Ready, Set, Comment

Matthew Luskey

The final weeks of the semester can be a period of frenzied production as students prepare drafts of their final projects—proposals, essays, presentations, etc.—with hopes of receiving guidance from their instructors and teaching assistants before turning in final versions. While intentionally scaffolded assignments can do much to support students through the process of completing a final project, they do not alleviate the need for timely feedback. For instructors and TAs, this can pose challenges when the desire to provide effective, encouraging, and formative feedback races against the clock. Strategies to manage the paperload can help with increasing the efficiency and productivity of responding to student work. One of these strategies—inserting pre-written comments—does require advance planning, but it can save time down the line without sacrificing important and specific feedback for students.

Whether one uses a spreadsheet with tabs, a Google document with internal bookmarks, or a digital tool such as Annotate Pro, instructors can quickly retrieve and insert comments that support students by offering encouragement, asking questions, identifying areas of concern,  offering direct instruction, and including links to additional support. Here are three suggestions for developing pre-written comments, followed by three considerations for using them.

Building a Bank of Comments: Three Suggestions

1. Create a set of comment categories that address a range of important topics you routinely focus on. Categories might include content-focused comments, instructional comments, motivational comments, and summative comments.

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Example: Prior to assigning a lab activity and report on custard and protein coagulation, a professor of Food Science works with their teaching assistants to create a comment bank, which includes comments on the format of the lab report, the use of bullet points to describe results, the explanations for the differences observed between the control and each of the other products in the experiment, and the observations on how temperature affects coagulation. Because the course can include up to 150 students, the comment bank enables the instructor and teaching assistants to respond quickly and effectively to support students on subsequent lab-based writing assignments.

2. For each of the feedback categories you identify, write a few core comments, ones you would anticipate writing repeatedly as you work your way through a batch of papers. For example, a category on instructional comments might include the following: “The figure you have inserted here is important, but there are some features that make it difficult to read. The labels and variable names should be clear and immediately meaningful to the target reader. Here is an example of an effectively labeled, captioned, and legible figure ([includes link to example]).”

3. Refine and expand your bank of comments based on the features and needs you see in the student writing.

Using Pre-written Comments: Three Considerations

For some instructors, inserting pre-written comments might seem like a canned approach to teaching with writing, one that resembles computer-generated responses or the predictive text replies now provided by Gmail, LinkedIn and other online platforms. Overly generic comments inserted at places that require specific feedback can certainly create the impression that students are not receiving customized and timely feedback on their work. To keep pre-written comments situation-specific, meaningful, and productive, consider the following:

1. Add personalization to the pre-written comment. For example, including the student's name at the beginning of an inserted, pre-written comment, especially one that might contain a detailed observation and suggestion, can signal that you have been selective with choosing the comment and signaling its specific application. Additional personalization can include making minor adjustments to the language in the comment to add important context. To return to the example above, personalization might look like this: “Adam, the figure you have inserted here is important, but there are some features that make it difficult to read. The labels and variable names should be clear and immediately meaningful to the economist who is reading your analysis. Here is an example of an effectively labeled, captioned, and legible figure ([includes link to example]).”

2. Vary the types of sentences in your comments, as well as the length and variety of the comments. In the sample comment above, Adam is told what needs to be improved. Another approach might be to use a pre-written comment to pose questions. For example, “What is the purpose of this figure here? Can you clarify how this will help the economist grasp your analysis?” In some cases, a shorter imperative comment will be effective, such as ”Please make your figure more legible by including a clear label and caption. Your target reader will appreciate this!” As you are developing your comment bank, consider the ways that a declarative, interrogative or imperative version of the comment might be expressed and selected to fit the context.

3. Focus on developing positive comments, not just instructional or correctional ones. For many of us, it can be all too easy to fixate on the issues of need and support for students. After all, the clock is ticking and those pre-written comments addressing attribution and citation practices can certainly help. However, concentrating only on areas of improvement can project a deficit tone to students. Including pre-written comments that specify the strengths at particular moments can be highly effective in motivating students, especially at the end of the semester. For example, it’s important to let Adam know what’s working well for you as a reader: “The figure you have inserted here is excellent! It is well labeled, captioned, and it synthesizes the information for your target reader. Well done!” One simple strategy for making sure your comment bank includes positive feedback is to draft affirming comments that address the same issues as the instructional ones.

Do you have a comment?

Do you use pre-written comments in your feedback on student work? Do you have concerns or reservations about doing so? Please share your thoughts below.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages or teaching resources. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.


I really like this idea. Do you have a list of such comments (especially the positive ones!) that we could start with and modify?