Give your students better writing feedback. A practical guide for instructors.
Few practices promote student learning as effectively as well-formed writing assignments paired with personal, constructive feedback. Of course, giving useful feedback can be time consuming and has limited value if students don’t read or act on it.
By following some simple feedback best practices instructors can mitigate these communication challenges. The goal of this guide is to present feedback tips in a clear, practical format that you can quickly absorb and apply to your classroom.
Writing promotes learning
Writing activities promote high-level recall, organized thinking and clear expression.
- Writing is one of the most effective learning activities.
- To be effective, writing needs to be paired with effective feedback and the opportunity for revision.
- Too often, the feedback we provide our students isn’t helping.
Beyond English class
Everyone writes essays in English class but writing activities pay dividends in any domain. We’ve known this for a while. It’s one of the reasons writing across the curriculum (WAC) programs have gained popularity since the 1980s.
At the most basic level, writing requires students to recall knowledge rather than just recognize it (e.g., a multiple-choice question). With more complex writing activities, students must retrieve information, link it with related concepts, then organize and express those ideas in their own words. There’s evidence that this retrieval process produces more learning than even the most thorough study session.
The point is not just to produce better writers (though of course this doesn’t hurt). When students write about content, they learn it better. So most educators agree students should be writing in almost every class — including math, science, finance, economics, and humanities.
“Through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, unfamiliar concepts, and subject-specific vocabulary.” — Judy Willis
Effective writing requires good feedback
Like any pedagogical tool, the positive effects of writing can be greatly reduced by flawed implementation.
The biggest factor that influences the effect of writing activities is the nature of the feedback students receive. At the extreme end of the spectrum, students may receive no feedback at all. Or perhaps only receive a grade with no comments about their specific performance.
As a result, students get some writing practice but generally don’t improve and don’t learn the material better.
Your feedback probably stinks nothing personal 😉
More commonly, students receive feedback but it doesn’t do a whole lot of good. Kluger and DeNisi  conducted a meta-analysis of studies of feedback and found that the average effect of writing feedback intervention on performance was quite positive.
However, 38 percent of the time the control group actually outperformed the feedback groups leading the researchers to conclude that the effects of feedback depend on the nature of the feedback. 
Much of the feedback we provide students simply isn’t helpful. Feedback to students “might be delayed, not relevant or informative, it might focus on low level learning goals or might be overwhelming in quantity or deficient in tone (i.e. too critical).” 
Purpose of writing feedback
Writing feedback is not just about finding mistakes. It is about providing clear guidance for the student’s next step.
- Unlike editing, feedback should give students a clear idea of how to improve.
- Feedback needs to be specific and clear.
- Feedback is essential for both strong and weak students.
The primary purpose of feedback is…
Writing feedback should offer students clear and specific guidance of how to improve their performance.
Feedback is not editing
Feedback is not the same thing as editing. And it is much more than making a few red marks on a paper.
One study  found that most students complained their writing feedback was too general and vague with no suggestions for improvement. Students report that they are often left not knowing what they have done well, what they need to change and why they have achieved the grade they have.
Feedback is about guidance. Diagnosis of what is wrong can be part of the process, but it must be accompanied by clear suggestions for improvement: “Here’s what’s wrong and here’s how to fix it.”
The goal is to leave students will a clear message about what they must do to improve future submissions.
Students report that they are often left not knowing what they have done well, what they need to change and why they have achieved the grade they have.
Feedback is for every student
Weak students often receive better and more frequent feedback than strong students. This is reasonable to a point, but studies have shown that strong students often suffer from this disproportionate attention.
It’s tempting to scrawl “Excellent!” on a good student’s paper and quickly move on. But this doesn’t help the student gain insight into what they did well and what they could do to enhance their performance. Even the best students need your guidance to improve.
Getting the most out of writing feedback
Your strategy for writing must include revisions accompanied by prompt, timely feedback.
- Writing is a process not a onetime event. Students need to be given multiple opportunities to get it right.
