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Bowden, Darsie. Student Perspectives on Paper Comments. J of Writing Assessment, 2018. Posted 04/14/2018.

Bowden, Darsie. “Comments on Student Papers: Student Perspectives.” Journal of Writing Assessment 11.1 (2018). Web. 8 Apr. 2018.

Darsie Bowden reports on a study of students’ responses to teachers’ written comments in a first-year writing class at DePaul University, a four-year, private Catholic institution. Forty-seven students recruited from thirteen composition sections provided first drafts with comments and final drafts, and participated in two half-hour interviews. Students received a $25 bookstore gift certificate for completing the study.

Composition classes at DePaul use the 2000 version of the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ (WPA) Outcomes to structure and assess the curriculum. Of the thirteen instructors whose students were involved in the project, four were full-time non-tenure track and nine were adjuncts; Bowden notes that seven of the thirteen “had graduate training in composition and rhetoric,” and all ”had training and familiarity with the scholarship in the field.” All instructors selected were regular attendees at workshops that included guidance on responding to student writing.

For the study, instructors used Microsoft Word’s comment tool in order to make student experiences consistent. Both comments and interview transcripts were coded. Comment types were classified as “in-draft” corrections (actual changes made “in the student’s text itself”); “marginal”; and “end,” with comments further classified as “surface-level” or “substance-level.”

Bowden and her research team of graduate teaching assistants drew on “grounded theory methodologies” that relied on observation to generate questions and hypotheses rather than on preformed hypotheses. The team’s research questions were

  • How do students understand and react to instructor comments?
  • What influences students’ process of moving from teacher comments to paper revision?
  • What comments do students ignore and why?

Ultimately the third question was subsumed by the first two.

Bowden’s literature review focuses on ongoing efforts by Nancy Sommers and others to understand which comments actually lead to effective revision. Bowden argues that research often addresses “the teachers’ perspective rather than that of their students” and that it tends to assess the effectiveness of comments by how they “manifest themselves in changes in subsequent drafts.” The author cites J. M. Fife and P. O’Neill to contend that the relationship between comments and effects in drafts is not “linear” and that clear causal connections may be hard to discern. Bowden presents her study as an attempt to understand students’ actual thinking processes as they address comments.

The research team found that on 53% of the drafts, no in-draft notations were provided. Bowden reports on variations in length and frequency in the 455 marginal comments they examined and as well as in the end comments that appeared in almost all of the 47 drafts. The number of substance-level comments exceeded that of surface-level comments.

Her findings accord with much research in discovering that students “took [comments] seriously”; they “tried to understand them, and they worked to figure out what, if anything, to do in response.” Students emphasized comments that asked questions, explained responses, opened conversations, and “invited them to be part of the college community.” Arguing that such substance-level comments were “generative” for students, Bowden presents several examples of interview exchanges, some illustrating responses in which the comments motivated the student to think beyond the specific content of the comment itself. Students often noted that teachers’ input in first-year writing was much more extensive than that of their high school teachers.

Concerns about “confusion” occurred in 74% of the interviews. Among strategies for dealing with confusion were “ignor[ing] the comment completely,” trying to act on the comment without understanding it, or writing around the confusing element by changing the wording or structure. Nineteen students “worked through the confusion,” and seven consulted their teachers.

The interviews revealed that in-class activities like discussion and explanation impacted students’ attempts to respond to comments, as did outside factors like stress and time management. In discussions about final drafts, students revealed seeking feedback from additional readers, like parents or friends. They were also more likely to mention peer review in the second interview; although some mentioned the writing center, none made use of the writing center for drafts included in the study.

Bowden found that students “were significantly preoccupied with grades.” As a result, determining “what the teacher wants” and concerns about having “points taken off” were salient issues for many. Bowden notes that interviews suggested a desire of some students to “exert their own authority” in rejecting suggested revisions, but she maintains that this effort often “butts up against a concern about grades and scores” that may attenuate the positive effects of some comments.

Bowden reiterates that students spoke appreciatively of comments that encouraged “conversations about ideas, texts, readers, and their own subject positions as writers” and of those that recognized students’ own contributions to their work. Yet, she notes, the variety of factors influencing students’ responses to comments, including, for example, cultural differences and social interactions in the classroom, make it difficult to pinpoint the most effective kind of comment. Given these variables, Bowden writes, “It is small wonder, then, that even the ‘best’ comments may not result in an improved draft.”

The author discusses strategies to ameliorate the degree to which an emphasis on grades may interfere with learning, including contract grading, portfolio grading, and reflective assignments. However, she concludes, even reflective papers, which are themselves written for grades, may disguise what actually occurs when students confront instructor comments. Ultimately Bowden contends that the interviews conducted for her study contain better evidence of “the less ‘visible’ work of learning” than do the draft revisions themselves. She offers three examples of students who were, in her view,

thinking through comments in relationship to what they already knew, what they needed to know and do, and what their goals were at this particular moment in time.

She considers such activities “problem-solving” even though the problem could not be solved in time to affect the final draft.

Bowden notes that her study population is not representative of the broad range of students in writing classes at other kinds of institutions. She recommends further work geared toward understanding how teacher feedback can encourage the “habits of mind” denoted as the goal of learning by the2010 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing produced by the WPA, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. Such understanding, she contends, can be effective in dealing with administrators and stakeholders outside of the classroom.


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Webber, Jim. Reframing vs. Artful Critique of Reform. Sept. CCC, 2017. Posted 10/31/2017.

Webber, Jim. ”Toward an Artful Critique of Reform: Responding to Standards, Assessment, and Machine Scoring.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 118-45. Print.

