Responding to Student Writing
(From Teaching with Writing: A Conversation Series)
How often and in what ways you respond to student writing is determined by several factors – time, assignment, format, length, 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 qualities of effective feedback can advance student learning.
Qualities of Effective Feedback
Feedback is predominantly facilitative and formative rather than evaluative.
Facilitative feedback works on a motivational and cognitive level - students will want to improve their writing and have a specific understanding of how to do this.
Formative feedback invites reflection and metacognition about the content of the course, and the progress students are making as they acquire the skills to write in the genres of writing the course requires.
Formative feedback extends learning goals and writing strategies taught in the classroom.
An instructor's written or verbal comments ask students to think more deeply and reflectively about the content of the course and how their writing is conveying their understanding of it. In a disciplinary setting, feedback may also reinforce students' knowledge of the conventions of genres their field uses and values.
Feedback is actionable for the student.
The feedback will stimulate deeper thinking about a topic, develop a meta-awareness of the effectiveness of their writing strategies, and give students a clear, attainable goal for improving their written work.
Feedback is timely and occurs at a formative stage in the writing process.
Studies show that when feedback comes with a summative assessment (a final grade), it’s much less effective than at the formative stage. You can avoid "grade blindness" by providing feedback on a draft of their writing prior to and separate from assigning an evaluative letter grade. Getting feedback to students within two weeks of their draft while the assignment draft is fresh in their minds also supports students' reception of your comments.
"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 what the instructor values most.
At formative stages, giving feedback that prioritizes content and possibly organizational issues within the paper signals to students that their ideas and the order in which they present them are where their focus should be in the writing process. Grammar conventions and mechanics, while important, can wait until they revise: focusing on these too early may prevent students from productively grappling with their subject matter knowledge acquisition. It's also a fruitless endeavor to mark up grammar and mechanics on a draft that may change significantly when students revise their work for their final submission.
Feedback is anchored to specific moments and ideas in the student’s writing.
Margin comments that point to particular places, sections, sentences, and phrasing are most effective, giving students a concrete place to focus their attention and revisions. Asking questions about their thought process, a definition of a term they use, or the connection of their ideas to a source they use are good examples of this kind of feedback. General comments like “avoid generalizations, “show don’t tell,” “needs elaboration,” and “don’t use the passive voice” are necessarily bad, but without the direct connection to specific moments and ideas in their work, they do not provide much guidance for students to revise.
Feedback is suited to the specific draft or stage of writing.
As must be evident by now, first drafts receive different feedback from final drafts. Comments on first drafts should support students in assessing how well they are learning key concepts of a course and assisting them in articulating that learning well. Comments on final drafts ideally become conversations between an expert (the instructor) and emerging experts (the students) that help students accurately assess their understanding (self-efficacy) of both the material and their ability to write about it in the genre conventions called for in the course.
Feedback occurs in a learning environment where constructive criticism is a good thing.
Students are much more receptive to feedback when they understand that learning cannot occur without practice. The more frequently students have opportunities to give and receive feedback on their writing, and review and make a plan to use that feedback, the more productive their revision process will be.
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.
You can't comment on everything, every piece of writing, every time. You'll drive yourself crazy. A consistent strategy or two can keep you focused, save time, and allow for more precise, productive communication with students. See the next section for some ideas.
Effective Strategies for Responding to Student Writing
Here the reader simply recognizes the writing, accepts it as there and done, but doesn’t judge, edit, or comment in any way that suggests the work should be different or better. This is an appropriate type of response for "low-stakes" writing assignments, e.g., experimental drafts, free-writes, or any in-class engagement work.
This is a non-judgmental response, which aims solely at describing one’s ongoing response to the paper’s logical, 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 peer review sessions when they are responding to the work of their peers.
Examples of Descriptive Responses:
“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 by...”
“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. Can you define that a little more in a sentence or two?”
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--as they read their peers' and their own work.
Examples of Conversational Responses:
“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 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, hopefully using a rubric shared with students from the beginning. It tells students where their work stands with respect to well-established functions/qualities a particular writing assignment should show. These types of comments are often best written as end notes at the bottom of the paper.
Example of Evaluative Comments:
“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.”
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. )
Examples of Advising/Prescribing Comments:
"How can you expand your discussion here to be more full?”
“What do you think about expanding the argument in paragraph 3 in your next draft? I think this may give you the ending you wanted. Pay special attention, for example, to the role of irony.”
“Try rearrange your paragraph so that this last point is first. This will make your emphasis stronger.”
Here the reader makes corrections, notes misspelled words, comma splices and the like in the student’s paper. On early drafts, the focus on such localized 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 conventions and mechanics errors, especially as your read near-final drafts. One way to do this 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?”
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.