When Commenting on Student Writing, Use This Shortcut with Extreme Care

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

I’ve encountered both good and not so good practices for tutoring and teaching writing over the past twenty years, and the difference between the two often comes down to how to best use a tool.

TextExpanderThere is one tool in particular that I could not do asynchronous paper review half as well without. For me, the brand has changed over the years as I began with Typeitin by Wavget then used Spartan Multi Clipboard and now use TextExpander by Smile, but all do the same thing: paste previously written comments on a paper. I’d recommend any of these clipboard programs to any tutor or instructor who regularly reads and responds to student writing online.

When so many students new to academic style need help with the same matters of formatting and citation, essay structure, paragraph development, and sentence grammar, a clipboard can save hours of typing the same feedback over and over. Using a prewritten clip also guarantees that the feedback on the fifteenth paper in need of page formatting or source integration is as thoughtful and detailed as it was on the first paper. With a few key strokes, you can insert a clearly written response that more than draws attention to an area needing attention but also suggests a strategy, provides an example, and/or recommends a resource to help the student take the next step, so the student not only understands the feedback but knows what to do with it or at least where to begin.

Yet as wonderful as ready-made, well-written comments are, feedback also has to be relevant, useful, and personal to be substantive and pedagogically sound. Clipboard programs are no shortcut for close reading and critical thinking, nor are they a substitute for the reader-writer connection paramount to tutoring, teaching, and learning writing. Clips only work well in tandem with personalized feedback.

When using a clipboard to comment on papers, consider the following best practices:

1. Reread every comment you insert, every time. Comments need to accurately identify and explain the issue in the highlighted text. If you insert a comment for a fragment, and the comment describes the issue as a clause missing a subject or part of the predicate, but the text being highlighted by the comment has both a subject and predicate and is a fragment because a subordinator is making it a dependent clause, you’ll want to modify the comment or create a new comment for your clipboard that addresses the specific issue as exemplified by the student’s writing.

2. Use the clip only as a template. Modify the pasted clip by adding specifics and deleting unneeded details to ensure your comment is useful. If you have a clip on how to format an in-text citation that explains the elements needed, punctuation rules, and variations between quotations versus paraphrases, and the student has only misplaced a period, after pasting in the clip, delete the extra information. Further, praise the student for his or her strong grasp of citation format!

3. Use the specific language from the student’s text. If you have a clip to help a student identify and edit inconsistencies with grammar such as subject-verb agreement, your comment may only be useful if you also indicate which word is the subject and which is the verb in the highlighted passage. Don’t assume the student will know. Here’s an example:

Original Clip: Since the subject for the plural verb “___” is the singular noun “___,” the subject and verb do not “agree,” making your point unclear. As you edit, you’ll want to give subject-verb agreement extra attention to make sure both are singular or both are plural. You’ll find a terrific review of subject-verb agreement in the recorded KUWC workshop here. I hope you find it helpful as you revise and edit your paper, ____!

Personalized Clip: Since the subject for the plural verb “come” is the singular noun “the nurse,” the subject and verb do not “agree,” making your point unclear. As you edit, you’ll want to give subject-verb agreement extra attention to make sure both are singular or both are plural. However, sometimes when a prepositional phrase, such as “on nights” in the highlighted sentence, comes between the subject and verb, it can make the subject harder to identify. You’ll find a terrific review of subject-verb agreement that also addresses the use of prepositional phrases in the recorded KUWC workshop here. I hope you find it helpful as you revise and edit your paper, Julie!

 4. Be discerning. Once you have a large database of clips, it can be a little too easy to insert comments; however, too much feedback, even when well written and personalized, can hinder more than help. Comments should address the questions or concerns stated by student in the message with the paper submission, your sense of the highest order concerns for the purpose of revision first and editing second, and what is appropriate given your assessment of this student’s writing skills in the context of the class the paper is for. Ask, would detailed comments on citation format be necessary for a 100 level IT course? Probably not. Would a long explanation on how to write a thesis statement by useful to a graduate psychology student writing a case study assessment? It’s unlikely.

