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Software Review

A FAIR Response to Student Writing

Stephen Hopkins Earl Youngs

Developed at Lansing Community College, the Pen Network (PenNet), a computerized writing system for composition courses, contains two main programs: Pen, a learning environment for students; and FAIR, which offers teachers an organized, flexible, learning-based program whose purpose is to facilitate the process of responding to student writing with instructional commentary.

As many of us know, the process of responding to student writing may well be one of the most slighted areas of our teaching responsibility, due mainly to the difficulty of giving sufficient and appropriate feedback in what amounts to little more than a "paper chase" for those of us trying to teach multiple sections with student enrollment far beyond the NCTE recommended maximum. For this reason, any tool that helps us to improve the quality of the responding process is certainly worth exploring.

FAIR is an effort to harness the computer to help us to improve this responding process and, thereby, to improve the quality of

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instruction. The objective of FAIR (Feedback Aimed at Improvement and Reinforcement) is to provide specific instructional evaluations that are designed to affect future writing performance.

Before proceeding, we want to be clear about what FAIR is or is not. First, FAIR is a simple computer application; it has few "bells and whistles." Second, FAIR is used to respond to handwritten, typed, or word-processed essays; FAIR is not used for on-line grading of student writing. Readers searching for sophisticated software that will do on-line grading will have to look elsewhere. We must also admit that FAIR contains stored comments, and this admission may bring an automatic negative response from some readers, even before we have had an opportunity to explain the basis and extent of these comments and how the program provides balance by allowing unstored comments as well. FAIR is an efficient and effective way of giving students appropriate and useful responses to their writing.

The roots of FAIR reach back to Elray Pedersen's work (1984), which prompted us to consider using the computer to respond to student writing, and to Wolter and Lamberg's work (1976), about the aspects of feedback (not about computers), both of which stimulated us to think about the nature and content of feedback. From these theoretical springboards, we dove into the design of a well-organized, pedagogically sound essay-response system. Whether we have succeeded or not is for you to judge.


FAIR is based on the following generalizations about the process of responding to student writing:

  1. that feedback should be designed to give students appropriate and specific instructional evaluations;
  2. that these evaluations should be related to the attributes identified in the performance objectives of the course (e.g., students will effectively write introductory paragraphs);

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  3. that these evaluations should also be related to the criteria specified in well-defined writing standards (e.g., definitions of what constitutes an A in content, organization, style, mechanics; a B in content, etc.);
  4. that--given the relationship of performance objectives, writing tandards, and teacher response to student essays--a degree of feedback can and perhaps should be formally articulated.


By providing feedback related to performance objectives and writing standards, and by providing a full range of commentary options, FAIR ensures that responding to essays will be an instructional activity.

  1. After evaluating the internal specifics of essays, teachers can use FAIR to generate and summative evaluation.
  2. The instructional commentary in the summative evaluation focuses on strengths, weaknesses, and writing tips.
  3. FAIR accommodates both stored and unstored comments. After teachers select responses from comment banks and create impromptu responses, the program prints these responses in a summative evaluation format.


In general, feedback may be defined as commentary that includes positive responses (e.g., Nice work, Good topic, Well-structured, I wish I'd written this, etc.) and/or negative comments (e.g., Weak work, Poor topic, Disjointed structure, You can do better than this, etc.).

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In the FAIR system, however, feedback means specific instructional evaluations--evaluations designed to have a positive effect on writing performance.

FAIR feedback is divided into three types:

  1. affirmative feedback, aimed at reinforcement,
  2. corrective feedback, aimed at improvement,
  3. facilitative feedback, aimed at instruction.

Feedback Format

The format of stored FAIR feedback is as follows:

  • Affirmative feedback = Identification of strength + reinforcement.


    Effective introduction--The material in your introductory paragraph is clearly developed and interesting. Such an introduction captures the attention of your audience and creates a desire to read on.

  • Corrective feedback = Identification of weakness + editorial advice + STUDY AND REVISE assignment.


    Ineffective introduction--Your introductory paragraph should be clearly and fully developed. And, of course, it should contain interesting material, for it is here that you must capture the attention of your audience and create a desire to read on. STUDY AND REVISE: First, study KM, pp. 127-132. Then revise your introductory paragraph. Turn in your original and your revision at our next class meeting.(Note: KM is a course reference text, but comments need not be text specific.)

  • Facilitative feedback = Writing tip + specifics + example.


