paper to justify the grade, rather than to help my students become better writers.

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  11. I am also not a student, but I do teach as a religious historian in a writing program. Based on my training and experience here, I'd concur with Tim: students, by and large, do not read comments on final papers. But they will read comments on earlier assignments and, better yet, on first drafts. If logistics permit you to comment on students' first drafts (i.e. make them turn in a draft by, say, Thanksgiving), you can get MUCH more mileage out of comments by having them revise the same paper. Then, when they turn in final drafts, you can write a grade and a few lines at the bottom. It's obviously a little more work, but not as much as you might think (you can read those second drafts much more quickly once you've seen the first draft). And the learning outcomes for students are so much better if they're forced to revise a paper.

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  12. Tim:I don't think you are being overly cynical here. Instead, you are confirming my hunch.

    I think your point about the difference between “final” papers and papers written during the course of the semester is a good one, but that does not explain why final papers are often worse than the papers written earlier in the semester.(I think we can chalk this up to the end of the year onslaught of exams, papers, etc… Students may not have time to write multiple drafts and do extensive editing).

    I will continue to “mark up” student papers since I see such work as part of my job/calling/vocation and because there will always be those few students who might actually take my style comments seriously and try to build off of them. In other words, there are always those a small number of students who actually want to be better writers and view becoming better writers as part of their college eduction.

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  13. Of course I'm not a student, but I want to dive in anyway.

    The short answer to your post's title is NO. Especially for final papers! Or at least that's been my experience at 4 Chicago-area institutions. The longer answer is maybe—especially if the assignment is given and graded early in the term and some of the smart students take the time to adjust to your style. They most certainly ~read~ the comments at that point. The bigger and more important question is whether they (all students) make use of them. On that I might revert again to no—with very few exceptions—meaning a subset of the few even of the smart students who ~read~ the comments. …But maybe I'm just being cynical today. – TL

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