How Can We Help Students Proofread?

As this guide continues to argue, our students need our help in adopting effective writing practices, particularly by dividing up large projects into tasks of manageable size. Under tight deadlines we all cut corners, and students who save too much work for the last weekend before the paper is due will inevitably turn in papers that have a variety of errors, and may even plagiarize unintentionally. It is certainly true that some students simply don’t want to put in enough time on any given project, but in most cases, we can help.

Tips to Make Your Grading Easier: Encourage Proofreading

Most of us already verbally encourage students to proofread their papers, but a little extra encouragement—in modes other than the verbal—always helps. As has been suggested already, allowing students to read one another’s drafts often helps them recognize errors that they might be making in their own writing, so proofreading might be one skill to invite them to develop in the draft-review process suggested in Tip #12. It also can’t hurt to re-emphasize good proofreading strategies, including leaving time for the paper to “rest” before returning to proofread, trading papers for proofreading, or, in cases of extensive grammatical problems, having someone else read the paper back to the writer aloud. But we can help the most by grading efficiently.

TIP #14: Prioritize Grading

Students who have extensive grammatical and stylistic problems usually also have significant problems with argument and integrating sources. Studies in composition education have shown that focusing on nitty-gritty details alone does not work. Students learn writing holistically, and develop better proofreading skills as they develop more coherent arguments, and deal with concepts and sources more effectively. At the college level at least, drilling grammar rules does not improve student writing.

When we grade student papers, then, it helps if we can focus our comments and our allocation of points on issues of argument, including main claims, support, and integration of sources. A paper that loses a full grade for a tendency toward run-on sentences will tell that student that he should go and fix his grammar, to the exclusion of the likely co-occurring problems with argumentation. Chances are, too, that papers with systemic grammar and style problems also have systemic logic and source-integration problems.

Finally, argument and source-integration should also remain our focus for a different but related reason: Many students embark on a paper without clearly understanding the course material itself, or without being able to apply that course material to the sources they locate in their research. When they sit down to write an idea they have not developed clearly, students may produce grammatically unintelligible sentences. Likewise, when they sit down to summarize or paraphrase a source’s argument that they do not understand, students may also produce contorted sentences, or more likely plagiarize unintentionally. We can help students with this kind of problem, not only by grading effectively, but also by using process assignments to identify struggling students before the paper is due. If we review initial plans and outlines for large papers, we can identify students who seem not to understand course concepts early on, and give them special attention (see Tip # 7; Tip # 8). In addition, if we review informal “write-to-learn” assignments (see Why Make Students Write?), we can often identify these problems even earlier.

TIP #15: Comment Efficiently

Many students will make a variety of errors in their writing, and may have difficulty deciding how to fix unfortunate habits. When we single out every single error for full commentary, we compound the problem by conveying the expectation that everything should be perfect.

It's helpful to mark errors in the text when they occur, but we can help students prioritize by:

  1. ...only flagging recurring errors once, and appending a comment such as “see throughout.” Marking every single error takes too much of our time, drowns the paper in “red ink,” and suggests that editing (proofreading) is something that someone else does to their papers.
  2. ...noting the most important problems in comments at the paper’s end. In particular, if we can identify patterns in the student’s errors, we can help students eliminate more problems by pointing out the pattern and offering useful advice for use in proofreading, not composing a paper. 

It's worth remembering that writing takes a tremendous amount of cognitive activity. If students attempt to correct their grammar as they compose their first draft, they will have less cognitive resources to devote to their ideas and argument. If we convince them that everything has to be perfect after one draft, we will, ironically, make their writing worse.

A Writing Guide for Social Work Created in 2011-2018 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington