Responding to Response Papers

Sue Lonoff

 One- to two-page response papers assigned throughout the term have many uses. They can help students:

  • keep up with the reading and so come to section prepared to participate
  • think more critically and analytically about the material
  • prepare for longer papers and examinations.

If read before the section meets, they can also help instructors to

  • identify issues that still need to be covered
  • alert the whole class to recurring problems and give everybody tips on preventing them
  • decide which students to call on at various points in the discussion.

Responding to response papers is a necessary though time-consuming task. It is necessary because, if you do not, most students will stop putting effort into them. But how can you respond to every paper without expending vast amounts of time and labor?

1. Briefly say something positive. Positive feedback motivates the student and opens the channels of communication. Possible comments at the end of the paper:

* "I like what you say about -----."

* "You introduce your subject well."

* "You understand what X says about -----."

* "You have gone beyond the requirements by -----."

* "You have correctly summarized X's position on -----."

* "You argue here [You try to argue] that -----."

Note that even the last comment is positive because it tells students that you've heard them. Note too that each of these comments addresses the substance of the paper. Many students need to be told what they've done right, so that they can build on their strengths.

As you read along, add positive comments in the margins: "good point," "well argued," "perceptive," "yes," "interesting," etc.

2. Identify the main problem, if there is one _ or, at most, the two main problems. You may frame your response as a statement or a question. Possibilities for the end of the paper:

* "You do not respond to [this part of] the question [the instructions]"; then specify.

* "You summarize X, but you haven't taken a position of your own on this argument."

* "What is your evidence for -----?"

* "I'm not convinced you understand what X means by [is saying about] -----." You can also be more explicit and tell the student what she or he missed.

* "But you have not covered [addressed the issue of] -----."

* "Your analysis of ----- is not clear to me." You can also tell the student why.

* "How would you explain the inconsistency [contradiction] in -----?"

* "I find this argument [discussion, passage] hard to follow because...."

As you read along, add questions and comments in the margins: "for example?" "evidence?" "What do you mean here?" "Can you make this point clearer"?

3. If the paper has major problems or problems that you cannot easily define, ask the writer to see you after class or in a short conference.

Concentrate on helping the student understand (1) what you expect in a response paper (2) how to read and analyze the material (3) how to present the evidence (4) how to argue effectively.

See also: Grading