INTRODUCTION: At Mission College, a community college in northern California where I have taught for the last 13 years, approximately 85% of the students need to take developmental English courses.  Typically, student papers abound in the mistakes that have always plagued English students: subject-verb agreement errors, run-ons, comma errors, and fragments, to name a few.  In the past in my English classes, I gave a manila folder to students, and when I returned papers, I wrote comments on student papers, of course, but I also summarized the areas of strength and weakness on the inside of the folder. When the student handed in the next paper, s/he reused the folder.  That way I was reminded of areas I had commented on before and what the student’s strengths and weaknesses had been.  This allowed me to comment on a recurring problem or significant improvement that the student had made over the course of the semester.  I found this an effective way to keep track of which students were struggling with which errors and what improvements they had made, but I also found it a burden to comment not only on the student paper but also in the folder. This semester, in line with the On Course Principles, I tried a new approach that puts more of the responsibility for learning on the student, which is where it belongs, and less on me.  This strategy will work for any courses in which students regularly submit projects (especially on paper) and the instructor provides feedback.


  • To make students responsible for noticing their own academic strengths and weaknesses
  • To make students responsible for improving their skills


  • A set of graded student papers
  • A manila folder for each student
  • A brightly colored blank piece of paper for each student


1. Hand back graded student papers.

2. Explain that the feedback given to them on their papers can be quite useful.  Each paper has comments directed specifically at the individual who created it and that person’s skill.

3. Remind students that those comments will only be useful if the comments are read and remembered the next time they are completing a project.

4. Hand out a manila folder and a brightly colored piece of paper to each student.

5. Tell the class, “The folder is my gift to you.  Keep it throughout the semester.  All future assignments should be submitted in this folder.  Put your name on the label.  Also, hand in this colored paper with your assignment each time.” 

6. Continue directions to the students:  “On the colored paper, write the topic of the assignment that was just returned to you, e.g. Evaluation Essay.”

7. Continue directions to the students: “On the colored paper, list three problem areas you have in this skill based on the feedback you received, e.g. run-ons, subject-verb agreement, coherence, more details needed.  Also, compliment yourself on the strengths that were noted on your paper.”

8. Continue directions:  “Keep this colored paper in your manila folder so that you can find it easily.  Each time you hand in an assignment in the folder, submit the colored sheet with your strengths and problem areas listed, and write a note explaining what steps you have taken to correct those problems.”

9. Discuss possible “good” steps to take in correcting their problem areas.  (e.g., study appropriate pages in the book, seek tutoring, etc.)


I am delighted with this new process.  It takes the burden of keeping track of the students’ problem areas off of me and places it on them, which is where it belongs.  It gives the students a sense of responsibility for their learning and, incidentally, saves me a lot of time in correcting their papers: now I no longer need to write the comments on both the folder and the student’s paper, and I can also immediately see what areas have been a problem in the past and direct my attention to those areas to see if there has been improvement.  This also allows me to offer praise and encouragement when I note, for example, that run-ons used to be a problem but no longer are.

Strengths that students have noted on their colored papers include strong introduction, good use of vocabulary, good detail, and thoughtful analysis.  Some of the problem areas that students have noted include run-ons, fragments, spelling, weak introduction or conclusion, more detailed examples needed.

Steps they have taken to correct their problem areas have included going to the learning center for more practice, visiting me in my office, consulting friends who are better writers than they are, reviewing previously returned papers and making the recommended corrections, and going to web sites referenced on our library’s homepage for online practice.

Students were agreeable to this new process and have been more participatory in their learning than I have previously witnessed:  I have more students staying after class to learn how to correct their errors, greater numbers of students going to the Learning Center to get assistance with their writing, and more students coming to my office for additional assistance.  I am thrilled with the results.


I love my job, but it tends to be exhausting.  Hundreds of papers come into and out of my hands every week.  It can be overwhelming.  This difficulty is in part due to the fact that I’m teaching English and grading papers is inescapable, but partly, I’ve been too willing to take responsibility for the students’ learning, and in so doing, I have denied them the opportunity to be more actively engaged in learning from the feedback I provide.  I am grateful for the motivation On Course has provided to find a way to get students more involved in their learning.  An added benefit is that it lightens the load on me.

–Carol Wilson, Faculty, English, Mission College, CA

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