Friday, January 9, 2015

Commenting on Student Papers: To Track or Not to Track

How best to comment on student papers is a perennial problem.  An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month entitled “Why I Don’t Use Track Changes on Students’ Papers” by Lucy Ferris caught my eye, mostly because I found myself disagreeing with lots of Ferris’s assertions.  I thought it might be an interesting topic to start off the 2015 “Teaching Matters” discussion. 

Ferris explains why she insists that her students submit hard copies of their papers for her grading and comments.  Her arguments against using “track changes” to comment on electronic papers have some validity: 
  • She isn’t as tempted to correct small grammar and style issues, and when she does students can’t just click “accept” and make the correction without knowing why.
  • Even with minimal corrections and inserted comments, the paper ends up looking, as she put it, “like a Jackson Pollock painting of colors, squiggly lines, and call-outs, a discouraging mess for the student to untangle and sort out.”
  • It’s harder to encourage students by doing things like drawing arrows to link well-argued points and encourage students with a big “GREAT!!” circled and connected to those points.
  • Students tend to read the comment point by point and can’t spread out the paper and get an overview of the whole. 
As someone who only grades electronic submissions, however, I would argue the benefits of electronic review: the greater legibility (printed words rather than my undecipherable scribbles), the additional space (comments can go on as long as you need them to; they aren’t constrained by needing to fit into a 1” margin), and the additional speed and forgiveness (I can type a lot more quickly than I write, plus I can change my mind and revise a comment after I think about it as often happens). 

I do agree, though, that using “track changes” to cross out students’ words and insert teachers’ words is not a good practice.  We don’t want to appropriate our students’ papers or their language. I usually put my grammar or style corrections in a side comment, hoping that it seems more respectful that way, sometimes using highlighting to point out a pattern of similar grammar issues after explaining it the first time.

What do you think?  Do you require hard copy or electronic submissions from your students?  Do you use “track changes” when you grade?   If so, how?  If not, why  not? What works well for you and the students in your classes?


  1. I require hard copies as well as electronic submissions from my students. I save the electronic copies and use them to check for plagiarism. I write comments on the hard copies and return them to my students. Unlike Linda, the greater readability, the additional space and the additional speed apply to my comments on the hard copies (not electronic copies): I do not have undecipherable scribbles, I am not constrained by needing to fit into a 1” margin, and I can write a lot more quickly than I type, plus I can change my mind and revise a comment (written on paper) after I think about it (as often as it happens). I find electronic tracking of changes user-unfriendly and time-consuming.

    Safro Kwame

  2. I agree about "track changes" itself; it seems rude to simply change the student's work to make it fit my expectations, and it's not good pedagogy either since the student doesn't do any thinking other than to push "accept changes" without understanding why. But I'm still not convinced that handwritten rather than typed comments are better.It would be interesting to survey students and see what they think. Have you ever inquired? I'm going to do that this semester and see what I learn.

  3. I have not inquired; but the question about whether "handwritten rather than typed comments are better" is "(better) for whom?"

    1. Above comment submitted by Safro Kwame

    2. Better for the students--i.e., makes things clearer, more immediate, more personal?

  4. Teaching or teachers don't matter? Some things may be better for the teacher (not the student).

    Safro Kwame