Since I’m currently buried under a pile of student papers (true story), I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about what makes for effective teacher feedback on student writing. This is something I thought a lot about a few weeks ago as I graded my first set of essays. The below list of suggestions has been cobbled together from my own preferences, the
insights of my colleagues at NHS, and the fantastic book Responding to Student Writers (2012) by Nancy Sommers, a slim volume chock full of useful ideas.
When possible, write students letters. I know, I know. After just one set of essays, this is already feeling like an impossible dream to me. But I feel that students put a lot of time and energy into their compositions, and they deserve the same from us in response. I always loved when my teachers wrote me letters or notes in response to my writing — it felt so intimate. I’ve kept some of those notes to this day.
Read the entire paper before commenting. This one’s tough, too. It’s very tempting to mark a paper up as you read, but if you do, you run the risk of providing stream-of-consciousness commentary. You may ask for one thing that a student provides later in the paper, for example. This is not only a waste of your time, it’s not terribly helpful for students, either. It’s better to read a composition in its entirety and be able to respond to it more comprehensively.
Don’t use red pen. It sounds crazy, but it’s true: red pen is deeply associated with error correction in students’ minds. If you want to show your students you’re not just correcting their mistakes but rather, responding to their ideas, use something else to annotate, like a
green pen. On my most recent set of papers, I intentionally used a pencil.
Avoid shorthand that may be mysterious to students. As English teachers, we take for granted certain proofreading symbols, like the ones here. As you provide feedback, it’s important to assess whether those symbols will actually mean anything to your students or whether they’ll be incomprehensible hieroglyphics. Or if you must use them for the sake
of convenience, be sure to review them with students in advance.
Read an entire class’s papers before giving any grades. This was a gem suggested to me by one of my colleagues in the History department at NHS. Reading all papers across a class before writing up feedback (and especially before grading) can give you a better sense of where your students collectively need to improve.
Be timely in turning work around. Again. I. Know. At this moment I need to be practicing what I preach. But I think that feedback provided too long after the original submission loses some of its impact. If it’s very long after the original submission, students may have a hard time remembering what they wrote and why they wrote it! My current goal for essays and other longer compositions is to turn them around in 1-2 weeks.
Review with students overall strengths and areas for improvement. Another gem, this time courtesy of my cooperating teacher Wendy Crofts. I noticed that after each piece of writing students turn in, she compiles a list of strengths and areas for improvement across all sections of the class to share with students. This strategy offers her an efficient way to provide targeted feedback that a majority of students need to hear without writing it 60 times on 60 different papers.
Provide an opportunity for students to revise. I’m a firm believer in writing as a process and process pedagogy (the topic of another blog post in the near future). If, after receiving an initial round of feedback, students want to revise for a better grade, I think that’s wonderful. After all, that’s what we in academia and in the working world do all the time when pursuing publication: revise and resubmit.
How do you handle the process of providing feedback on student writing?