5. Finally, back up your clipboard program regularly. Developing a good database of clips takes time. I know because in the seven years I’ve been tutoring online, I’ve had to start over a few too many times. Computer and hard drive crashes no longer have to take your clips with them, however. Use the backup options of the clipboard program you choose, save your good work to the cloud, and enjoy the time you save by using a clipboard by shifting your focus to personalizing your already well-crafted comments.





Thanksgiving Reading

Thanksgiving is next week, and many of us will have a break from our regular duties.  So, it’s a great time to enjoy a book .  Here is one of Tutor Amy’s favorite books.

James Still River of Earth ( 245 pages)

Reviewed by Amy Sexton, Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book?  Anyone who appreciates a solid, strong sense of place in fiction will enjoy the imagery of the Appalachian mountains and their creatures and people. Anyone who enjoys regional literature should appreciate Still’s use of dialect, descriptive language, and sensory details.  Readers who are attracted to strong female characters should delight in the characters of Alpha Baldridge and her mother, known only as Ma and Grandma.
Summary: Set in Appalachian Kentucky, River of Earth chronicles the hard lives of members of the Baldridge and Middleton families around the time of the Great Depression as they struggle internally and externally with the changes of industrialism, which in the Appalachian region meant that many farmers went from needing only the land to feed their families to relying on a violate coal-mining industry.
Why I picked this book? River of Earth is one of those books that sticks with you. I read it for the first time over 15 years ago, and its words and characters have lingered with me since.   It is considered an Appalachian classic, and I can relate to the struggles the family experiences as I come from a family supported by coal mining and understand the trials of hard-working coal miners in a boom or bust economy, then and now.
Favorite quotes from the book: Brack Baldridge, Alpha’s husband, expressing his desire to return to coal mining: “I’m longing to git me a pick and stick it in a coal vein. I can’t draw a clean breath of air outside a mine this time o’ year. It’s like a horse trying to breathe with his nose in a meal poke.”   Alpha, on Brack’s intention to uproot the family and leave their home and small piece of land behind to live in a coal camp: “Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what,….Where air we expecting to draw up to?”


Simply Being Simpler: Simple Advice to Help Your Students Understand

Kyle Harley

Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University

Over the course of the past decade, as a writing tutor, I still find myself struggling to understand how and why situations involving students’ frustration with writing assignments evolve into these complex matters we continually see with little to no resolution in sight. This incident popped into my mind after a recent tutoring session where a student voiced concerns over the way the instructor created an assignment. Having experience on both ends of the equation, I felt pangs of guilt begin to emanate from my gut as the student uncovered even deeper frustrations—the student did not find an issue with the assignment at all; instead, the assignment, as it may be, found an issue with the student. Before pen even met paper, the student already felt as if she had failed the assignment—one she was initially excited to begin, as well.

This all sounds a bit far-fetched, but seriously consider how assignments develop over time. At first, yes, they begin as a mere seedling—possibly a question that can be repurposed into a great writing prompt, or maybe you decide on a theme that a series of assignments can mimic over the course of an entire semester. Does this sound remotely similar to anything that we, as instructors of writing, continually preach to our students? Obviously the construction of these assignments comes with a host of issues to take into consideration, but the simple fact at the end of the day remains impossibly simple: sometimes we need to revise our own approach to our own assignments.

I say this partly out of frustration, but more accurately out of wonder. Should we side with the students, citing the instructor’s tyranny as the cause for the educational unrest? In sum, probably not—that seems to cause a bit more harm than good. Instead, I found myself looking at my own teaching methods, and I really took the time to trace my own pedagogy back to the very first class that I taught—talk about frustration. What I realized most about my own assignment construction aligned perfectly with this student’s frustration—I wrote this particularly complex assignment for myself and expected students to understand exactly what I meant. The language was overly elevated, and I even put information in the assignment regarding citation at a point in the semester when each of my students’ names remained a mystery. If I signed up for my own class, I may have dropped within the first few weeks—take that, ego.

Because of this punch in the academic-gut, I decided to dissect some of these student frustrations and offer a short, easy list of suitable solutions that have proven to work when expecting such great results from these students.

  • As an instructor, understand that the way you construct your assignment’s instructions can make or break the end product.

