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Moving out of the margins

A student writing Photo courtesy of Hazma Butt

A student of the Humanities and Social Sciences, most of my assignment feedback was relegated to the margins of a Word document or ream of paper with the occasional paragraph at the end summarizing my grade. In many of my courses there was the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the professor or teaching assistant; however, being a typical student, I rarely used that opportunity unless I felt obligated.

As a teaching assistant, I can count on two hands the number of students seeing me during office hours to discuss the margin notes I laboured over to improve their writing and critical-thinking skills. Instead of a discussion on the content and theory however, office hours were often spent challenging or negotiating the letter grade in the margin or final page.

In a recent article, David Gooblar discusses how he turns these confrontational discussions into more collaborative meetings by involving his students in the grading process. After students read the margin feedback, Gooblar schedules 20-minute meetings where he reads the draft aloud and asks the students what they think of their work.

This query brings the margins into a formal discussion, giving the students agency over their work and encouraging them to engage in metacognition. After the discussion, students often leave thinking more about how they can improve their work rather than the grade.

As an instructor, I use this in-person dialogue to engage with students and help them understand and act upon the comments in the margins and—through Crowdmark—the graphical and textual feedback anywhere on their assignments.

I also use these individual and group meetings to instill the following meta-cognitive habits for writing:

  1. Read the completed assignment aloud in front of a mirror. This is one of the most effective ways to evaluate the flow of your paragraphs and identify awkward passages.
  2. Read the assignment backwards with a red pen. When reading your own work, its easy to miss grammatical errors and typos. Going backwards makes common splices and homonym mistakes much more evident.

Written feedback is most effective when taken out of the margins and brought into dialogue with students. Setting the expectation for students that these dialogues will occur with their teaching assistants or instructors will encourage students to read the feedback in the margins and integrate them into future work.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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