How Do We Give Meaningful Feedback to Student Writers?

By Ellen Foley

One of my former students, Milton, was distraught when he received his first paper from his sophomore English teacher: “C-” was scrawled, in red ink, at the top of the page. Several grammar mistakes had been circled (also in red ink), and there were a few question marks in the margins. That was it.

Milton craved what we all crave when we submit our ideas to another person: validation that the ideas have been understood, and, if not, questions and suggestions for clarification, some encouragement to keep writing, and, according to Grant Wiggins, some comments on how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. With all of these demands, it’s no wonder that providing meaningful feedback is so difficult.

Inquiring into Writing Feedback

I teach a course titled Writing in the Secondary School at Western Michigan University for eager, soon-to-be English teachers. One day I asked the class, “So, you’ve just collected your first stack of papers, and you’re looking at a pile of thirty, maybe sixty, or possibly even one hundred or more essays given your class load.  Now what?”

The preservice teachers began answering my question by reflecting on their experiences in school. Some had teachers who circled every misplaced apostrophe, others recalled semi-legible marginalia. Some had teachers who used rubrics, and some had teachers who wrote a list of strengths and weaknesses at the end of the paper. Our conversation about previous feedback experiences helped my students understand the vast differences in forms of feedback on writing. But we didn’t want to overgeneralize self-experience. Instead, we looked for research-based strategies for providing feedback, particularly since “quality, well thought out feedback is one of the most important variables in improving student achievement.”

Researching Effective Feedback Strategies

I presented the class of preservice teachers with a project to further explore and practice giving feedback to student writers. Our task was to provide feedback on student submissions to a local high school’s annual writing competition. Because the high school student submissions were for a writing competition, no grades were required, so the preservice teachers could focus solely on feedback, not grades, while also negotiating the practical ethics of working with real students and their real writing.

To guide this work with the writing competition, we searched for ways to provide meaningful, specific feedback that would push writers to reflect and grow in their writing processes. We came up with short “Don’t” and “Do” lists, grounded in best practices, to guide our feedback process.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t try to provide feedback when you’re frustrated or tired. Recognize when these emotions emerge and take a break. Each student deserves a fresh perspective.
  2. Don’t wait to give feedback. Timely feedback is powerful, and the sooner students get feedback, the more relevant it is.
  3. Don’t be the student’s editor. Think of yourself as a writing coach, not a grammar evaluator, whose work is to describe what is working in the writing and give specific ideas for how to achieve the next goal for the piece.
  4. Don’t use technical jargon or abbreviations. Most students don’t know what “FRAG” or “AWK”  mean.
  5. Don’t be vague. According to Goodwin and Miller (2012), vague feedback–even the most well-meaning “good job” or “wow”–can result in uncertainty (what was good?), decreased motivation (well if it’s “wow,” I guess there’s nothing more I should do), and diminished learning (nothing to improve here, I guess).

Do:

  1. Read the whole piece before commenting on it. Novice writers often take time to develop an idea which might be unclear in the beginning of the text but may become more clear later on.
  2. Read supportively and with empathy. Take the student’s ideas and efforts seriously.
  3. Comment on the main ideas, details, evidence, and the paper’s structure in your own words. Ask questions to the author or comment on what the piece makes you think.
  4. Use the Praise, Question, and Wish strategy as a template for student feedback to maintain consistency in responding to each student’s writing.
  5. Type your final comments. This saves time and ensures students can actually read what you’ve written.

In their reflections, the preservice teachers in my class wrote that having these guiding principles gave them a clearer vision of what an effective approach toward providing feedback looked and felt like. Above all, Peter Elbow encourages us to remember that “there is no right or best way to respond to student writing. The right or best comment is the one that will help this student on this topic on this draft at this point in the semester–given her character and experience.”

Ellen Foley is a former high school English teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist. She is currently a part-time instructor and Ph. D student in English Education at Western Michigan University.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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