Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Responding to Student Writing

How often and in what ways you respond to student writing is determined by a number of factors – time, assignment, format, length, personality, class size, paper load, etc. While there is no magic formula for how to provide adequate and constructive feedback to all your students on all their writing, the following traits and strategies can be very effective in advancing student learning. 

Traits of Effective Feedback

Feedback is predominantly “facilitative” rather than evaluative.  

Facilitative feedback works on a motivational and cognitive level - students will want to improve their writing and will have some specific understanding for how to do this.

Feedback extends learning goals and writing strategies taught in the classroom. 

The teacher’s written or verbal comments enact and extend the learning from the classroom.

Feedback is actionable for the student

In the language of learning theory language, effective feedback operates within the writer’s “zone of proximal development.” That is, the feedback will help the writer reach an attainable goal.

Feedback is timely and occurs at a formative stage in the writing process.   

Studies show that when feedback comes with a summative assessment (final grade), it’s much less effective than at the formative stage. You can avoid grade blindness, by providing feedback prior to and separate from evaluation.

"Most undergraduates regard thoughtful feedback in its many forms—written comments on drafts and papers, e-mail messages responding to proposals or introductions, and personal conversations in office hours or after class—as central to their learning experience.

— Harvard Writing Project Bulletin

Feedback conveys a clear scale of concern.

In feedback offered at formative stages, this scale prioritizes content and possibly organizational issues over grammar and mechanics.

Feedback is anchored to specific moments and ideas in the student’s writing.

Less effective feedback offers rubber-stamped comments (e.g “avoid generalizations, “show don’t tell,” “needs elaboration,” “don’t use the passive voice”)

Feedback is suited to the specific draft or stage of writing.

First drafts receive different feedback from final drafts.

Feedback occurs in a learning environment where constructive criticism is a good thing.

Feedback is much more receptive when students understand that learning cannot occur without practice. The more frequently students have oportunties to give and receive feedback on their writing, the more likely the feedback will be utilized in revision.

Feedback avoids mean-spiritedness.

Good feedback is directed at the writer’s process and tasks, not at the writer’s self/ ego.

Feedback does not appropriate the student writer’s work.

There is a temptation to take over student writing when making editorial suggestions or offering comments about reasoning. Using questions rather than direct commands can be an effective strategy for allowing student writers to maintain ownership of their writing and ideas.

Feedback is reasonable in amount, not devastating in volume or scope. 

A consistent strategy (or two) keeps you focused, saves time, and allows for clearer communication with students. See our Managing the Paper Load page for specific strategies.

Efffective Strategies for Responding to Student Writing

When you do read and comment on student writing, you can use these strategies to make you a better and more efficient responder. 


Here the reader simply recognizes the writing, accepts it as there and done, but doesn’t judge, edit, or comment in any way which suggests the work should different or better.  This is an appropriate type of response for experimental drafts, free-writes, or any in-class engagement work.


This is non-judgmental response, which aims solely at describing one’s on-going response to the paper’s logical, or argumentative, or descriptive sequence.  Because the capacity to describe the developing effect of a piece of writing is particularly useful for building a student’s sense of audience, this is a commenting strategy to teach students to use in responding to the work of their peers. 

Examples of Descriptive Response:

“As I read your opening paragraph, I understood your claim easily and I found the distinction you made between ads and ordinary texts very useful.  As you      went on, though, I then got confused ...”            

“This sentence is a little hard for me to follow, and I have difficulty transitioning from your last paragraph to this one. I struggle to understand what you mean by “overall universal accomplishment.”

Conversation/ Dialogue: 

This is a mode of response that moves a step beyond description to raise issues, ask questions, seek clarification, imagine options, etc. This is the most challenging sort of commenting, since it involves imagining possible extensions and re-workings of what the student has produced so far. As with description, this mode of response is one we want students themselves to be learning.

Examples of Conversational Response:

“Do you see a link here between the pedagogical strategies you’ve just described   and a specific theory of intelligence? Can you help me make the connection?           

“I’m curious to know how the further advances in technology affect the relationship between Bartleby and the boss.  Does “I prefer not to” take on a slightly more passive tone in the context of droning air conditioners, faulty copiers and the like? Does the boss in Parker’s film struggle to understand in the same way Melville’s narrator does? Or has the last vestment of contact between people been eroded in the film? Your paper has provoked so many questions!”


This mode includes elements of both description (above) and grading (below) Such a mode is usually criteria-based.  It tells students where their work stands with respect to well-established functions/ qualities a particular writing assignment should show.

Example of Evaluative Comment:

“While your analysis of both texts is excellent, I suggest your overall thesis does not match the quality of your specific insights. As I’ve tried to indicate in marginal comments, your references to “shared moods” and “generational” ideas require more precision.  At times you tend to make free associations about the possible links between the two texts without shaping these associations into a coherent line of reasoning. A keener thesis will help you focus your insights.”

Advising/ Prescribing:

Instructors often disagree over whether or not to offer prescriptive comments on student papers (e.g  “You need a new paragraph here to develop your argument further,” or “you need to rearrange your paragraph so that this last point is first”). One can soften overly prescriptive claims by turning them into questions (e.g. How can you expand your discussion here to be more full?”)

“For the next draft, expand the argument in paragraph 3. This will give you the ending you wanted. Pay special attention, for example, to the role of irony.”

“Rearrange your paragraph so that this last point is first. This will make your emphasis stronger.”

Correcting/ Editing:

Here the reader makes corrections, notes misspelled words, comma splices and the like in the student’s paper.  On early drafts, the local focus on such corrections tends to work against global revisions; students often just fix what you tell them to fix, and leave the rest alone. There are other ways of helping students deal with error; one is to do a certain amount of carefully limited editing to point out recurrent problems and then to make a note at the end of the paper, along the lines of: “I see a number of sentence problems – especially misspellings and comma splices.  I’ve underscored some of them. How can you fix them?”

Useful Sources

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

“Responding to Student Writing.” (2000). Harvard Writing Project Bulletin. The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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