Thinking about Essays

Thinking about Essays

For teachers of writing, correcting essays presents problems. First, there are so many. Second, how can you get students to remember those corrections?

Jason Renshaw argues on English Raven that students expect too many corrections. More than that, they don’t get much out of the corrections. He does an experiment where he asks students a week later to remember any of the corrections he’d made. The students do a terrible job. Jason’s test might be a little unfair, but the idea is that if a student sees a paper full of red marks, they don’t look at anything. On the other hand, if they have just a few red marks, they examine them more closely.

Is this true? Maybe. A good study would be useful, but here are some important variables:

  • How many essays will they write and how often will they write? If they write more essays and have everything corrected every time, then the simple errors will decrease.
  • How motivated are the students? If they’re pouring over their essays, rewriting all the mistakes, etc., more corrections should help them more.
  • What is their level? Are the corrections teaching them new things or just reviewing old material? If a student makes a mistake with the Cauasative Have at lower-intermediate level, you don’t want them spending their time learning it. There are bigger fish to fry.
  • What are the students’ goals? Do they just want to be able to communicate or is style important to their future writing?

Anyway, from a serious student’s perspective, all their mistakes are at least interesting. And the important mistakes might surprise teachers. Sometimes a student has struggled over a sentence, but the teacher doesn’t realize it. If you don’t let them know where their mistakes are, they may never know if they were successful with a particular sentence.

On the other hand, students need to understand the time constraints teachers have. If you don’t have the time to give each essay detailed corrections, then you don’t have the time. There’s no changing it.

The Stuart Mill English business corrects all the mistakes and then we note key mistakes. For the busy teacher, maybe a better strategy would be to simply underline all the mistakes (so that your students know that you know) and then to add three key mistakes at the end of the essay. You could explain those errors—why they are wrong, the grammar principle behind them, and suggestions for practice. If the student wants more work, suggest that they rewrite the essay and try to find a way to rewrite anything that was underlined.

One last point: one of the keys to learning is repetition. If a student spends two minutes with their essay, one correction or fifty won’t matter. Follow-up exercises are more important than anything else.

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