    Writing tip: To attract your reader's attention and create a desire to read on, be sure your introduction is (1) Skillfully developed:

    a. Present your main idea in a clearly stated thesis. Give your thesis--the most important sentence in your essay--the attention it deserves.

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    b. Use introductory techniques--for example:

    1. Provide necessary background material.
    2. Give a definition.
    3. Ask a question.
    4. Make a striking comparison or contrast.
    (2) Interesting:
    1. Capture your reader's interest with an attention-getting opening sentence.
    2. Hold your reader's attention with significant information.
    3. Lead your reader along a clear path to your thesis.

    Stored FAIR feedback is filed in comment banks and coded according to strengths; areas for improvement; and writing tips in content, organization, style, and mechanics. The design of FAIR also insures that teachers can tailor the program to comment in other strengths, point out other weaknesses, and give additional writing tips.

    Teachers may enter FAIR stored comments (from the Central Comment Bank), their own stored feedback (from their Personal Comment Bank), and unstored (impromptu) feedback. When creating impromptu comments, teachers have the flexibility and the advantages of using word processing, which makes the mechanics of commenting far easier than handwriting or typing.

    Essay Response Form

    Teachers enter data into a prompt screen (see Figure 1) to generate an essay response form (see Figure 2), which is stapled on top of each student's essay. The items on the essay response form are organized into categories: (top left) General information: student, course, and teacher data; (top right) Grading data (automatically computed);

    Comments: Strengths (reinforcement), Areas for Improvement (correction), Writing Tips (instruction).

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    STUDENT NAME:_______________________	CONTENT	      	_____ 
    STUDENT NUMBER:____________________	ORGANIZATION	_____
    SECTION NUMBER: ____________________	STYLE:	       	_____
    ESSAY NUMBER:  ______________________	MECHANICS:     	_____
    INSTRUCTOR: _________________________	GRADE:	       	_____
    STORED STRENGTHS	_____	_____	_____	_____	_____
    							Y/N	_____	
    STORED IMPROVEMENTS	_____	_____	_____	_____	_____
                       						Y/N	_____
    STORED WRITING TIPS		_____	_____	_____	_____	_____
    							Y/N	_____
    Figure 1:  FAIR Prompt Screen
    SECTION #: 	STYLE: 	
    Figure 2:  FAIR Response Form

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    Again, teachers select these comments from the 102 items stored in the Central Comment Bank, from the stored comments in their Personal Comment Bank, and from impromptu responses.

    The question of how much or how little commentary to make is entirely up to the teacher. Each teacher determines his/her own limits for the law of diminishing returns. And full editing capacity permits reshaping and as many last minute alterations as are necessary.

    Note: As in Pen (the student part of PenNet), FAIR avoids dot-matrix print and computer paper. FAIR uses a printer that will produce a grade sheet with letter quality printing on standard paper.


    As we noted earlier, feedback in the Central Comment Bank is coded according to strengths and areas for improvement in content, organization, style, and mechanics. Below is a sample set of content categories with access codes.

    Sample:  Feedback on Content
         Strengths	Areas for Improvement
          CS1	Topic	C11
          CS2	Thesis	C12
          CS3	Topic Sentences	C13
          CS4	Development	C14
          CS5	Introduction	C15
          CS6	Conclusion	C16
    CS = Content Strength / CI = Content Improvement

    The following are representative topics in the writing tips portion of the comment bank (with access codes).

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    WT3		Audience
    WT9		Comma Splice
    WT15		Introductions
    WT22		Run-on Sentence
    WT27		Sentence Variety
    T30		Transitions

    Of course, an attractive feature of such a system is the storage capacity of the computer, which makes it possible to deposit an extensive number of items in the comment bank. In effect, the extent and variety of comments are limited only by one's, or a group's, creativity.


    We think that such a system has a number of advantages. For example, FAIR is

    Consistent: Based on performance objectives and writing-standard criteria, FAIR is consistent with writing program design and intent.

    Organized: Organized at all levels (feedback format, comment bank categories, and essay response sheet), FAIR offers a tightly woven, multi-level structure.

    Objective: Rather than feedback generated by many individuals' interpretations of performance objectives and writing standards, FAIR offers the potential for a committee- created core of comments based on performance objectives and writing standards.

    Learning-Based: Each identified weakness is followed up by a task-specific Based: learning experience in the form of the STUDY AND REVISE assignment. These revisions are to be completed by the next class period, and they are generally brief enough to be evaluated during the non-lecture portion of that class period (e.g., while students

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    are engaged in application exercises, in-class writing, peer group editing, etc.).

