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Are You Helpful or Nitpicking?

Balance. When evaluating a student’s schoolwork, it can be a challenge to find the right balance between being helpful and nitpicking. Here are a few things to consider:

Relationship

The sweetness of lips increases learning...

Does your evaluation style seem to build or tear down the trust relationship between you and your child?

  • A negative, impatient, or critical tone can make even the most minor critique seem overwhelming to a sensitive child.
  • Be sensitive to each student’s abilities and don’t overwhelm a struggling student with too much negative feedback at once. Focus on the most important thing for the moment. There will be other days to fix other things.
  • If you and your student have difficulty communicating on a subject, it may be a good idea to enlist someone else to help the student in that subject. Preserving the relationship is more important than doing everything yourself.
  • Any criticism should always be focused on the work, not on the student. Children never forget being treated as though they are stupid or stubborn, when they are simply struggling. Criticism should never begin with “you.” Instead, practice saying things such as “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by…” (for an essay or report), or “It looks as though we need a little more practice on…” (whatever the area of difficulty).
  • The sweetness of lips of lips increases learning. Proverbs 16:21

Do you always play fair by making sure that the student knows the exact expectations for the assignment?

This is particularly important in evaluating writing. I suggest using a writing rubric such as the one I offer at the Everyday Education site (when you sign up for the newsletter, it’s a free download– if you missed it, let me know, and I’ll send out a link in the next newsletter). That helps the student see exactly what is expected in the areas of ideas/concepts, organization, voice, sentence structure, word choice, mechanics, and presentation. It’s not fair to mark wrong what has not been fully taught or explained!

Comments on Criticism

Handing back a paper that is bleeding red markings without explaining how to make it better is a fast way to frustrate your student.

If a student turns in a paper with many things wrong, it may be better to focus on one or two main categories of error for the first evaluation. Too much at once can overwhelm a student, especially the young, the sensitive, or the struggling. Most children are more sensitive than parents realize, so it’s important to err on the side of mercy, rather than justice.

If you have your student turn in rough drafts for essays, evaluate only the ideas/concepts and organization on the rough draft. It’s pointless to evaluate the other criteria when the fundamentals aren’t completely in place. Evaluating comma placement in a rough draft is nitpicking, rather than helpful.

For many reasons, I believe all writing assignments, starting in middle school, should be typed and fully spell- and grammar-checked before being presented for evaluation. This helps the student learn how to do what is expected at the college level, and it makes editing much easier, which usually results in a higher-quality paper.

If you don’t know the difference between evaluating and proofreading, you may want to find someone to help you evaluate your student’s papers, or you may want to teach yourself how to do it with my little book, Evaluate Writing the Easy Way. This is one of the most important things you will do for your child, so it’s important to know what is needed.

In math, assign either the odd or even problems first. If the students gets them all correct, allow him or her to skip the other problems in that lesson and move to the next. It provides an incentive to work carefully!

Always evaluate the ideas and concepts of any paper in any subject before considering the mechanics. If the student can’t communicate ideas adequately, it doesn’t matter whether or not his sentences are perfectly spelled and punctuated– they won’t be worth reading. Writing is about communication, not about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Keep priorities straight!

If you have any tips for working with students, please feel free to share them in the comments section. They may be just what someone else needs to hear!

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7 Responses

  1. Such great advice, Janice. I agree with all your ideas, but I especially appreciate the advice to direct comments at the paper, not at the child.

    In all my years of teaching writing, I’ve learned that children (well, all of us, really) hold their writing with clenched fist. They view each piece as an extension of themselves, believing “if you criticize my writing, you criticize me.”

    So don’t just go on a red-pen rampage, searching out every error. Instead, identify things your child did well, and praise his efforts. That goes a long way toward sweetening any suggestions he may otherwise perceive as criticism.

  2. Jimmie says:

    “Always evaluate the ideas and concepts of any paper in any subject before considering the mechanics. If the student can’t communicate ideas adequately, it doesn’t matter whether or not his sentences are perfectly spelled and punctuated– they won’t be worth reading. Writing is about communication, not about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Keep priorities straight!”

    AMEN! I totally agree with this. And I’ve found that if I DO stick with the communication issues (rather than mechanics), my daughter will spy many of the errors later on her own as she continues to work with the paper. That gives her a much greater feeling of accomplishment than my pointing them out.

    I am new to your blog. I came from a link at Practical Pages.

  3. Nadene says:

    I really love your blog – just found it recently and already find myself quoting you!
    When I was a public school teacher, I would focus mainly on the objectives for the lesson and only nitpick 1 paragraph for grammar or language use and spelling.
    Using a mark scheme also helps. I attached a small block of paper to the front page of every assignment with the mark allocations. This way the students could easily identify areas of weaknesses or strengths.
    Now that I hoemschool, my youngest insists that I only mark in pencil. She hates seing her mistakes! She corrects everything and then I may mark in pen. Isn’t that actually what we want to achieve?

    • I’m glad you stopped by to comment! I definitely believe in using rubrics or a mark scheme. It makes everything clear, and is such an encouraging way to measure progress. I also like the idea of using pencil. Your youngest is a wise girl!

  1. February 23, 2010

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by everydayedu: Homeschool moms: When you evaluate your student’s work, are you helpful or nitpicking? Here are a few thoughts: http://ow.ly/1amT1

  2. February 24, 2010

    […] Be sensitive to each student’s abilities and don’t overwhelm a struggling student with too much negative feedback at once. Focus on the most important thing for the moment. There will be other days to fix other things. Read more…. […]

  3. August 24, 2010

    […] Janice Campbell asks in her article Are you helpful or nitpicking? […]

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