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Three Strategies to Improve Writing Feedback

When I was in high school, I turned in paper copies of all my essays and got them back marked up in red pen. The teacher gave us a few minutes to look over our corrections and then we either threw them away or filed them at the backs of our binders.

This system worked well in some ways and was ineffective in others. The main benefit of receiving a hard copy of my feedback was that I definitely looked at it at least once. Sure, I had some classmates who looked at the grade on top, crumpled it up and chucked it toward the trash, but most students at least flipped through their corrections.

Since online grading has become more prevalent, it is easy to forget to give students that time in class to look over their feedback. Once the feedback is posted, the students have access to it, but that does not mean they will take the time to actually read over the comments. Oftentimes, students do not want to read the comments because, naturally, they fear that feeling of being criticized. This leads us into my first feedback strategy.

Strategy 1: Give positive feedback

When looking at a piece of writing that needs a lot of work, it can be hard to think of positive things to say. Though it’s sometimes challenging, it is important because it builds the students’ confidence in their burgeoning writing skills. I always try to include some positive comments in all of the essays I assess. Comments like, “great hook!” or “effective complex sentence” make reading feedback less miserable for the students. I have even been known to use emojis in my comments if a particular sentence just makes me smile. Including positive feedback is something I strive to improve on each year.

Strategy 2: Focus feedback on a few specific issues

It is easy to overload a student with too much feedback. One sure way to make a student shut down is to mark up every other line of their writing. I have been guilty of this before.

I have found over the years that it is better to try to keep comments focused on a few issues that students can focus on as opposed to trying to fix everything all at once. For example, if a student has great ideas but terrible grammar and organization, I will praise their ideas and comment on their organization. I may pick one grammar issue to correct throughout the essay, such as inserting missing periods, but if I comment on all the grammatical issues, that is all the student will correct. Grammatical issues are easier fixes. When a student sees fifty comments on their essay and forty of them are simple grammatical errors, they will fix those forty things and feel accomplished leaving the harder, more important comments unchanged.

Citations are another big issue for me. If the student is using improper citations, I try not to comment on many grammatical issues so they focus on nailing down proper MLA format (depending on what you use in class, it may be APA or the Chicago Manual of Style).

Strategy 3: Give students time to review feedback in class

Finally, don’t forget to give students a chance to review everything. One strategy I used to make sure feedback sinks in is to have students complete a two-question reflection about their feedback:

  1. According to my feedback, what did I do well on?
  2. According to my feedback, what do I need to focus on improving in my next piece of writing?

The first question allows them to congratulate themselves for what they did well on, reinforcing their confidence. The second reflective question is helpful because it enables students to see their writing performance improve over time based on the feedback they get on each piece of writing. In other words, if you (as student) determined that your transitions need work in one essay, and find that there are positive comments on your transitions in the next, that shows improvement!

Along these same lines, I sometimes have students read their old writing before starting a new piece that has a similar structure. For example, in the beginning of the school year last year, I had my students write an essay about the themes of the books they were reading independently. During the second semester, they built on that skill by writing an essay which related the book’s theme to its central conflict. This essay had a similar structure and rubric so before they began writing, I had the students read their first essay and review the feedback to make sure they did not make the same errors again.

Writing positive comments, focusing feedback on a few specific issues, and giving students time to reflect on their writing in class are three ways you can start improving your feedback today!


Jamie Breitner

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