    Flexible: Although FAIR offers a degree of instructional uniformity in responding to student essays, the system ensures flexibility and individualization by allowing each teacher to enter his/her own comments along with those of the program (e.g., to comment on unique features not accounted for in the stored comments).

    Extensive: Even with only 16 comments in each of the four categories (content, organization, style, mechanics) for a total of 64 comments, FAIR can yield about 25,000 different combinations of four comments. Factor in another 38 instructional writing tips and the possibilities are even greater. And with the obvious potential for expansion at three levels (system stored, personal stored, and impromptu), the output combinations become greater still.

    Time-Saving Because a three-character code entry can trigger the printing of a 60-word comment, even a beginning typist can generate about 240 words of well-organized, neatly typed instructional feedback in under two minutes. (If the time-consuming burden of neatly handwriting clear comments limits the extent of responses, then there is certainly a substantial payoff on this advantage.


    These are the implications that readily occur to us as of this drafting, but we think that time and the input of colleagues will reveal more uses for a system like FAIR

    1. Higher Student Regard for Writing Assessments: Because FAIR has the potential for representing collective professional thinking in responding to student essays, students

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      might see these assessments as less subjective and more authoritative evaluations of their writing.
    2. Greater Emphasis on Revision: Through the revision component (the STUDY AND REVISE assignment) built into the corrective feedback, FAIR would give additional instructional emphasis to the most important activity in the writing process.
    3. Teacher Introduction to Computer Applications: For teachers new to the computer, FAIR could quickly introduce a useful computer application. And something simple and useful is often what it takes to open academics to the potential of the computer as an instructional tool.
    4. In-Service Training for New Teachers: FAIR could also provide a vehicle for in-service training of new teachers in evaluating essays according to performance objectives and writing standards.
    5. Feedback Model: The content and structure of stored FAIR feedback could have a positive influence on the content and structure of stored/unstored teacher-written comments.
    6. Interest-Bearing Comment Banks: The more comments deposited in the FAIR comment banks, the greater the payoff in other areas--for example, in-service training, feedback modeling, statistical yield (next item).
    7. Teaching Value of Statistical Storehouse: Given the potential for error-counts inherent in the access codes, FAIR could help you to shape teaching strategies. For example, if an error-count showed that in section 122040 twenty students had been flagged for C15 (Ineffective Introduction), then writing introductions might be reviewed or given additional teaching emphasis. And obviously, a cumulative error-count for each student would also be an important feature since it could inform one-to-one teaching.

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    We have seen computerized comments dismissed as shamefully impersonal, but we believe that they need not be and that there are many good reasons for harnessing the computer in the way we have described: that is, in a balanced system--one that is founded on a firm pedagogical basis, one that provides a variety of useful stored options and comments, and one that allows for individualization by the teacher.

    From a practical point of view, one reason for articulating and storing feedback is this: If we must address the same area of evaluation repeatedly (and what writing teacher has not had this experience), let's codify our comment, use the computer as our medium of delivery, and thereby save ourselves the drudgery of writing nearly the same comment over and over. Of course, this also avoids the problem of indecipherable, handwritten feedback: The student asks, "Mr./Ms. Jones. I can't read your writing here. What does it say?" The teacher responds, "It says, 'I can't read your writing here.'"

    And for obvious reasons, our profession prefers printed (word-processed or typewritten) essays over handwritten ones. Finally, we are preparing our students to communicate clearly in a business world which is still very much print-oriented and expository.

    We are not concerned that students will view printed responses to their writing as impersonal; nor has this been our experience. (Do teachers view handwritten essays as more personal than printed ones?) Nonetheless, some teachers may be concerned that stored comments will lack personality and will do little more than inform and instruct. It seems to us that these are our main goals: to inform and instruct. If, in the press of providing instructional commentary for 120 students' papers, we fail to let students know how wonderful we think they are--so what. This is not to say that we cannot be reinforcing. As we pointed out, the FAIR feedback format for commenting on a strength includes and thereby guarantees the reinforcing potential of the impromptu comments to maintain the same rapport that we have established in the classroom. In our own experience, we quite naturally use the impromptu feature of FAIR to address the student by name and to go beyond the stored commentary by recognizing something done well or something in need of special coaching.

