Why I Don’t Use Track Changes on Students’ Papers

icon256They arrive now, in a flood, the end-of term papers. For the most part, they are beyond revision at this point, and the task ahead consists mostly of assessment. Still, I find myself clinging to my Luddite position of accepting papers only in hard copy, regardless of the risk of germ transmission by paper, regardless of deforestation, regardless of the printing costs or the various excuses the demand engenders. The main reason for my old-fashioned insistence is that I still find some students hesitate before turning in a printed copy. They read it one last time, this time not screen-by-screen, but page-by-page, and with the ability to spread the thing out on their desk and see it as a whole entity—an argument, or a narrative—that should have integrity. And those few, those happy few, may pick up a pencil and make a few scratches, then turn back to their computers and have at the thing one more time.

Another reason I cling to the print-only submission requirement is that I prefer to refrain from using Track Changes to respond to student papers. Here, I realize I am swimming completely against the tide. Besides cleanliness and environmental awareness, the list of advantages for using Track Changes goes on and on:

  • You can distinguish clearly between “comments” and “corrections”;
  • You can highlight sections and make broad observations without worrying about squeezing them into the margin;
  • You can return the work to the student whenever convenient;
  • You can edit your own feedback before you send it;
  • Students can respond directly to you electronically, opening a dialogue about your comments;
  • Both you and your students can track several versions of their papers and compare them;
  • If your handwriting is a scrawl, comments in Track Changes will be far more legible;
  • You don’t have to lug piles of student papers around with you;
  • Track Changes is “the way writing takes place in the workplace and it’s a timesaver.”

And so on. Who can argue with such glowing reports? Not I. In fact, when I am working one-on-one with a student or former student, say on a thesis or a book proposal, I make liberal use of Track Changes for all the reasons just given and more. But when I’m teaching undergraduates, I still shy away. My reasons won’t apply to others, and I offer them less as argument than as defense.

  • First is the temptation to correct. All the students I’ve spoken with whose other professors use Track Changes admit that they simply click “accept” when they find grammatical, syntactical, spelling, or punctuation corrections in their prose; they don’t stop to wonder what the original problem was or what they should be learning. So the temptation to function as an editor is strong, but I do not believe teachers should be editors.
  • Second, even if I resist the temptation to correct—or especially if I do so and feel compelled instead to highlight and query what would normally be line-editing issues—the electronic version of the student paper ends up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting of colors, squiggly lines, and call-outs, a discouraging mess for the student to untangle and sort out, even if the paper’s underlying argument is fairly solid.
  • Third, colors and different font emphases (bold, italic, etc.) cannot substitute for the all-capped, red-inked GREAT! splashed across the bottom of Page Three of a paper, with arrows pointing to several points in a paragraph to show how well the student has linked them together and to counteract all the niggling little comments in the margins about false inference or scrambled syntax. Encouragement, in other words, does not spring readily from Track Changes.
  • Finally, just as the student who hands in the paper electronically cannot spread the paper before her and see it as a whole, so she reads my Track Changes comments screen-by-screen and cannot easily get a sense of how my assessment encompasses her paper as a whole.

I also have the luxury of grading papers for classes of 20 students or fewer, and I recognize that instructors with larger classes, or working with graduate assistants, surely find Track Changes a godsend. But like every writing and editing tool at our disposal (think spell and grammar checkers), its use in pedagogy needn’t be automatic. It’s worth at least considering the costs along with the benefits.

Correct me—using your tool of preference—if I’m wrong.


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