WAC Strategies for Student Error Correction


This article will appear in the Hostos Community College Publication Hostos WAC Initiative: From the Writing Desk Spring 2016, Volume 15

How much is the right amount of correction on student writing? How can we give students the tools they need to become better writers without placing an undue burden on faculty? How do we make students care about improving their formal writing skills? Faculty voiced a frustration with correcting student work, and we listened! In Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 I presented a faculty workshop called “What’s Wrong with this Paper: The Role of Grammar in Student Writing.”

Workshop participants responded enthusiastically to the strategies offered for marking student work. Several participants reported appreciating the discussion of minimal marking strategies. Richard Haswell’s 1992 article, “Minimal Marking,” suggests marking an “x” in the margin next to lines of text that have an error (and multiple marks for multiple errors). When you hand the papers back to the students, allow them to find and fix their errors, and resubmit the paper. Haswell reports that students can typically correct 60%-70% of their own errors. This method actively engages students in the process of finding their own patterns of error, and faculty save time correcting papers.

Another topic discussed was recognizing causes of student error and prioritizing correction to the most distracting errors. One participant reported, “[discussing] causes of errors made me think about the difference between errors due to rushing/carelessness and errors based on misunderstanding grammar rules or the challenge of high level content.” For example, unclear writing can indicate that students are struggling with a concept. Asking students to submit multiple drafts will help them solidify their thoughts about a topic, and that will lead to higher quality written work. John Bean’s 2011 book, Engaging Ideas, addresses these and other causes of student error, concluding that when teachers know where errors are coming from, they can better prioritize the types of errors they want to address. Further, Constance Weaver’s 1996 book, Teaching Grammar in Context, provides a ranking of errors, from “very serious” to “minor or unimportant”, based on a survey distributed to hiring managers.

The workshop ended with a reminder that as educators concerned about writing, it’s important for us to express to students why they need to care about formal writing and grammar use. There’s a stigma attached to speaking and writing in “nonstandard” (low prestige) varieties of English. Telling students that sloppy writing shows sloppy thinking can cause them to internalize the thought that if they can’t write well, their ideas are not worth hearing. This criticism often leads to a loss of motivation to improve writing. Try instead framing the issue this way: formal writing is a choice. Just as most of us would choose to dress more formally for a job interview in order to make a good impression, using formal written English is a strategy people use when trying to reach a certain communicative outcome. Using these WAC best practices can help students improve their relationship with writing and use formal writing as a tool to move past gatekeepers and achieve their goals.