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    We all realize that responding to student writing should be an instructional activity, but few of us have the time to provide more than very brief, and usually not very helpful, comments. Furthermore, we know as we write these often paltry comments alongside the grade (Improved!, Nice job!, Good topic!, Interesting!) that we could do better if we had more time. Maybe we could do better if we had more time to make it to the pithy statements, but these are, at best, snippets of instruction lacking sufficient depth to meet the learning needs of our students.

    Again, it makes sense to harness the computer as an instructional tool to help us with the responding process, a process which has long been a well-defined task:

    1. Read the student's writing carefully, noting briefly within the paper, areas of strength and/or weakness in content, organization, style, and mechanics.
    2. Identify and prioritize the areas of greatest strength and / or weakness.
    3. In a clear summary statement, focus on the writing performance--providing the student with reinforcement for the skillfully executed and with correction and instruction for the poorly executed.

    How can we improve the quality of this instructional process? How can we efficiently and effectively respond to students' needs with substantive feedback?

    One answer (not the only answer) is to use the computer to record a repository of responses reflecting our writing performance objectives and our writing standards. All three--objectives, standards, and feedback--are pedagogically interwoven in the fabric of a writing course; all three are open to codification. Codified feedback is simply an extension of the other two. If it makes good teaching sense to specify performance objectives and to define writing standards, then it is also sound pedagogy to articulate the correlative instructional commentary.

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    Although the computer is an ideal medium of delivery for codified feedback, the newness of the two (computer and codified feedback), the newness of their relationship, and perhaps some false starts have slowed acceptance of the computer as a tool to facilitate the responding process.

    But let us emphasize this important point: a computerized response system that stops with coded feedback is a system that stops short of fulfilling the necessary instructional goal of individualization and is, therefore, a system that is instructionally incomplete. Writing is a communal and an individual experience. To tailor commentary for both of these experiences, a teacher needs the flexibility of a system with the capacity for stored and impromptu comments--stored comments to reflect and reinforce the communal objectives and standards of the course, and impromptu comments to reflect the individual student's unique perceptions and skills.

    Also sound is the idea that in the codification we should create a comment that will represent our best (individual/collective) expression of idea, thus ensuring a first-rate comment and first-rate instruction. If we create such comments, they will also serve as models for students and for teachers. The content and form of our comments will show students our concern for clarity and organization. And we predict that the substantive nature of well-designed feedback will guide and instruct new teachers in creating comments and will motivate "old hands" to reach into a rich past of instructional experience to create individual comments that are as good as, or better than, the models. If we accept practice and revision as agents of improvement, "nature will take its course": thus, whether we create stored or impromptu comments, we will accept the challenge of improving our previous performances. And the attendant result will be worth our efforts: improved instruction.

    In this instructional process, we as a profession decry the use of the computer to perpetuate the trivial. Hence, we reject the offhand, the pointless, the superficial, the ego-centered, the non-teaching responses. (We know that garbage-in means garbage-out.) Ideally, we strive for, we are influenced by, and we encourage excellence. By sending substantive messages to the system, by shifting the major mechanical burden of the printing to the computer, by using its capacity for "speedy delivery," we open the way to a practical pursuit of an ideal that has eluded many of us for a long while: an

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    efficient and effective method for responding to student writing, a way to make the process of responding a successful and rewarding instructional activity.


    If a good idea has a life of its own, let us leave you with a final thought-provoking question: What about the potential for using a system like FAIR in writing across the curriculum?

    We believe that we can interest our colleagues outside our discipline in an instructional response system. Such a system would help to alleviate some of the perennial difficulties in establishing a constructive and productive writing-across-the-curriculum relationship with our colleagues. One of these difficulties is our hesitation to undertake the time-consuming tasks of explaining and illustrating how to respond to student writing. Another is our colleagues' anxiety concerning their ability to engage in the responding process. FAIR can be conveniently presented in a professional development forum, and it can be conveniently used by our educated colleagues. A shared system can open promising dialogue and promote a mutually-beneficial working relationship. The goal of this cooperative venture is a constant in the teaching profession: to improve the quality of instruction.

    Finally, for our own part, we have a basis for pursuing these ideas, for where we have shared this computer application, we have found receptive audiences with members from many disciplines willing to engage in mutual inquiry.

    Stephen Hopkins and Earl Youngs teach at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

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    Pedersen, E. (1984, November). Computerized personal comments for student discourse. Paper presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, Detroit, MI. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No . ED 253 882)

    Wolter, D. & Lamberg, W. (1976) Research in the effect of feedback on writing Review and lmplications. Report prepared at the University of Texas at Austin. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 140 355)