Teacher Comments For Research Papers

College Teaching

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Coverage: 1985-2010 (Vol. 33, No. 1 - Vol. 58, No. 4)

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ISSN: 87567555

EISSN: 19308299

Subjects: Education, Social Sciences

Collections: Arts & Sciences VI Collection

We�ve all seen it: the paper that comes back with more of the instructor�s words on the page than your own. Comments on the text, comments in the margins, comments at the end of the essay. Sometimes even a whole separate page of comments is attached. So what to do with all this red ink? Every student would like a magical formula for how to write an "A" paper in human geography, but the truth is there is no such thing. However, students can find hints within the comments themselves.

Students often choose to disregard comments, if they look at them at all. Perhaps many students are not sure how to use instructors� comments to their advantage. We have determined to address this knowledge deficit by exploring the dark world of teacher response. In doing so, we will examine how helpful instructors� comments are to the students, and will find ways to help students understand comments and utilise them effectively. For our study, we have divided the comments into seven main categories:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Referencing: positive and negative
  • Grammar problems
  • Structure/layout: positive and negative
  • Missing information
  • Inaccuracies
  • General content: positive and negative

Although teacher response is a relatively new area of interest, there are a number of informative sources available dealing with different aspects of this subject. Four sources that we found useful were:

  • Helping Students Write Well
  • by Barbara Walvoord (1986)
  • "The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of �Directive� and �Facilitative� Commentary" by Richard Straub (1996)
  • Response to Student Writing
  • by Sarah Freedman (1987)
  • Writing and Response
  • edited by Chris Anson (1989)


The most useful of these sources to our study is Walvoord�s book which includes a chapter devoted specifically to teaching instructors how to communicate effectively when responding to student assignments. Aspects that she deals with include written comments, taped comments, conferences, suiting response to purpose, using praise, and being thorough and specific. Stressed emphatically throughout is the point that comments must be clear and approachable. Students are often misled by ambiguous comments, or are compelled to toss aside a paper after seeing the amount of red ink on the pages. The purpose of this text is to illuminate the problems that students may encounter with teacher response, and to make suggestions for helping students achieve greater success in the future.

Also suited to our topic, Straub�s article raises a number of issues on teacher response, focussing specifically on the idea that there are two major forms of comments: directive and facilitative. He suggests that teacher response tends to be controlling rather than supportive and open-ended. Straub argues that directive-style response is very authoritarian, thus taking control from the students and diminishing what they can learn from the comments.

While the Freedman text contains a chapter that is useful to our study, it is not as useful as the above sources. The chapter discusses a survey similar to our own, utilising many of the same techniques we did in completing our research. These include: analysis of written responses from teachers, a summary of results from teachers� surveys discussing how helpful they thought the responses to be, and students� opinions about the helpfulness of response in general. While their survey is far more extensive, dealing with numerous disciplines at the elementary and secondary levels, some of the findings are quite similar to ours.

Chris Anson�s compilation of articles is interesting, but not particularly useful to our specific topic. It does give some insights, though, into the theories behind response. One article deals with the complex structuring behind teacher response and the attitudes that affect these responses. Another article deals with the teacher�s role as a reader of student papers and with the responsibility students� have in their own work. This idea is further explored in a third article commenting on the usefulness of students responding to their own works as well as the works of their peers.

Although there seems to be a consensus throughout the texts that comments can be useful to students, this material is intended mainly for teachers, addressing ways in which to improve comments so that response will become more helpful to the students. What we found most lacking, however, is the very issue that we are intent on exploring: how students can use instructors� comments to find success in writing human geography papers. There are many studies searching for ways to clear up the waters of response, but next to nothing on how to navigate through the muddy debris.

Although the graphs (see figures 1 and 2) display all the comments from the papers, many of the comments were seen to be repetitive, or very similar to others. Therefore, the following section only provides an overall selection of the comments from each of the seven categories. The highlighted examples of instructor comments will serve to help explain patterns and to give solid examples of what is meant by each category.


