Skip navigation
Degree Programs

University Writing Program

Working Online with Student Writers

Commenting and grading

In an online teaching environment, writing will take on more importance. As a teacher, you will be reading more, and students will be writing more. The most important thing is to not feel like you have to comment on everything. Here are a few strategies for commenting and grading.  

Use minimal marking/response strategies. Minimal marking replaces marking “errors” in written work with editing marks or extensive commenting with check marks or, in an online environment, you might use a highlighter feature in the word processor. Students then have to figure out the mistake, and Haswell’s original study found students were able to do so most of the time. Trait response. Respond only to 1-2 traits that are most important to a paper. For example, you might focus on conceptual traits (e.g., whether students can articulate a course concept covered that particular day) or technical skills (e.g., source integration).  

Build smart and useful rubrics. Rubrics communicate a wider selection of traits for a written assignment, and often, ascribes point values to those traits so students can see how things are valued. However, you should communicate what a trait is within the rubric as educational-speak and jargon will often not help a student. For example, avoid phrases like “critical thinking” or “depth of analysis.” Instead, describe the actual trait that the writer can accomplish (e.g., has writer described two reasons why X happens; has writer provided 2 bits of evidence or sources). We would encourage you to develop rubrics for online discussions as well.  

Share good student writing examples. If a student writer does something particularly well, share it with the class. You should always ask permission, and also ask whether they want their identity associated with the writing (it’s best to err on the side of always anonymizing). You don’t have the share a whole paper. It can be a passage or even specific sentence.  

Use student process memos to open a quick dialogue. A process memo is a short email or message that updates where the student is in a writing or research project. These time-on-task activities hold the students accountable for working (rather than procrastinating) on a project, but you can use them in the aggregate to gauge what students might be struggling with, so that you can provide them with more instruction or resources.   Responding to student writing can be done in a few ways.  

Use of Speed Grader in Canvas. Students upload papers in response to defined Assignments in Canvas. You can then respond to those papers in one place. Speed Grader is helpful because you cannot do marginal comments—it is designed for end comments only, and it forces you to focus on larger order concerns such as strength or originality of ideas, evidence/support, and audience. Here is a short video from YaleCourses.  

You can respond to student writing with video comments. There are a few ways to do this.

  1. If you have a large class, you can create a short video that responds to common patterns that you noted in a set of papers. For example, you might ask students to respond to a short, informal writing prompt. Rather than commenting on each one, or even adding check marks, you can create a short response video and publish it for all the students
  2. For more substantive assignments or smaller classes, you can respond via video to each one. For example, you might write marginal comments, but then a short video response that goes over the more important ones.

How do I use video tools to respond to students? Zoom allows you to do this most easily. However, to do this, you will need to download Zoom to your computer. To download, go to this link. You will still log on with your DU credentials, but the software is on your computer, and it is more powerful than the cloud Zoom or the link to Zoom in Canvas. Watch this short video on how to comment on student work with Zoom. While I use save to computer in this video, we would encourage using save to cloud and sharing the link to that cloud save with the student.   You can also use Kaltura within Canvas to do this. Here’s DU’s link to how to do this. However, I have had more troubles with this getting to work.  

Conference. Using Zoom, Kaltura, or Microsoft Teams, you can do an online conference with students for 10 minutes about a writing assignment, allowing them to ask questions. You might ask them to come to the session with 2-3 specific concerns they have about their paper. Instruct them that “does it make sense” is not a specific concern, but “does this evidence work in my second paragraph” is a specific concern. You can also hold small group conferences with these same guidelines.  

Self-evaluating or peer-evaluating. While this works best with a pre-determined rubric, you can allow students to self-evaluate or create peer-evaluation groups. In a self-evaluation, students complete a writing assignment by writing a 200-word evaluation of whether they achieved the goals of the assignment or met the rubric. Their grade on the paper can be split between your evaluation and theirs. Peer evaluations can also be helpful. Students are often more critical of each other than their teachers are, if you are concerned about rigor. In both self-evaluation and peer-evaluation models, you can portion the amount of the final grade that is determined by you, the student, and the peers.