Red Ink: The Comments Teachers Make Most Often On Student Papers

There’s an oddly fascinating report out from the makers of GradeMark software, a program that enables instructors to place editing marks directly on students’ online papers. The study examined 30 million such comments and tracked the frequency of each type of comment. Its findings, as reported by Leila Meyer in T.H.E. Journal:

“The five most frequently used comments at both the high school and postsecondary levels were ‘missing comma,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘spelling error,’ ‘delete,’ and ‘cite source.’ Other frequently used comments included ‘improper citation,’ ‘run-on sentence,’ ‘comma splice,’ and ‘unclear.’ Thirteen of the 25 most frequently used comments related to composition, a list that included ‘weak paragraph transition,’ ‘fragment,’ ‘tense shift,’ and ‘support needed.’

The study also found a high frequency of comments related to spelling and citation errors, despite ready access to spell checking and source citation tools.

The report speculated that the frequency of these spelling errors could be related to students rushing to meet deadlines or simple carelessness, but that citation errors are more likely owing to lack of understanding. The report suggested that teachers need to work with students to help them understand and practice proper citation.”

What to make of these results? It’s a bit disheartening to learn that there are so many basic errors of spelling and composition being committed. Citations can be tricky, so I’m not surprised to hear that many comments deal with those.

Of course, more detailed or specific comments would, by definition, not make it into the “most frequently used” category. I trust that instructors are offering this kind of more particular feedback.  

Teachers out there, do these results line up with the kinds of comments you find yourself putting down on your student’s papers?

7 Responses to “Red Ink: The Comments Teachers Make Most Often On Student Papers”

  1. Corey says:

    One disheartening realization here is that these are all negative comments. How often do we praise students for well-chosen diction, varied sentence structure, or a persuasive tone? Clearly not often enough.

  2. Jeff Scheur says:

    Thanks for reporting these illuminating and troubling stats, Annie. Three out of 4 kids are below proficient on the latest national writing assessment, and the grammar/writing section has been the lowest on both the SAT and the ACT for the last 5 years.

    Having graded 15,000 high school English papers myself, I know all too well that teachers are saddled with an unfair burden: providing feedback for 130, 150, or even 170 kids on each assignment — and creating mechanisms that allow students to actually make use of the comments. The high student/teacher ratio forces feedback to be impersonal, non-specific, and rushed. The most heartbreaking fact is that often kids can’t even read the feedback, save implement it.

    This is exactly why I created NoRedInk.com — to help teachers give students get the practice they need instead of settling for vague, unactionable feedback. I built NoRedInk.com to help students improve their grammar/writing skills by generating personalized curriculum from their favorite celebrities, friends, and personal interests. It leverages adaptive learning so they can practice until they achieve mastery on trouble spots. I’m hoping it helps eliminate much of the red ink discussed in your post. Thanks again for sharing these findings!

  3. Rodger says:

    I’ve had grad school prof/advisors who did the same thing.

    Even though all the PHD students I asked to proof read my papers understood them perfectly fine, and had no issues with them, the profs picked on little things of no consequence!

    Are they a prof? Or an editor? Did they get the point? What did they think of the new ideas I wrote? Often enough, they didn’t understand, or appreciate, the ideas.

    I felt it was just fault finding. Not learning.

    Unfortunately, a huge amount of my energy then went into, not the research and concepts, but “What does the prof want?” And the criteria varied by prof!

    So, applying the same concepts to job searches, how many perfectly fine candidates are passed over, because someone in HR didn’t like their choice of words or formatting of their resume?

    Would it make sense to evaluate the comments by teacher?

  4. Wendy says:

    I am not a teacher, but a parent and former English major.

    The comments students receive are a result of poor writing skills. they first need to be better taught grammar and how to write. I read an article about a school that adopted a specific curriculum on developing the ability to write well (which includes the ability to organize thoughts). I think it ought to be considered as a wider model: http://bit.ly/SzRx3n

    As for citing — it’s not that citing is difficult, it’s that students are NOT taught to give credit. Copying and pasting is NOT acceptable. I’ve seen too many teachers give assignments with the direction to “research online,” but without specific instruction on how it is unethical and incorrect to take material, either verbatim or in terms of ideas, without giving proper credit.

    Teachers both in High Schools and Colleges rely on software to identify plagiarism. Like the comments GradeMark allows for, both deal with the “after-the-fact” and not the lack of proper grounding that got the kids there in the first place.

    May I add, the “copy and paste” mentality is even worse when it comes to (copyrighted) photos. Kids need to be taught that Google is a search engine, NOT a source. It gathers material from a wide variety of sources, some more reliable than others. Kids need to learn how to distinguish that as well…

  5. I think that we should distinguish between revision and editing. I see revision as the reworking of the structure, the ideas, and the intention of the writing. Editing is the final step where we go through and check for syntax, spelling, and grammatical errors.

    Good feedback starts with revision. Only after the groundwork is laid should we turn towards the “low-hanging fruit” of editing.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Reading through the thoughtful discussion in the replies above, I was struck by the number of composition errors in each reply (everything from comma splices to diction errors and misspellings). Yet we respect each other’s voices and focus on the ideas. Why can’t we make that our top priority for students as well?

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