Positive Reinforcement

A large category for both upper and lower level, positive reinforcement (see figures 1 and 2) seems to suggest that teachers feel the need for providing encouragement in papers in order to temper the more critical remarks further on. Any of the "positive" sections could also be seen as positive reinforcement, but this category is used mainly for vague, general comments of this sort (see appendices A and B).


There are many types of referencing errors and instructors are adamant about pointing them out (see appendices A, C, D, E, F, and G). The most interesting aspect of this category is the number of comments on lower and upper level papers. While there are many remarks about referencing errors in upper level, there are few in the lower level (see figures 1 and 2). The reason for this may be that there is a greater emphasis placed on being aware of what kinds of sources are acceptable and in knowing the field intimately in upper level.

Grammar problems

Grammar problems are rampant throughout geography papers (see appendices D and L). Common mistakes are punctuation and wording which do not only disrupt the flow of the sentence, but may also change the sentence�s meaning. Therefore, grammar problem needs to be addressed by the instructor. Figures 1 and 2 show that grammar problems make up a much larger percentage within the lower level papers where almost half of all comments were of this type! This may be because upper level students have improved grammar skills, or because instructors put less emphasis on these types of mistakes, focussing rather on field-related aspects of the paper.


This category is skewed in favour of the upper level papers (see figures 1 and 2) suggesting again that instructors expect more from certain areas in the higher levels. As with referencing, comments for structure and layout tend to be relatively specific to the field of geography. It seems that instructors expect advanced students to have learned this information during their time within the discipline (see appendices B and D).

?Missing information

Though many of the comments in this section are fairly field-specific, it seems that all instructors are intolerant of missing information (see appendix H) which can make the paper unclear, unfocussed, and lacking depth.


Much like missing information, instructors are not forgiving of inaccurate information within a paper (see appendices C, I, and J), as it shows sloppiness of research. There is also the appearance of "outdated" information� this is definitely a social-science trait, and would thus be highly unlikely to appear in disciplines such as English or History. Geography demands accurate, updated information.

General content

The general content category contains comments that deal specifically with the content of the paper (see appendices B, G, K, L). These could be both in-text or end comments. They are not necessarily helpful for subsequent papers due to the fact that they tend to be very paper-specific.

The comments that we have exemplified display a tendency of being directive in style. They are often editorial changes that tell the students what is wrong and how to fix the problems without allowing the students any room for input of their own. Furthermore, there are no social comments - not a single written invitation to "come see me" or anything of the sort.


We have yet to come across a geography paper that has not elicited some sort of instructor response. Studying and using these comments can be an important part of a student�s learning process. Interviewing three human geography instructors from the University College of the Cariboo (UCC) - Gilles Viaud, Tom Waldichuk, and Heather Nicol - gave some insight into instructor response.

All the geography instructors agree that positive reinforcement is an important part of instructor response. Viaud and Waldichuk (1999) both stated they begin with positive comments before moving into specific areas of the paper where the student went wrong.

Regarding referencing, Waldichuk states that he is more lenient with sources and referencing materials in lower level papers. As for upper level papers, his opinion is that there should be no excuse for bad referencing. Some lower level instructors are not as lenient; many provide seminars specifically addressing how to reference correctly and avoid plagiarism.

Importance is also placed on correct grammar. All interviewees emphasised that grammar mistakes are unnecessary, especially in upper level courses. Mistakes display that students cannot convey their ideas effectively and they leave a bad impression in the mind of the instructor.

Poor structure and layout have a similar effect. Instructors look for a logical and effective layout and a text that is fluent and well written. Both Viaud and Waldichuk take into consideration the overall impression they receive from the paper when grading. A good impression can raise a grade two to three percent.

Instructors strongly dislike missing information and inaccuracies as they undermine the authority of the paper and its writer. The instructors acknowledge that items such as maps and data pertinent to the paper must be included and well integrated into the text. Information of this sort needs to be reliable and accurate in order to support the students� points.

