Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by that stack of essays just waiting to be graded? *Raises hand high* You pick up the first essay assuring yourself that this will go quicker than you think. As you begin, the reader in you tries to focus on the content, but the teacher in you just can’t let that comma splice go. Before you know it, eight minutes later and you’re copy editing the entire essay and haven’t even read it for content yet.
So, let’s say conservatively it takes another seven minutes to read and comment on the content. At 15 minutes per essay with let’s say 50 essays total, that’s 12.5 hours worth of grading at a minimum. In other words, this is an unsustainable situation that will suck the life out of your teacher career quicker than you can say misplaced modifier.
The problem is that we can’t just let a comma splice go because how will they ever learn? But are they really learning if you’re copy editing their essays for them and all they have to do is mindlessly make the changes? The answer is no. Not only is this extremely time consuming (and soul-crushing) for you, but it’s not benefitting students either. Fortunately, there is a solution.
While copy editing is only one small solution in an entire essay system that needs an overhaul, it’s definitely a major factor in regaining control of your essay-grading life. You can read more about how I plan a writing unit here. In this article, I’m going to explain what you should do instead of copy editing.
Though this might feel like cheating, I assure you that encouraging students to use grammar and plagiarism checkers is most certainly not. In fact, it’s extremely important to teach our students the skills for using these resources. That’s where we come in. We have to teach students how to utilize the services. It is not simply a one click and done resource. Rather, students have to learn how to use them to best improve their writing.
Resources, like Grammarly and TurnItIn’s ETS paper-rater are just that, resources. They can identify potential problems, but they can’t tell you if it is, in fact, wrong or how to change it. It is up to the student to make that determination. Therefore, it is really important that you explain from the beginning that these resources are there to assist, not to do the work for them.
Plagiarism checkers are similar. A computer can’t tell you if you plagiarized. On the contrary, it can only tell you places where you might want to take a second look. In fact, it can often identify something as a match to an outside source because punctuation on a citation is off. If you require this type of editing and revision, it should almost guarantee that students do not plagiarize. They will see their match report and have the chance to fix anything before turning it in to you. Therefore, if they unintentionally, or let’s face it, copy and pasted from the internet, they will see it and know it must be fixed before turning it in.
Students should absolutely get in the habit of running their writing through a grammar checking service for your class as a writing checkpoint and for their personal writing. Not only is this beneficial for your class, but it is extremely beneficial for the real world too! There’s nothing worse than sending an email with an embarrassing typo. Speaking of embarrassing emails, while you’re at it, you may want to teach them email etiquette too!
After students have had an opportunity to run their essays through both a grammar and plagiarism checker, it’s time to peer review. As you can see, I make sure that students have engaged in several stages of revision before I provide any feedback. This saves me a lot of time when grading because a lot of their minor proofreading errors can be caught through these steps.
One of the most important steps is peer review. Peer review can be completed in many ways. Here are the three ways that work really well in my classroom:
1. Peer Review Stations
Peer review stations are a great way to engage students in an interactive peer review and editing process. I choose five to six steps that I know my students will need to review based on their previous writing, their abilities, their class, and their task. Then, students move through the stations and complete the tasks with self- and peer-review activities. I really like this model because while they’re working, I’m free to conference with them in small groups or one-on-one.
If you’re looking for a pre-made template, check out my peer review stations resource that I’ve used in both print and digital formats. The stations have my pre-set activities based on common areas for peer review, and they are editable so you can make them appropriate for your students. Click here to check them out.
3. Peer Review Questions
From experiences in my graduate classes, I learned the power of peer review, but I also learned ways to maximize the impact. For students, it’s best to keep the focus short and sweet. Too many questions and tasks can overwhelm students. I generally ask students three questions to guide their focus, in addition to reading the essay and identifying potential areas of improvement.
After experimenting with this over the years, I concluded that it’s best not to ask students to score their classmates’ responses. For one, they’re still learning, and scoring is challenging. (Of course, we know this better than anyone!) I also recognized that students tended to be really hard on their classmates’ essays, which can be demoralizing. The goal is to build students up and encourage them to see peer review as an opportunity to improve their essays.
In the end, it just made better sense to have students focus on the areas of improvement rather than on a score (that was likely off from where I would score them anyway). In my experience, it’s been much better to have students practice scoring example essays that I’ve written or are released from a testing service, like College Board for AP English courses.
PeerGrade.io and TurnItIn are subscription sources that can make the process a little easier for you, because they anonymize papers and randomly distribute them. Still, washi tape over names and a number system can work just as well.
3. Revise Throughout
Once you’re ready to provide feedback and score student essays, the way you communicate with students can replace hours of copy editing. If you find an error that you can’t pass up, I suggest marking that error once and once only. This way you’re identifying that there is an error, but you’re correcting it for them. Then, I always use the magic words, “Revise Throughout,” to indicate that students should correct the mistake throughout their essay. The onus is then on them to find and correct the mistake.
Ultimately, when you see the mistake again, you can ignore it. You’ve already asked students to correct their mistakes. Now, one of the big problems with this system is actually getting students to make the revisions. To do this, you have to have an organized way to structure revision and feedback. I go into much more detail about this system for providing feedback in this blog post and how to create a revision assignment here.
The final part of this process is the magic of the mini-lesson. More often than not, students tend to make similar mistakes when they’re writing a specific type of essay or format. Be it citation mistakes or grammar mistakes, copy editing them individually is far too time consuming.
One great solution is the mini-lesson. A mini-lesson is a whole-class lesson that addresses a specific issue that you identified in their essays. Sometimes, you can review all of the issues at once in a summary lesson after providing feedback to students. Other times, you may need to break down individual errors and create a separate mini-lesson.
For example, in my AP Language and Composition class, I often will provide an essay overview mini-lesson as a class that covers several points for revision consideration. I like to use exemplary student examples to point out areas that students should look for and work to improve. This might be providing follow through for evidence, referring to authors by their last names, and formatting titles. On the other hand, I may create a separate mini-lesson just covering the topic of commas versus semicolons. This lesson would include background on the rules, a writing component for application, and then partner work for revising.
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