Providing feedback on students’ writing

The best kind of commentary enhances the writer’s feeling of dignity. The worst kind can be experienced as dehumanizing and insulting–often to the bewilderment of the teacher, whose intentions were kindly but whose techniques ignored the personal dimension of writing. (Engaging Ideas, p. 317)

With this comment, John Bean explains the importance of providing strong, useful feedback that makes students want to improve their writing and ideas.  Unfortunately, many teachers’ comments are stifling, hurtful, and discouraging.  We want to build confidence so that students want to try again.  In order to do build this confidence and motivation, we need to provide feedback that draws attention to both the good and the bad in students’ work.

Drawing on a lot of research about writing, Bean offers a strategy for how to comment on a(n undergraduate) student’s writing.  His main goal is not to act as judge and jury but to act as coach, finding the potential within a draft and telling students how to improve their papers.  He provides several questions, in descending order of concern, that teachers should ask themselves while reading papers:

  • Does the draft follow the assignment? If no, return for rethought with few/no other comments or grades.
  • Does the draft address a problem/question? Does it have a thesis? Writers may have clarified their ideas as they wrote, so their ideas are clearer at the end than at the beginning.  This is usually problematic for readers who want the problem and thesis clearly stated at the beginning of the paper.  A nice mitigating comment would be to say the thesis was unclear at the beginning but it became clearer where the author wanted to go by the end.
  • What is the overall quality of the writer’s ideas/argument?  This is a good time to comment on the strength of the ideas, the complexity of their development, and compare students’ ideas to other sources or scholars’ work.
  • Is the draft effectively organized? This is a good time to explain where you as a reader got confused or what could make the writing easier to follow. Do the title, introduction, or a forecasting paragraph give the reader a sense of what’s coming? Are transitions and topic sentences effective, clear, and help clarify the path of the argument? Can the student summarize the purpose of a paragraph or section?
  • Does the paper follow the “old/new contract”?  The reader’s brain wants to make connections between something old/known at the beginning of the sentence and the end of the sentence with something new that advances the argument. If authors don’t move from old to new within each sentence or paragraph, confusion usually results. If you teach your students this idea, you can quickly explain your confusion with the comment “O/N” or something similar.
  • Is the draft free of grammar, punctuation, spelling errors? A good way to comment on these is not to spend all your time and anger fixing everything, but to use a checkmark to mark lines with grammatical problems.  Then, tell the student the common problems (e.g. improper apostrophe use) and/or that they will receive a higher grade when the problems are fixed and/or that they will not receive a grade until they problems are fixed. Alternatively, you can edit a sentence or paragraph as an example to show your students what they need to do for the rest of the paper.
  • Is the draft free of stylistic and rhetorical problems (e.g. wordiness, choppiness, weak verbs, excessive use of the passive voice)? Is the style and register appropriate for the genre of writing and audience?
  • Finally, provide end comments that both justify the grade and coach towards improvement–alone the former is usually negative.  Bean advises that you focus on the potential of the current draft and mention strengths, then a few areas for improvement, and then suggestions for improvement.  A similar strategy is the SE2R Narrative feedback method.

Practically speaking, Bean suggests follows this strategy at a late-stage of the writing process or as  “final draft” which students have the option of revising (cf. Test Corrections).  Indeed, the strategy’s potential for guiding revisions is great and could be applied during the writing process before papers are turned in.  You could encourage students to read through this (or a similar) list of questions before they turn in the paper, enlist peer-editors who are given this check-list or list of questions, or you could provide comments yourself.  The latter is clearly more work for you, but it can be made a little easier with the use of technology, especially Google Docs or similar apps based on Google Docs.


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