The instructors agree that general content must also be precise and fully developed. Therefore, they often comment on the paper as a whole before directing students to more specific areas of difficulty. Heather Nicol (1999) asserts that, for her, content is the most important aspect of a geography paper. The topic must be focussed, and must be discussed in an interesting and innovative manner.

All the instructors hope that their comments are useful, but feel that many students do not pay much attention to the comments since their subsequent papers do not show improvement. Furthermore, the instructors find that students rarely utilize the office hours provided to discuss their papers. Instructors stress that they are readily available to talk one-on-one with the students. However, our findings show that comments concerning student-instructor conferences rarely show up on papers, which may be why students do not feel comfortable seeking advice from their instructors.

As with the instructors, the students we interviewed at UCC believe that comments can be an important part of their learning process. There were, however, some differences of opinion on what roles instructors should play in responding to student papers.

While the students appreciate encouraging responses from the instructors, most of them feel that critical comments are generally more beneficial to their writing. They prefer directed-style comments because they help them understand what the instructor does or does not want from a paper. As well, the students are motivated to do better on their next assignment. The students like to see where they went wrong so they can correct their mistakes.

One problem area for students is referencing. They find that their instructors expect more precise referencing in upper level courses than in lower. Carla Salituro (1999) states that instructors expect a number of different types of sources and that these sources have to be referenced properly in geographical format. Dawn Hull (1999) disagrees with some of the comments instructors make about referencing and feels that the instructors do not adequately prepare them in regard to referencing.

Most students are, however, fully prepared for what to expect in the area of grammar. They know that grammar is important to all papers and that instructors will invariably comment on it. On the other hand, Cathy Elmore (1999) feels that some of the changes that instructors make can affect the meaning of the ideas, and thus do not reflect what the student is trying to get across. The students find it ironic that the comments are not always grammatically correct themselves (or legible for that matter). Many students feel that it is not worth their time to decipher the instructors� poor handwriting.

All the students interviewed believe that structure and layout, visuals, and accurate, detailed information plays a big part in geography papers. They agree, though, that these aspects are not always easy to incorporate into papers and that instructors are not always clear about what they expect. Therefore, receiving a negative comment on something that they thought they had done right can be discouraging. At the same time, they realise the teacher is often correct once they look at the comment again.

Furthermore, some students find that general content comments occasionally provide clues as to what the instructors expect in the content of a paper, while others find the comments to be too general, or paper-specific, to be of much use. Some students do not even try to incorporate information garnered from comments for use in future papers. Unfortunately, these students found that they did not improve on their later papers. The students that did use the comments saw improvement.

Regarding the issue of instructor-student conferences, some students feel intimidated by their instructors and so are unwilling to go see the instructors. Others believe that speaking to the teacher will not be of any use because they think that instructors� comments are not negotiable. Colleen Nichol (1999) admits that she would not approach her instructor unless the comments were blatantly inappropriate. When students do not talk to their instructors, the written comments become the only insight into the instructors� expectations.

Through interviews, existing literature, and close analysis of comments on student papers, we have established that instructor response is considered valuable both by instructors and by students. We also found that there are some existing problems in interpreting and using written comments. Comments are not always received in the spirit in which they are given, as students do not always appreciate the critique of their paper. Many times the students misinterpret the comments - if they can even read them - which renders the response completely useless. Even when students do read comments, they might not know exactly how to use them for later papers. This last problem in particular is addressed further in the following section, in order to provide students with clues on how to establish a solid foundation on which they can build their writing abilities.

For those students out there wondering what to do when they are handed back a paper: read the comments that the instructor leaves scattered all over the pages. These comments can be the vital link to information both on the demands of the discipline in general and on the values to which the instructor specifically subscribes. Look to see what kind of comments trek across your paper, then see the following table for suggestions.

  • Remember, your instructor is always available for consultation.
  • Good luck and happy writing
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