The title might be a bit preachy, but the reality behind the message could not be any more absolute. When we receive a paper that contains far too much information or the wording may be a bit lengthy, our first reaction includes suggesting the student pare down some of the information to create a leaner document. So why do we not apply this same ruling to our assignment construction? By no means am I suggesting that you lower the level of your academic assignments; instead, why not try using more direct language that addresses the exact requirements of the assignment? As an avid proponent of ‘fluff’ in any and all forms of writing, this pains me to say, but at times you just need to get to the point. If you construct assignments and students frequently come to you seeking clarity on what the assignment is asking them to accomplish, the issue at hand simply involves a quick revising session of the assignment’s language. There is no need to take this personally; instead, remember that you are the mentor here—you should want your students to succeed.

  • In an ‘age of technology,’ we still must remember that technology costs money—and quite a bit of it.

Branching off of the last suggestion, practically all assignments in the university setting require some form of technology to accomplish, which we must also remember comes with a price tag that many students simply cannot afford. Because of this, many teachers assume that students understand how to proficiently work technological applications we take for granted on a daily basis. I find myself a bit shocked when a student asks how to operate their e-mail account, but then I remember that I, too, needed this same guidance when I began my journey back at Kent State University before Facebook even had a face. The only way that students will learn to navigate the academic channels smoothly involves helping them along the way, and sometimes that may well take a simple lesson such as how to open an attachment in an e-mail or even get started typing their paper. This sounds simplest of all, but none of us learned to ride a bike before we crawled across the floor.

  • Still not convinced? Okay—send them to us!

It is understandable that many instructors may see these smaller activities as a waste of time—if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, right? Wrong. That is where we come in. If you find that students are still struggling to understand your assignments, we can help! Sometimes students need someone else to break down the dense assignment instructions for them, and, luckily for students, tutors love to unpack assignments and get students started on the right path.

Many of these suggestions might seem rather obvious, but the fact of the matter remains that many students cannot access their assignments due to a pretty silly gatekeeping mechanism that need not be in place. By approaching our assignment construction differently, we, as educators and mentors, could possibly open an avenue to an impossibly bright mind by simply being simpler.

Writing Centers, Accessibility, and CRLA 2013

Molly Wright Starkweather

Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University

One of the best features of teaching and tutoring writing online is opening the doors to students of all abilities, including students who have been diagnosed with a disability. According to a 2009 guide by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as restricting day-to-day life activities, like mobility (walking or driving) or communication (hearing or seeing), among others. Online education can reduce many of the concerns that students with disabilities might have with an on-ground campus. For instance, a student with mobility limitations will not have to seek accommodations for campus parking or classroom access, since the campus is virtual. Of course, online campuses can present their own unique challenges to keeping education accessible to students with disabilities. Sometimes the prospect of accommodating students of all abilities can seem daunting, especially when the virtual education landscape (including legislation and university protocol) changes in response to new research in disability studies and higher education and in response to new assistive technologies. When tutors and teachers of writing consider the whole student experience for learners with disabilities, the daunting prospect becomes a promising opportunity for growing even stronger in our service to all students.

Professor of Special Education and higher education inclusion advocate David Connor (2012) reminds those working with students with disabilities to view the student’s challenge and accommodations as part of a different, not deficient, learning process. It has been common knowledge among my colleagues at different universities that an accommodation is meant to provide nothing more than an equally accessible educational experience. When I have taught composition, I have never changed my grading standards from student to student, and none of my students with accommodations have wanted an easier experience than their classmates. The goal of providing accommodations for disabilities in a higher education setting is to open access and opportunity for all students.

How does the Kaplan University Writing Center open access and opportunity for all students? Since we are tutors as part of academic support, there are no discussions of accommodations as instructors would see in a classroom setting, but there is a responsibility for all center staff to create equal opportunity and access for students with disabilities. Some of these possibilities were explored as part of a recent conference for academic support professionals.

On November 7, 2013, three Kaplan University faculty and staff presented as part of a panel on “Faculty and Academic Learning Centers: Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities” at the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) conference in Boston, MA. My fellow panel members included Kira Shank and Sheryl Bone of Kaplan University, as well as Nita Meola of Columbia College in Chicago and Teresa Carrillo of Joliet Junior College.

During the 90-minute exchange between panelists and participants, our panel discussed the tools we use in serving students with learning and other disabilities. Here are some of the best takeaways that come to my mind:


  1. Approach the task of including students with disabilities from a standpoint of hospitality. Providing accommodations is not about extra work for instructors or easier assignments for students; rather, providing accommodations is about making space for learning.


