Responding to Student Writing

Responding to students’ writing is the part of WAC that often worries instructors because it is here that incorporating more writing into their courses seems most like an imposition, demanding more time from the instructor. But, in fact, responding to students’ writing may not require as much time as you might think.

Managing the Paper Load and Minimal Marking

  • Use feedback sheets and in-class editing or peer review sessions.
  • Introduce a grading rubric to simplify and reduce time spent poring laboriously over papers.
  • Limit comments to 3 or 4 on writing assignments.
  • Hold students responsible for correction of their mechanical errors through evaluative checklists. Concerns about proper grammar usage can be addressed through the Writing Center or through low-stakes in-class writing that focuses on the specific ‘pet peeves’ of the instructor.
  • Incorporate a lower-order concerns sheet (see the WAC office for a copy) for students and a checkmark system to give students hands-on experience. This may reduce the stress normally associated with grammatical errors, since it becomes a collective and collaborative exercise
  • Return work submitted with an inordinate amount of errors to the student and have him or her check the entire document using the checkmark system, or refer the student to the Writing Center.

Reflecting Level of Formality

However, different levels of formality in the types of writing students are asked to do require different levels of formality in response. Responses should reflect the formality of the assignment and the time students put into that assignment.

A low-stakes assignment such as a quick-write at the end of a class period could be sufficiently responded to by a public acknowledgement at the beginning of the next class meeting. One example could be, “Most of you grasped the concept of __________, but for those of you who did not, reviewing chapter __________ should be a priority.” Brief writing does not need to be marked or graded, and can be anonymous. 

A high-stakes assignment should receive two kinds of response: (1) to the student’s ideas, and, (2) to the quality of the student’s writing, considering both rhetorical concerns (focus, structure, development) and language concerns (correctness). 

For high-stakes writing of formal papers, students expect and should be given a grade. The general criteria used for grading the CUNY Proficiency Examination (CPE) provide guidelines that may be useful for evaluating high-stakes writing: 

Focus: Is the paper focused coherently on the assignment? Is there a clear sense of structure?

Ideas: Does what the student says show understanding of the material?

Support: Is the paper sufficiently developed, with explanations and examples to support the ideas? If research is used, are there references and documentation? 

Language: Does the paper communicate clearly and effectively, using appropriate conventions of language (e.g., word choice, grammar, punctuation, and spelling)?


Plagiarism is a problem that is clearly not limited to academia. Although the Internet has had an impact on the frequency of the offense, plagiarism is not new. All of us have our outrageous stories about plagiarism. There have always been and will always be occasional students who plagiarize assignments. 

York College has a strong policy about plagiarism. Once you are sure that the work is not the student’s own, you must decide the course of action you will take in response, meet with the student to discuss the offense, and report the incident in accordance with the policies of your Department. 

The WI instructor’s goal must be prevention, not just enforcement. There are many reasons why students plagiarize. These explanations do not excuse, but understanding motivations may help us to prevent students from feeling the need to plagiarize.

There are many transfer students who were never taught how to cite correctly, and those who have taken English 125 forget under pressure. Too many students assume that writing a paper is simply a matter of stringing together bits and pieces that they read. They do not know or forget that the words and ideas being used must be credited to the author.

Some students know that they must cite sources, but do not understand the way to do this properly or what passages require a citation. Students think that they only need to provide a source if a precise quotation is used. They do not realize that using someone else’s idea also needs a reference. When students are told “put it into your own words,” they think that this means changing a word or two. They do not yet understand that this task implies critically thinking about what was read and explaining it from their point of view. York College • City University of New York 29 

You must let students know what constitutes plagiarism, that it is a serious offense (potentially leading to dismissal from College), and what you will do in response. You need to formulate your own way of dealing with the College policy. A good start is including a warning about plagiarism on the course syllabus. 

There is no way to avoid plagiarism completely, but you can diminish the probability of receiving plagiarized work by paying closer attention to the way you develop assignments, by adhering to the process approach for completing writing assignments, and by informing students that plagiarism is an egregious act.

The following excerpt is from a handout used by Professor Meredeth Turshen in her courses at Rutgers University. This course handout explains what plagiarism is, why it is to be avoided, and then uses a real world instance to show how “easy” it is to plagiarize even among professional writers. (This example is most definitely being used with her permission- feel free to copy it for your classes!)

To plagiarize is to take ideas, writings, etc. from another (including websites!) and pass them off as one’s own. The way to avoid the charge of plagiarism is to cite the source. You cannot paraphrase someone else and pretend that it is not a direct quote and doesn’t need a citation. It does. Use any standard form of citation but always include the author, date, title of book or article and journal, and page number. The purpose of the system of citations is to enable any other scholar to look up your references and decide whether you have correctly interpreted the text. Because plagiarism is an offense for which students can be expelled from the university, it is important to understand exactly what constitutes this type of academic dishonesty. 

Given below, side by side, are the original and plagiarized versions of a text. The original passages are from Laurence Bergreen’s biography of James Agee, and the plagiarism was committed by John Hersey in The New Yorker magazine. Hersey failed to acknowledge his source.

The plum assignment gave After rather bumpty exper-

Agee a chance to demonstrate iences with articles on but-

the range of journalistic skills ter, cockfights, and quinine,

he had painstakingly acquired Agee was offered a plum; a

in the course of churning out piece on one of Franklin D.

journeyman stories on topics Roosevelt’s more successful

as diverse as butter, cock-fights, undertakings, the Tennessee

and quinine. Valley Authority.

Alma and Agee left Broolyn Summer came, and so that

and all its dreary associations Jim could resume work on 

for the twenty-five-dollar-a- the book, he and Alma ren-

month farm they had rented ted a decrepit stone house,

the previous winter. Located in Stockton, New Jersey, for

in Stockton, New Jersey, twenty-five dollars a month--

Monk’s Farm consisted of an quarters somewhat, but not 

old stone house and plenty of much above sharecropper’s

open country, but little else. To standards. There was no 

friends from New York in bathroom. “All God’s out-

search of a bathroom, Agee ex- doors,” Agee told his visitors,

claimed, “Why, all of God’s “is a toilet!” He read his 

outdoors is a toilet!” . . . At drafts aloud to a series of 

the time Agee had visited the guests, to great praise. But 

sharecroppers, three years ear- the mood of the nation had 

lier, the Depression had been been inexorably shifting, like

public issue number one, but a contintental plate; his topic

it had since been supplanted by no longer earthshaking. Rad-

ominous developments abroad ios echoed with distant shou- 

. . . Hitler made threatening ts of “Heil Hitler!” Further-

gestures against his neighbors. more, in May, John Stein-

Radios on both sides of the At- beck’s enormously success-

lantic reverberated with shouts ful book “The Grapes of

of “Seig Heil!” As a vital issue Wrath” had preempted read-

the Depression dated . . . Anoth- ers’ pity for the dispossessed.

writer, John Steinbeck, had come

along . . .