Minimizing Error

Donnalee Rubin

As a writing teacher, I'm often asked what to do about the ever-growing problem with students' spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  Professors complain that papers are passed in so full of distracting surface errors that they sometimes find it impossible to figure out what the students are trying to say.  Frustration levels are high, and the time and energy we spend correcting those errors seem to have little benefit, especially when the next batch of essays, lab reports, and research papers arrive not only with the same errors, but even more of them.  It's often difficult not to throw up our hands in despair.
Perhaps it's time for us to tackle the problem from a different perspective.  It seems to me that no matter how well-meaning our intentions, we are not the ones who need practice correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and as long as we continue to do this for our students, they will never learn to make these corrections themselves.  I'd like to share with you several strategies that can help students become more responsible for editing and proofreading their own papers.
It may seem paradoxical, but when my students are first drafting a piece of writing, I tell them not to worry about surface errors.  At this early stage, I�m much more interested in helping them (1) formulate a clear focus, (2) generate enough details to fully develop that focus, and (3) present their ideas in a coherent, well-organized way.  Although I explain that their final drafts will have to be carefully edited and proofread before being turned in, over the years I've come to realize that paying attention to these two issues too early in the composing process can paralyze students.  They become so fearful of making a mistake that they fail to concentrate on more global concerns and opportunities for original thought or insightful perception get lost.  Encouraging students to set these concerns aside until they finish drafting helps them pay attention to the critical thinking skills that hallmark a successful piece.
Before final drafts are turned in, though, I do remind students that it's their responsibility to edit for clarity and to proofread for surface errors. Because I always make this clear, most of my students make an honest effort to do so.  With a nod to Richard Haswell's "Minimal Marking" (College English 45, No. 6 [1983] 165-170), as I read students' papers, I place a check beside any line that contains an error, and I note at the top of the paper that  "A check in the margin indicates a surface error in that line.  Please make the appropriate corrections and return the paper to me within two days for a grade."  (Some lines may contain more than one check.)  If the errors are especially frequent, I use one of the following two notations:  "This paper contains so many surface errors that it is very difficult to read.  Please proofread and edit this draft and turn it in within two days for a grade;" or "You have forgotten to proofread and edit this piece.  Please do so immediately and turn it in within two days for a grade."  Either remark gets my point across quickly and clearly.

Students know that they may consult me if they're stumped about how to correct their mistakes; I'm happy to explain, to direct them to our English handbook, or - if they're having special difficulty - to suggest that they seek help from our learning support staff.  Do student balk at this?  Sometimes.  But once they see that I'm serious, the quality of their work markedly improves.  (It's important to keep in mind that these strategies work best with native speakers.  ESL students, whose efforts to learn and communicate English are often Herculean, need very different sorts of attention.  In these instances, it might be useful to consult with our ESL specialists, John Green and Julie Whitlow.)
Henry Steffens, a History professor from the University of Vermont, feels strongly that students will turn in whatever it is they think we will accept.  As a result, he refuses to read and evaluate papers that have not received the care and respect that college level work demands.  He circles errors on the first page only, then hands the paper back to the student to proofread; in doing so, he joins a growing number of professors across the country who are adopting this stance.
The longer I teach the more convinced I become that we too need to take a harder line, not just in maintaining standards but in helping students take more responsibility for their own learning.  As teachers, it's in our nature to be nurturing and supportive, and those qualities will always remain important parts of the teaching process; but at some point, we need to stand firm and help students understand that taking pride in the work they turn in is central to any worthwhile education.