- Your feedback should be prompt (quick revision cycle) and timely (before unit is over).
- Tired of correcting the same mistakes over and over again? Take steps to force students to address your feedback.
If you’re not allowing revisions, you’re doing it wrong
Writing loses its potency when it becomes a onetime event instead of an ongoing process. Students should be writing multiple drafts and improving their work each time with the help of a writing guide. Given the chance, most students will “engage in an iterative discourse about their writing”  which promotes engagement, time on task, and meaningful student learning.
Too often, students are given just one shot at an assignment for a grade. But this doesn’t give them the opportunity to take the advice given and improve. There is little room for risk taking, experimentation and practice.
Instead, students need to be given opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance. This means giving students a chance to improve through revisions guided by appropriate feedback.
Feedback must be prompt
Most importantly, this revision cycle needs to happen as rapidly as possible. One study found that more than 40% of institutions provided feedback that was too late to be useful.  When it takes a week or two to get feedback to students, the flow of the learning process breaks and students tend to lose interest in the assignment.
Prompt feedback guides students when they can still recall what they did and thought at the time they wrote the paper. Plus they are still motivated to improve their work.
The revision cycle needs to happen as rapidly as possible. When it takes a week or two to provide feedback students tend to lose interest.
Feedback should be timely
It’s also important for the revision cycle to occur before the unit is over. Students should receive feedback on their paper about photosynthesis before the photosynthesis unit is over. Otherwise, the learning that occurs as a result of the writing activity can’t be applied anywhere else.
This can also help teachers. Having your students write is one of the best ways to get inside their heads and assess their level of understanding. By providing feedback to students before a topic is over, you give yourself the chance to adjust content or teaching strategies based on actual learning needs.
Be sure your feedback has consequences
Feedback isn’t helpful unless the student is forced to respond to it. It is not uncommon to correct the same errors on a particular student’s work over and over again. This is because the student is not taking your advice, or not being required to do so.
Sometimes students are lazy or just don’t get it. But teachers can take steps to make feedback consequential, forcing students to address your comments. When a student submits a revision, it might be a good idea to have her explain exactly how the revision addresses the previous feedback.
Making this process transparent to the class as a whole can help students learn from their peers as well.
Feedback isn’t helpful unless the student responds to it.
Becoming a feedback guru
Providing students with organized comments.
- Provide students with grading criteria before they begin writing.
- Understand the differences between error correction and content critique, and prioritize your content comments over your error corrections.
- Understand the difference between proximate vs. holistic feedback, and be sure to provide holistic feedback.
- Limit yourself to three or four major suggestions for improvement.
Provide assessment criteria in advance
Good feedback begins before students submit anything. Let’s call it “feedforward”. Students need written guidelines for the assignment grading criteria in advance. This provides a roadmap to success and helps to clarify the features of good performance.
One study  showed that tutors and students often had quite different conceptions about the goals and criteria for essays and that poor essay performance correlated with the degree of mismatch.
An agreed upon assessment criteria makes sure everyone is on the same page. Instructors can benefit from this strategy as well, since it ensures you have well defined goals for every writing assignment.
After students submit, it is important to relate all feedback to the original assessment criteria. Students should get a specific sense of what they have achieved in progressing towards goal (set forth in your assessment criteria) and what they have yet to achieve.
Error correction vs. content critique
There are two main types of comments you can offer your students: error correction and content/ideas critique.
Content/ideas critique focuses on “what you write”.
These comments evaluate the student’s ability to write a focused paper with support and a logical development of ideas.
Error correction emphasizes “how you write”.
Much like proof-reading the focus is on writing mechanics like spelling and grammar.
Though both types of feedback can point students in the right direction, teachers tend to emphasize error correction more than they should. There is some evidence that directly critiquing students’ mechanical errors isn’t very helpful. Instead, students should be encouraged to proof-read their own work or get help from their peers.
If you do decide to include both types of feedback, it’s important to clearly divide your comments into one category or the other, and prioritize your content comments over your error corrections.
Proximate vs. holistic feedback
Feedback can be either proximate or holistic.
