Field Note Friday: Students Reflecting on Writing

The Philosophy

For hundreds or even thousands of years, perhaps since the invention of writing, writing teachers have been writing feedback on student essays.

This is really time consuming.

English teachers invoke a lot of pity from the rest of the world. Nary a week goes by that someone doesn’t say to me, “I just don’t know how you do it. . .all those papers.” Yep.

The ENTIRE reason that English teachers are so miserable sometimes is this stack of papers that follows us everywhere.  Essays live not only in stacks around my classroom, but also on the living room desk, in the trunk of my car, on the guest bed, and even in my bedroom.

But I’ll let you in on a little English teacher secret: the most difficult part of grading papers is, in fact, not the determining of the grade.  That’s actually a relatively speedy process.  The difficult part of grading papers is justifying the grade to the student through comments on the essay.

Has anyone ever stopped to ask whether or not all this commenting is effective? Actually, I’m sure that they have. I know I have. Every single time I collect an essay.

I firmly believe that if you love your job, you have to figure out how to minimize the parts of the job that frustrate you.  I love my job, but I loathe grading. I realize that assessment and feedback are important, but I don’t want to spend hours and hours marking and commenting on essays.  I do actually love to teach writing. I love to read student writing.  I love watching students grow and learning about their thoughts, but doing my own writing on their writing is a tedious process.

And I’m still not sure if all this work is beneficial to anyone.

The more writing I feel I have to do on their essays, the more I will resent writing. The more I resent writing, the less I will assign. The less writing I assign, the less writing students will do. The less writing students do, the less they will actually grow as writers.

Not to mention that the more writing I diligently scribe on essays, the less of my own writing I am able to do.

This year I set a goal for myself to find more enjoyment in my work, and in order to enjoy my work more, I need to spend less time grading.  I need to spend only the time that will effect change.   If I spend 8-10 minutes scoring and commenting on an essay, only to have a student recycle that essay or simply put it in his or her binder never to look at it again, then I have wasted my time.

Writers need to reflect on their own writing.  Students need to deal with the feedback they have been given.

This week I decided to see if I could turn over some of the feedback to the people who actually benefit from analyzing their writing the most: the students.

The Procedure

I passed out the students’ previous essay. This essay had a few minimal comments and a score at the end.  The score was a holistic score (I usually use scores adapted from the 1-9 scoring guide used on AP tests.  In some classes I may use a scoring guide adapted from our state test or a college entrance exam.  You could easily adapt the Common Core rubrics also).

I also gave each student a copy of the rubric and a copy of the checklist of common essay suggestions.

I then gave students a series of questions to answer about their essays.  I asked each student to think about what he or she did well and then what he or she would like to change about his or her writing.  The very last question asked the students to give themselves suggestions from the list of common essay suggestions.  I borrowed or adapted most of the questions from this lesson found at

I asked the students to see if they could figure out why they received the scores that they did.

I further offered a challenge: the students have one week to schedule a writing conference with me if they believe that their score is too low. I will listen to their concerns; and if they convince me, I’ll change the essay grade.

The Photographic Proof

Reflection 8

Reflection 7

Reflection 6

Reflection 5

Reflection 4

Reflection 3

Reflection 2

Reflection 1

This week I will spend some time reading through their reflections to see how they did and how I will need to adapt this activity for their next writing assignment.

How do the rest of you cope with your grading load? How do you help students reflect on their own writing? How do you make feedback meaningful?


  1. This is a BRILLIANT suggestion! I’m taking a year off to learn more about education but when I’m back in the classroom I will use this technique right away! It’s brilliantly metacognitive AND spares you a load of misery! How is it working for you? Have you had to adapt it?


    1. So far, their reflections are well-thought out. I haven’t read all of them, but I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far. I even had one student say that she was changing the current essay she’s working on based on her reflection. I do highly recommend doing this activity IN class rather than as homework. That way I was able to move around the room and help them as they reflected, which is most consistent with a writing workshop model that I try to use.


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