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Online Feedback in Writing Courses

How do I respond to student writing using online technologies?

I tend to make extensive use of Microsoft Word's "track changes" and "reviewing" modes. The real challenge for me as an instructor is to not make every edit for a student.

My primary concern, and research seems to support this, is that students have been inculcated with the notion that you make the suggested corrections, no more or no less, and that is what constitutes "revising" a paper. Online, this habit becomes even easier... cut-and-paste or simply "accept change" and the revising is "done" in the view of many students.

When I first started student teaching, in the late 1980s, I fell into the trap of making too many comments on papers. Now, I try to minimize how often I correct mistakes students need to discover. I also do not make as many suggestions as I did years ago.

Online tools have made editing and leaving short comments much easier. For all the dangers of relying too much on helpful "hints" from Word or the Mac's built-in dictionary, I think students do benefit from technology when writing. I love moving paragraphs with "drag-and-drop" simplicity.

When writing is done online in threaded discussions, I encourage students to respond only to the ideas and the rhetorical arguments they read in the posts. Sometimes, they cannot resist correcting an obvious grammar or spelling error, which is okay, but I want them to reply to something more than the surface mechanics of a text.

I moderate occasionally online, usually more in the first weeks and less as the class progresses. I'm still trying to find the right balance of involvement to encourage longer and more thoughtful online responses to peer texts.

Blackboard's online system includes an option of interactive editing and comments. I wish the Web/Vista platform included a similar "markup mode" to help students. I like the "Post-it Note" style of the comments in Word and Pages a lot. Students read the comments and know that I am an engaged reader. I think they need to know the words are being taken seriously.

Honestly, I don't think I could switch to an all-paper process for giving feedback to students. I can type a full-page critique of a paper, using color coding to indicate where a paper was weakest and where it was strongest. I love the visual cues, both for my own use and for students' use.

I put important thoughts in bold type and I will use colors, too. I want students to remember my feedback!

One risk of online editing is that students might come to expect the "spreadsheet" style checklists of "points possible" found in Web/Vista. While having a rubric can help students, I also need some flexibility as a teacher. Students will argue for grade points based on a rubric, instead of focussing on the overall quality of a text. I think this is a serious problem with rubrics, which online systems seem to enforce without the flexibility I want as a teacher.


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