Jim Webber analyzes the responses of composition scholars to the reform movement promoted by entities like College Learning Assessment (CLA) and Complete College America (CCA). He notes that the standardization agenda of such groups, intended to improve the efficiency of higher education, has suffered setbacks; for example, many states have rejected the Common Core State Standards (118-19). However, in Webber’s view, these setbacks are temporary and will be followed by renewed efforts by testing and measurement agencies to impose their own criteria for student success (119).

The standardization these groups urge on higher education will, they claim, give parents and students better information about institutions and will ultimately serve as grounds for such moves as “performance funding” (119). The overall goal of such initiatives is to move students through college as quickly as possible, especially into majors (119).

Webber recognizes two prongs of composition’s response to such pressures to portray “college students and parents as consumers” (119). One thread urges “reframing” or “redirecting” the efforts of the testing industry and groups like CLA and CCA. For Webber, this viewpoint adopts a “realist style.” Scholars who espouse reframing urge that compositionists work within the current realities created by the power of the testing and standardization apparatus to “expand” the meanings of terms like “college readiness” (120), adjusting them in ways that reflect composition’s inclusive, humanistic values (122)–that is, in Frank Farmer’s term, “insinuat[ing]” the professional ethos of composition and its authority into the standardization apparatus (qtd. in Webber 122).

Scholars who adopt this realist style, Webber claims, “figur[e] public policy as accommodation to the world” (141n5); moreover, in Webber’s view, they accept the description of “the way the world is” (133) put forward by CCA and others as “irreducibly competitive” and thus “[reduce] the scope of policy values to competition, efficiency, and instrumentality” (141n5).

Webber cites scholars in this vein who contend that the protests of scholars and writing professionals have been and will be effectively “ignored” by policymakers (137). More productive, in this view, is collaboration that will at least provide “a seat at the policy table,” giving professionals a chance to infuse the debate with their values (133).

Webber presents the 2011 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing as an example of how the reframing position “work[s] within the limits established by the dominant discourse of reform” (123). He notes that Bruce Comiskey was unable to discern any “apparent difference” between the aspirations of the Framework and those of the reform movement (125; emphasis original). For Webber, this approach sets up composition professionals as “competition” for the testing industry as the experts who can make sure students meet the reformers’ criteria for successful learning (124). Reframing in this way, Webber says, requires “message management” (123) to make sure that the response’s “strategic” potential is sustained (121).

Scholars who urge reframing invoke Cornel West’s “prophetic pragmatism” (122), which requires them to:

think genealogically about specific practices in light of the best available social theories, cultural critiques, and historiographic insights and to act politically to achieve certain moral consequences in light of effective strategies and tactics. (qtd. in Webber 122)

Webber contends that reframers interpret this directive to mean that “public critique” by compositionists “cannot deliver the consequences they desire” (123; emphasis original). Thus, a tactical approach is required.

The second thread in compositionists’ response to the reform movement is that of critique that insists that allowing the reform industry to set the terms and limits of the discussion is “to grant equivalence between our professional judgments and those of corporate-political service providers” (125-26). Webber quotes Judith Summerfield and Philip M. Anderson, who argue that “managing behavior and preparing students for vocations” does not accord with “a half-century (at the least) of enlightened classroom study and socio-psycholinguistic research” (qtd. in Webber 125).

In Webber’s view, the strands of reframing and critique have reached a “stalemate” (126). In response to the impasse, Webber explores the tradition of pragmatism, drawing on John Dewey and others. He argues that reframers call on the tenets of “melioration” and “prophetic critique” (127). “Meliorism,” according to Webber’s sources, is a linguistic process in that it works toward improving conditions through addressing the public discourse (127). In discussing West’s prophetic pragmatism as a form of “critical melioration,” Webber focuses on the “artfulness” of West’s concept (128).

Webber sees artfulness as critique “in particular contexts” in which ordinary people apply their own judgments of the consequences of a theory or policy based on the effects of these theories or policies on their lives (128-29). An artful critique invites public participation in the assessment of policies, an interaction that, according to West, functions as “antiprofessionalism,” not necessarily for the purpose of completely “eliminating or opposing all professional elites” but rather to “hold them to account” (qtd. in Webber 129).

Webber argues that proponents of reframing within composition have left out this aspect of West’s pragmatism (128). Webber’s own proposal for an artful critique involves encouraging such active participation by the publics actually affected by policies. He contends that policymakers will not be able to ignore students and parents as they have composition professionals (137).

His approach begins with “scaling down” by inviting public inquiry at a local level, then “scaling up” as the conversation begins to trigger broader responses (130). He presents the effects of student protests as the University of Missouri in 2015 as an example of how local action that challenges the power of elites can have far-reaching consequences (137-38). Compositionists, he maintains, should not abandon critique but should “expand our rhetoric of professionalism to engage the antiprofessional energy of local inquiry and resistance” (138).

As a specific application of his view, Webber provides examples of how composition professionals have enlisted public resistance to machine-scoring of student writing. As students experience “being read” by machines, he contends, they become aware of how such policies do not mesh with their concerns and experiences (137). This awareness engages them in critically “problematizing” their perspectives and assumptions (131). In the process, Webber argues, larger, more diverse audiences are encouraged to relate their own experiences, leading to “a broader public discussion of shared concerns” (131).

For Webber, drawing on the everyday judgments of ordinary people as to the value of policies put forward by professionals contrasts with the desire to align composition’s values with those of the standardization movement in hopes of influencing the latter from within. Opening the debate beyond strategic professionalism can generate a pragmatism that more nearly fits West’s prophetic ideals and that can “unsettle the inevitability of reform and potentially authorize composition’s professional perspectives” in ways that reframing the terms of the corporate initiatives cannot (135).