  1. As professionals involved in academic support, we should be aware of the Center for Disability Services. Keep up with the center by attending staff development presentations (or even student presentations) routinely, and make room for discussing the center’s services as part of teaching and tutoring where appropriate, like in the syllabus.


  1. Remember that students with disabilities need respect and privacy. While it is good to discuss campus resources like the Center for Disability Services openly to eliminate stigma and get valuable information out to students, it is also important to communicate discreetly with students about individual circumstances. Show respect for the student by listening actively and deferring to the authority of Disability Services whenever appropriate, especially when it comes to articulating accommodations.

What might be some other considerations as we continue opening access to all higher education learners?


Connor, D. (2012). Helping students with disabilities transition to college: 21 tips for students with LD and/or ADD/ADHD. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44(5), 16-25.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2009). A guide to disability rights laws. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm

Writing to Make a Difference

Stephanie Thompson

Composition Professor, Kaplan University

I have been teaching composition for over 20 years in a variety of settings, both at brick-and-mortar and online schools. One constant across the years has been the oft-heard query, “Why is this class required?” That question is usually followed by a reason ranging from “My career field will not require me to write” to “I took this class at a community college 20 years ago, but they would not give me a transfer credit.” I can rattle off quotes from employers’ surveys stating that effective communication skills are a top priority and emphasize the value of being able to write clearly and concisely in personal, professional, and academic situations. However, some students will continue to resent the requirement unless they discover that writing can, in fact, be relevant to their own lives.

Because many students find the writing process intimidating–perhaps they have even been told they are not “good writers”–helping them to discover their inner writer can be especially challenging. This is even more true with nontraditional students who may not have written a paper for a grade in two or three decades. These are a few tips that can help students ease back into writing and discover its joys:

  1. Provide low-stakes writing opportunities. Journal entries, credit/no credit discussion prompts, and guided reactions to readings all give students the chance to write without the fear of a bad grade. If they can earn points just for writing, without fear of committing grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, they may realize that they enjoy writing for writing’s sake.
  2. Postpone higher-stakes assignments until students have had time to settle into the class, get some feedback on low-stakes writing, and seek help if needed. Asking students to write a paper for a significant grade before they have had the chance to familiarize themselves with the course, get to know their teacher’s grading style, and find topics they are invested in will lead to greater frustration and perhaps more grade complaints.
  3. Give students the chance to explore topics they care about and discover new avenues for research, including interviews and other primary sources. Simply assigning generic pro/con topics, requiring them to find academic sources, or forcing students to analyze difficult pieces of literature will probably only reinforce their sense that the course is a box they have to check on their way to a degree.

The team that develops composition curriculum at Kaplan University used all of these approaches when revising the composition II course. Low-stakes writing prompts give students the chance to reflect upon past writing and research experiences and share insights with classmates. The first project is not due until the course is more than a third over, and students have been writing about their selected topic in the class discussions for three weeks prior to submitting this project; only the final project for the course is worth more than 10% of the overall grade.

Finally, the topic itself is as crucial to the class as the writing process. Students target a problem in their community and propose a strategy for tackling that problem. While the course emphasizes effective persuasion techniques, including the construction of an effective thesis statement, the avoidance of logical fallacies, and the importance of using credible research to support claims, students are also learning about an issue that impacts their day-to-day life. A parent of a special needs child may explore special education regulations and propose a needed change to the local school system, a future psychologist may examine new therapies for addiction, and an aspiring nutritionist may advocate the need for healthier school lunches in her child’s school district. Allowing students to select their topics and interview both specialists and those who might be affected by the proposal they are making helps them to see how writing and research can be a part of their daily lives and how, in fact, their voices can make a difference in their community.

Students given these opportunities to problem-solve and discover new ways to advocate for a cause often find that writing becomes less intimidating, and classes become an opportunity to learn from one another and shape more effective arguments.

How to Cure the Run-On Sentence

Dr. Tamara Fudge, Professor School of IT, Kaplan University


One of the most common writing mistakes I see as a professor is the run-on sentence. Before I offer a cure for this malady, I must first confess that I have one of those T-shirts that says, “Let’s Eat Grandma! Let’s Eat, Grandma! Punctuation Saves Lives.” I also have one that says “Grammar Police: To Correct and Serve.” Yes, I’m one of those people.

