Using General Comment Sheets
Nancy Childress, TA, Department of English
Are you frustrated by the amount of time you spend commenting on students' papers and exams? Do you find yourself making similar remarks on a number of papers in a set, or on a number of assignments in a course? Do you feel that, despite your in-class explanations, students don't fully understand what constitutes "A" work on a given type of assignment? Using general comment sheets can reduce the time you spend commenting upon students' assignments and can give your students a clear idea of how to improve their work.
A general comment sheet, as the term suggests, is a set of remarks about an assignment that is photocopied and distributed to a class as a whole. The comments on such a sheet may address the students' overall performance on the assignment, discuss common strengths and weaknesses, and provide positive examples drawn from the students' work. Though these comment sheets were originally developed by Charlene Sedgwick, the English department's Director of Writing, for use in composition and literature courses, their principles are easily adapted to any course.
For example, in any course which assigns written work, a comment sheet can discuss the common problems students had with an assignment and can give them examples of effective thesis statements, uses of evidence, and organizational patterns. A general comment sheet distributed after a midterm examination can include some of the "A" answers to essay questions. In a language, a comment sheet might explain common grammatical difficulties and excerpt some of the most successful responses to homework assignments.
Using such comment sheets has obvious benefits for instructors: because a commonly-recurring difficulty needn't be explained on each paper that contains it, the time saved can be invested in writing one comment that clearly sets out the difficulty. Since deciding what to write on a comment sheet requires thinking about the progress of the class as a whole, it can suggest ways to tailor the course more specifically to its students. The general comment sheet further enables instructors to use comments on individual papers to address each paper's details.
For student's, general comment sheets help overcome the academic vacuum in which they do their assignments. If students see positive examples of classmates' work "published" (anonymously) on a comment sheet, they not only gain a better understanding of the criteria used to assess their work but also see successful models to follow. Since students rarely see each other's work, weaker students usually have no opportunity to examine and imitate strong models. Students who will be asked to do two or more similar assignments over the course of the semester will find general comments sheets particularly helpful.
Students, both weaker- and stronger-performing, may also receive a psychological boost from comment sheets. The students whose work is excerpted see that their achievement is recognized, while students who are having difficulties that are addressed on a comment sheet see that they are not alone. Because the comments on such a sheet are, by definition, less personally directed than comments on individual papers, they may reach students who tend to react negatively to criticisms of their work.
my classes have reacted to general comment sheets with universal enthusiasm.
Several have mentioned in their course evaluations that the comments and
positive examples helped them improve their work. Any instructor who wishes,
without extending grading time for hours, to write specific comments that
will help his or her students perform better on assignments will find
general comment sheets immensely useful.