Annotating writing submissions: A strategy to help students be intentional about their writing and share assessment responsibility

I love teaching; however, I’m less fond of the part of teaching where I have to read and comment on students’ assignments when the assignment criteria are poorly met. That part of teaching can be frustrating, disheartening and unproductive. To address this situation, over the years, I’ve implemented a number of strategies to foster students’ ability to complete assignments according to the criteria. These strategies involve students in a dialogue about their work before they submit it to me for assessment.

One of these strategies is to have students annotate their writing to illustrate where they have addressed assignment criteria. For example, when I assign a piece of argumentative writing, such as a research paper or an essay, I include among the criteria the articulation of a thesis statement—and no, it’s not a given that all papers have one. When I set to reading and commenting on students’ writing, I all too frequently end up engaging in a hunt for this key piece of information. It’s an unproductive use of my time.

To mitigate this problem, I include annotation instructions as part of the overall assignment instructions. In this case, students must identify the thesis statement, as well as selected other criteria, in their writing. Example instructions appear in Figure 1.

  1. Underline your thesis statement and write thesis statement next to it in the right margin.
  2. Underline each of your main ideas (i.e., ideas that support the thesis) and write main idea next to each one in the right margin.

Figure 1: Selected annotation instructions for an argumentative writing assignment

The annotations compel students to consider their writing at a metacognitive level. Students need to ask themselves: Where is my thesis statement? Which are my main ideas? If they can’t identify these features in their own writing, they shouldn’t expect readers to be able to discern them! Of course, it does happen that students underline a sentence they believe is a thesis statement, yet it has no argument. That’s okay. It tells me something about students’ thinking and I can focus my feedback comments so that they are instructive. The comments then have the potential to help students improve their writing. See an example of student annotations in this document.

Students’ writing submissions must include the annotations. The annotations are not graded, but I let students know in the assignment description that I will not read, comment on, or assign a grade to submissions that do not include the annotations per the instructions.

There are four reasons why I like the strategy:

  1. It’s simple to implement because the annotation instructions are drawn from the assignment criteria.
  2. It’s flexible in that annotations can apply to any type of writing assignment as long as they address the assignment criteria, and they can address selected criteria rather than all criteria.
  3. It shifts the responsibility for assessment solely from instructors to a shared responsibility between instructors and students.
  4. It’s efficient because commenting on students’ writing takes me less time when students’ annotations guide my reading.

Interested in seeing more examples of how this and other strategies can foster students’ engagement in dialogue about their work before they turn it over to the instructor for feedback? Curious about theoretical underpinnings that suggest why such strategies might be worthwhile? Read more.

If you are part of the McGill community, you can access recordings of a four-part webinar series offered by TLS on the topic of shared responsibility in the context of feedback strategies by logging in to Office 365 and selecting: Video > the Teaching and Learning Services channel. Look for the videos entitled: Webinars: Feedback Strategies.

How do you get your students to become intentional about their writing and share responsibility for assessment?

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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