Proximate (selective/analytic/componential) feedback is usually embedded in the student’s text or in the margins.
It typically involves marking mistakes or making suggestions related to a specific word or sentence in the student’s work.
Holistic (comprehensive) feedback means displaying your comments as endnotes on the top or bottom of the page.
It typically focuses on major points of advice related to the student’s work as a whole.
Much of the time, proximate feedback is used for error correction, while holistic feedback focuses on content and idea development (see above).
Studies have shown that proximate comments are easier for teachers, but students prefer holistic feedback because it gives them just a few things to concentrate on as they make revisions.
Provide indirect feedback
Feedback shouldn’t give away the answers. This is often called indirect feedback.
This means telling students they made an error, but not giving away the answer or doing their work for them. Remember, feedback is about providing guidance. Assist students to think about a better approach then let them figure out the details.
Start with higher-order concerns (support of ideas) and move the lower-order problems (mechanics).
Stick to 3-4 main ideas
Feedback comments should be limited to three or four major suggestions. This might mean restraining yourself from pointing out every single mistake or suggesting every improvement that comes to mind.
Too much feedback can prompt anxiety. No student likes to receive back a paper filled with red marks.
More importantly, an overwhelming amount of feedback prevents the student from acting on your comments. When revising, a student can only attended to a handful of ideas. Your feedback should help them decide what is most important to improve, even if the end result isn’t perfect.
When providing feedback you are not only affecting the student’s knowledge, you are impacting their motivation and self-image.
- Students typically see feedback as critical and judgmental. Go out of your way to be supportive and positive.
- Balance your positive and negative comments in terms of volume and specificity.
- Reduce the amount of feedback you provide over time to encourage self-regulation.
Keep your tone positive
By default, many students misunderstand the purpose of feedback and see it as judgment instead of enabling learning. Keep this in mind and go out of your way to be supportive and positive.
Judgmental or critical comments can undermine a student’s motivation and impede the learning process. The best writers are empowered and motivated to improve. So in addition to pointing out ways to improve, your feedback should encourage the student and keep them engaged in the writing task.
One effective way to strike the right tone is to simply express the way you (the reader) experienced the essay as it was read. Rather than adopting an authoritative tone, you can communicate your human reaction and suggest ways to improve the impact of what was written.
Low-stakes writing assignments can empower students to explore ideas without fear of looking stupid in front of teachers or peers.
Start with positive and keep it balanced
Students will react better to feedback if you begin with positive comments. Then add some constructive criticism, but keep it balanced with the positive feedback.
Students often complain feedback has too much focus on the negative, and that negative comments are usually more specific than positive ones.  Keep the balance between positive and negative. And offer specific positive comments along with specific negative comments.
We provide feedback not only to improve a particular writing performance, but to enable students to become better at assessing their own work. Providing regular, frequent feedback encourages “better monitoring and self-regulation of progress by students”.  And better self-regulators achieve more.
In light of this, it often makes sense to reduce the amount of feedback you provide over time. Feedback on more basic ideas can be eliminated later in the term as the student learns to self-regulate those aspects of their work.
Another way to encourage self-assessment skills is to have students provide feedback to their peers. Evaluation skills that students use on their peer’s work can translate to their own performance.
Some fantastic resources for in-depth exploration.
Working with Student Writing: Grading Essays
University of California Berkeley
Using video to provide interactive feedback
Providing Feedback on ESL Students’ Written Assignments
The Internet TESL Journal
Giving Feedback On Students’ Written Work
Seamus O’Muircheartaigh at DevelopingTeachers.com
Grading and Commenting
Texas A&M Writing Center
What Makes for Effective Feedback on Student Writing?
Brad Hughes at UW-Madison
13 Ways of Looking at Responding to Student Writing
Doug Hesse, The University of Denver
Teaching with Writing – responding and grading
University of Minnesota
Improving Student Writing: Using Feedback as a Teaching Tool
Shelley Stagg Peterson, OISE/University of Toronto
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