Interim Comments

Today I spent a good chunk of time writing my interim comments. “What are those?” you ask quizzically.

I’m glad you asked. Halfway through each quarter, we’re asked to write interim comments for students earning a C- or below, or who we have concerns about. (We also are encouraged to write interim comments for students who are doing really well, but considering doing that requires a significant amount of extra work, no one actually does.)

They’re tough to write, because it’s unclear who the intended audience is, and exactly what the purpose of these comments are. The dean gets a copy, the adviser gets a copy, and the parents get a copy. Are we writing for the dean, the adviser, the parents, the students, or even some have asked, the tutor?

My interim comments tend to be slightly more than just a litany of grades, and slightly less than a full-blown narrative evaluation. I direct my interim to the parents, informing them — frankly and honestly — of the grades the student has received. I won’t say “on the first quiz, Jane Doe earned an B-.” Instead, I will say something like “The first major quiz was on logarithm and exponents, transformations of functions, and basic trigonometry. Jane earned a 40.5/50 (B-). She was most challenged by questions involving logarithms, but also made a number of basic algebraic errors.” I then usually outline one or two suggestions to help the student. (Normally they get more specific in later quarters, when I know the student better.)

The one thing I avoid like the plague when writing comments is making any inferences about the student. I would never say “Jane needs to spend more time doing her homework each night” because I don’t know how much time Jane does spend on homework. I would say, however, “Jane tends to come to class with partially completed homework assignments, which are often sloppily written.”

These comments are, at least for me, to keep the parent in the loop about their child. I want them to know that I’m paying attention, and that I know their child’s math work well. But these comments can also, importantly, in the independent school system, act as insurance against parents who tend to get a bit… zealous… about their children’s grades. Which happens more often than you’d think.

I’m really fast at typing up comments, and making them comprehensive. I thank my time at UCLA for that.

When I was a TA in grad school, I began to type up long narrative comments on each of my students’ essays, in addition to marking them up for grammar, structure, tone, etc. I got good at doing it well, and quickly. I was a bit more blunt with them than I would be with my high school students. Example:

I believe that you are trying to argue that the guillotine and the steam engine effected social change, and because they were structurally different, they caused different sorts of social change. This thesis is not actually arguing much – the second bit (the type of social changes) is descriptive, and the first part (machines can causes changes in society) is not very “deep” (in the sense that I don’t think you need to prove it). So I think that is your most fundamental problem – that your thesis indicates that your paper isn’t so much of an argument as much as a description.

I wondered if the amount of time I invested was worth it. But my answer came in an email from a former student, ages ago. But I still keep it near and dear, because it reminds us of why I do what I do. The Post Script is the most relevant part of this email:

You’re probably wondering why I am emailing you two quarters after I took History 3C with you as my teaching assistant.

[…]

Sam, you were the perfect TA for this student who initially felt lost during his first history course at UCLA. The nature of the course was definitely new and uncharted territory for me, as I’m sure that you could tell with all my random questions. I was initially unsure of how to take notes or write historically, but you were always there to guide me and set me on the right track. You were a truly awesome TA since you always provided us students with very constructive feedback (whether in discussion, on the weekly questions, or on the papers); and although the discussion sections weren’t always organized, they were always very informative and well done.

[…]

P.S. Your providing each of us students with feedback on our papers in some weird way influenced this whole e-mailing TAs thing that I’m doing. Feedback goes a long way—thanks again for helping me realize that.

And that’s it. After the aw shucks moment, after the puffed chest deflated, what I was left with was a student saying that he got something out of my feedback.

So although I’m still unclear to whom I’m directing my interim comments, and unclear of the reasons I’m writing them, I will go along believing they do some small bit of good.

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