Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.

How to Get Students to Read Our Essay Comments

by | Jun 25, 2019 | Blog, Gen Ed Torah | 0 comments

Summer is a good time to reflect on what worked this past academic year and what didn’t and what changes we can make to ensure greater success in the fall.

One of the more demoralizing experiences as a teacher is investing an hour or two writing what we perceive to be helpful comments on students’ essays only to have them skip directly to the grade and ignore what we wrote. If this happens often enough, we may be tempted to stop providing written feedback even if we know it is precisely what leads to the deepest learning. Unless we figure out how to overcome this challenge, we may begin to ask ourselves if it’s worth writing questions and insights that prod a child to do a closer reading of a primary source in Jewish history, a poem in an Ivrit class, a sugya in the gemara, or a passage from the Tanach.

One long-suffering English teacher changed it up a bit and developed a creative way to motivate students to read her feedback. She didn’t immediately disclose to students their grade and instead only provided comments. Imagine if we started off the new year that way! We might have frustrated students, but they’d learn a lot. Here’s how:

In a Cult of Pedagogy article summarized in the Marshall Memo, Issue 689, high-school teacher Kristy Louden says it was incredibly disheartening when students looked at the grade on papers she’d carefully annotated and either tossed their paper away or consigned it to the depths of a backpack. “Wow, glad I put so much time into that assignment,” was Louden’s sotto voce reaction. “Not only did I feel like I had wasted my time; I felt like they just didn’t care. And then the snowball of thoughts would start: How will they survive if they don’t care about feedback? What’s going to happen in college? Or when they get jobs?” She confesses that this often led her to put off reading students’ papers for days at a time.

After nine years of suffering through this unproductive dynamic, Louden stumbled upon a process that has worked remarkably well for her:

• Step 1: Return students’ essays with feedback but no grades. When she reads essays, Louden writes detailed comments (either on paper or within Google Classroom submissions), but she records the grades separately on a hard copy of the rubric and holds onto it. “The simple act of delaying the grade means that students had to think about their writing,” says Louden, “… and digest my comments, which allowed them to better recognize what they did well or not so well.” One student said, “Mrs. Louden, you’re a genius. I’ve never read what a teacher writes on my essay before, but now I have to.”

• Step 2: Have students evaluate their own essays. Students are directed to (a) read over their whole essay; (b) write three observations on what they did well and not so well; (c) read the teacher’s comments and write two follow-up questions – how to improve the essay, what to do differently, etc.; (d) use the rubric to grade the essay; and (e) be prepared to discuss all this with the teacher. Louden gives students time for these steps and walks around monitoring their work, which is usually silent and intense.

• Step 3: Conference briefly with each student. The class should have independent reading or work so the teacher can have a 2-3-minute conversation with each student. Louden starts off by asking, “What do you want to talk about?” and students say things like, “I can’t believe I did —-“ or “I’m sorry I turned it in like this” or “You specifically told us not to do this.” She finds it helpful to have these conferences at a large whiteboard-painted table so students can spread out their work and laptops and she can jot comments and planning ideas on the table. “The level of reflection is deeper than any I’ve ever encountered,” says Louden. “I assure them that it is fine and I don’t expect perfection, but on the inside I’m so excited that they’re seeing the things I see.”

• Step 4: Compare the student’s and the teacher’s grades. Louden finishes each conference by asking students how they scored themselves on the rubric and puts their assessment side by side with hers. Often, students are harder on themselves than she was, and they’re much more receptive to the grading process than they were with the previous system.

• Step 5: Have students revise. Louden gives students time to work on 1-3 further drafts, checking in with them on what they’ve done and any questions they have.

Louden says this is the most significant change she’s made in her teaching in years and she’s very pleased with the results: “Students have become more reflective (and sympathetic of how long it takes me to grade – haha!), their writing has improved, and I return papers much more quickly – and happily – than ever before.”

Read the original article entitled “Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback” by Kristy Louden in The Cult of Pedagogy, June 4, 2017 at https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/delayed-grade/.

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Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at lee@jedvision.com.

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