I also firmly believe in the Oxford comma despite having spent several years of work in the newspaper industry. Let’s just suffice it to say that punctuation is quite an important element in producing satisfactory work.

Run-ons are essentially sentences that are awkwardly stuck together and are missing some of that crucial punctuation, like this one: Several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company they are going to be prosecuted.

This is confusing, as the phrase “the company they” doesn’t make sense. It is also not perfectly clear if the coworkers or the company itself will be prosecuted. There are too many subjects and verbs and completed thoughts, and not enough punctuation to show where one idea ends, and the other begins.

Also,  although pauses are not always a reason for punctuation, you might pause after “company” when reading this out loud. All of this is … well, it’s awkward, and it needs a cure.

The good news is that there are actually several cures from which to choose! This means you have the potential for better sentence variety. Five great choices are shown below.

  1. Divide into two sentences:
    • Several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company. They are going to be prosecuted.
  2. Use a comma followed by a logical coordinating conjunction (for, an, nor, but, or, yet, so) between statements:
    • Several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company, so they are going to be prosecuted.
  3. Use a subordinate conjunction (such as Because, Since, When, etc.) at the beginning, and then a comma between statements:
    • Because several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company, they are going to be prosecuted.
  4. Use a semi-colon between statements:
    • Several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company; they are going to be prosecuted.
  5. If the statements present opposing ideas, use a semicolon + however + a comma:
    • Several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company; however, they are not going to be prosecuted.

Please note that a comma splice is similar to a run-on except that instead of lacking punctuation, there is a lonely comma ineffectively separating the statements. Example: Several coworkers were stealing supplies from the company, they are going to be prosecuted. One of the above methods can be employed to correct comma splices, too.

Emergent writers might use run-ons and comma splices because it’s far too easy to write like we speak. Unfortunately, the written word isn’t the same thing as conversation. It doesn’t take non-verbal cues into consideration such as the use of time (those pesky pauses), emphasis (inflection), and so forth. While it can be hard to write formally, there is a cure for writing run-ons!


The Last Wild — Dystopian Fall Reading

The Last Wild (2013, 322 pages)

Piers Torday

Reviewed by Stephanie Thompson, Composition Department, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book? Fans of YA dystopian fiction will enjoy sharing this book with their pre-teens (the target age is 8-12). Torday’s novel ends on a cliffhanger, and the biographical note indicates he is working on the next part of the story.

Summary: Torday explores a world where the “red eye” virus has killed almost every animal except for “varmints” like roaches, crops have been destroyed out of fear that they will spread the disease, and humans live in sanitized Quarantine Zones. They survive by eating formula, a pink, goopy substance with flavors like “Chicken and Chips” manufactured by the Facto Corporation.  This formula is their only means of sustenance.

downloadYoung Kester Jaynes has been in Spectrum Hall, a facility for problem children, for almost half of his life. He thinks he is being punished for not talking, a psychological reaction to his mother’s death. One day, he realizes he can communicate with animals; a group of roaches and pigeons helps him escape from Spectrum Hall and takes him to the Ring of Trees, where a group of animals hides from humans. They need Jaynes to find his father—a famous scientist who may have a cure for the red eye—before they, too, succumb to the disease, and animals truly become extinct.

Jaynes then embarks on a quest with a stag, a wolf, and a cockroach. Along the way, he meets Polly and her cat Sidney, who have survived outside of the Quarantine Zone, and together they search for Jaynes’ father. While their journey does end, the novel’s closing pages guarantee they are not finished fighting the evil Facto Corporation.

Why I picked this book? My son and I read together nightly, and I found this book on a recent trip to Twig, San Antonio’s independent bookstore. Since my son is nonverbal, the idea of a mute lead character appealed to me, and my love of animals also made this a must-read. Parents who read aloud with their children will love creating the voices of different animals, or for those whose children are independent readers, they can discuss the novel’s intriguing issues, particularly those about humans’ relationships with and responsibilities for protecting animals and the environment. The recent stories about the pig virus outbreak also make the novel frighteningly timely.