10-second review: The authors say that researching the number and types of errors and teacher comments on or ignoring these errors only raised more questions than answers. They found some interesting answers, too.
Title: “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing….” RJ Connors and AA Lunsford. College Composition and Communication (December 1988), 395-409. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).
What is the effect of errors in writing? “As Mina Shaughnessy put it, ‘errors are ‘unintentional and unprofitable intrusions upon the consciousness of the reader…. They demand energy without giving back any return in meaning….’ The world judges a writer by …mastery of conventions, and we all know it.” p. 396.
How do teachers respond to errors? “Some [errors] were annotated marginally until they looked like the Book of Kells, while others merely sported a few scrawled words and a grade.” p. 398.
How thorough are college teachers in marking papers for errors? “On the average, college English teachers mark only 43% of the most serious errors in the papers they evaluate.” p. 402.
What are some problems with marking errors? “The sheer difficulty of explanation presented by some error patterns is another factor. Jotting ‘WW’ in the margin to tip a student off to a diction problem is one thing; explaining a subtle shift in point of view in that same marginal space is quite another.” p. 404.
What are the most frequently marked mistakes? “The its/it’s error and the possessive apostrophe, the highest-marked pattern are also two of the easiest errors to mark. …the errors most marked are those most quickly indicated.” p. 404.
How consistent are student errors over the years? “The numbers of errors made by students in earlier studies and the numbers we found in the 1980s agree remarkably…. …freshmen are still committing approximately the same number of formal errors per 100 words as they were before WWI.” p. 407.
Some questions about error marking: Where do specific notions of error come from? Is there a relationship among error patterns? Are there regional variations in error patterns?
Comment: I’ll add a question. When teachers respond to an error, do students understand the meaning of that comment or symbol? In my experience, students do not understand teacher comments or symbols on their writing. Students need the opportunity to tell teachers whether or not they understand their comments and say whether the comments were helpful. RayS.