There are several reasons why teachers should cautiously praise student writing. The first concerns the placement of the praise in end commentary. In an analysis of 105 nationally collected university writing samples conducted by Summer Smith, 88% of end commentary began with a positive evaluation, and most positive evaluations were fragments (Smith 261). Two reasons that Smith offers as explanations for this pattern are: one, teachers wish to demonstrate their fairness to students and show that they are not only looking for faults, and two, teachers may want to soften the blow of a low grade (Smith 261). Like praise written in fragments, opening an end comment with praise may diminish its effectiveness. Some students may recognize the positive evaluation as the generic opener to end commentary, thus viewing the praise as just an introduction to the "real" message of the commentary. The subsequent negative comments are the professor's true reactions to the paper. Smith suggests that teachers make an effort to avoid opening end commentary with praise, or they should at least write the praise in a complete sentence followed by a comment that expresses the reactions of a reader (Smith 262).
Teachers should also use caution when praising student writing because it may cause a writer to become overconfident. If commenting on a very strong paper with very few minor or no problems, a teacher might always want to offer suggestions for improvement along with praising the student's writing. An overconfident writer may see the praise and think the paper is a finished product needing no further improvement, and believe that he has mastered the art of writing.
The third reason why teachers should cautiously bestow praise is because praise can be controlling. Positive evaluations "...underscore the teacher's values and agendas and exert a certain degree of control over the way the student views the text before her and the way she likely looks at subsequent writing" (Straub 234). Teachers should feel free to praise general features of writing such as development, organization, or thoughtful insights into the material. For example, if a student's analytical essay is a strong example of the standard five-paragraph format the student may receive praise for this effort; the teacher would want the student to repeat it in subsequent analytical writing. However, teachers should be careful when praising stylistic techniques. Knowing that their teacher likes their previous effort, students may be reluctant to try something different in fear that the same style or technique is what the teacher expects in future writing and would not like a different style to the same degree. Click here to see an example of a cautiously phrased praise of style.
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