Providing Effective and Efficient Feedback

This year the University Writing Committee has been listening to faculty across the university talk about writing in their disciplines. One common pattern we’ve noticed is that faculty are concerned that offering feedback on student writing is both time consuming and doesn’t always seem to result in students improving their writing, even if they have the opportunity to revise based on those comments. This month, we consider what strategies faculty members can use to make the time they spend giving feedback most likely to have an impact on student writing.

  1. Use peer review: University faculty are accustomed to using comments from peers to revise their own writing. In fact, peer review is such a common practice in publishing research that most all of us have long forgotten how we learned to offer such feedback or to use the feedback as we revise. This video from MIT faculty members offers a good overview of the rationale for teaching students to engage in peer review. A companion video for students is also available. Using peer review gives students feedback without requiring more time from the teacher, but as we’ve explained before, you’ll need to do some work to ensure that these peer reviews are taken seriously and done in ways that support your goals for the assignment. So, taking some time to model or guide peer review is worth it.
  2. Create and use a rubric: Thinking in advance about what our goals are and what we expect students to do in any given assignment helps us be clearer with students about those expectations, and when students know what they are expected to do, they are much more likely to actually do the work. Too many times we give students copious directions about what the writing should look like, without giving them much guidance at all on the thinking we want them to demonstrate in their writing. Rubrics let us concentrate on the things we’ve already decided matter and not be distracted by, or inconsistent about, all the many other things that can emerge in student writing. We’ve actually written about rubrics often because there’s so much to say about why they are useful and how to use them. We know many faculty across campus who are using rubrics not only to speed the feedback process, but as a teaching tool that helps students internalize the expectations. We know designing rubrics can be tricky and take time, but that’s why we offer workshops and individual consultations on this topic. And, if you’re new to rubrics, we can help you introduce them to your students or go through a batch of papers with you to help you revise the rubric for the next time (or before you actually use it with students).
  3. Read for patterns: Too many of us approach a set of student writing assignments with red pen in hand, ready to look for mistakes. A 2010 study showed that those using a red pen marked more errors and gave lower grades than people using blue pens. So, if you want to focus more on thinking than sentence-level errors, set that pen down and just skim through the stack of student work first. Doing so will let you identify common patterns across the entire class so you can devise a class activity that reteaches the common issue and gives everyone feedback at the same time – much more efficient than writing the same comment on multiple papers. Reading through first will also let you see the range of performance so you can modify your rubric, if necessary, before you start using it.
  4. Refuse to be a copyeditor: Our job is to teach, not edit. Students won’t learn to take responsibility for proofreading or editing their own work if they believe we’re going to do it for them. So, limit your line edits to either repeated errors that you mark once and ask students to correct throughout the paper, or errors that really interfere with communication, where you might model a better way to word the sentence or simply ask students to restructure the sentence. Often a general comment that the paper needs more careful editing and proofreading will cover all the sentence-level edits you would make. The Miller Writing Center can help students with sentence-level errors and provide missing instruction if a student really doesn’t understand grammar or other conventions, but even we won’t edit for them. Remember, though, that students who speak another language or a different dialect may need more time and practice before they can produce standard written English. If you can read around the error and still understand the content, maybe there are other issues that deserve more of your attention. And, if the paper is so riddled with such mistakes that you can’t make sense of it, maybe the student needs to edit before you try to offer feedback.
  5. Spend time in class that saves you time commenting: Whether you take five minutes to have students proofread in class before turning in the paper, spend 30 minutes in class doing peer review, or spend most of a class session doing an activity that addresses common problems, the time you spend in class will save you lots of time you would have spent making comments. If the writing activity is connected to your learning goals for the course, or you’re aiming to help students improve their writing, class time can help you accomplish your objectives.
  6. Offer comments that prompt revision and rethinking: If we see our comments as encouraging revision, we’re more likely to stay focused on the point of having students do the assignment in the first place. If we prompt rethinking and revision, we’re also more likely to ask questions than to make “corrections” and leave students with choices to make rather than our answers. And, you can ask that revisions include a cover memo that explains how they’ve addressed reviewers’ (peer and instructor) comments, making their choices move into metacognition, where knowledge is more easily transferred to other situations.
  7. Pay attention to timing and the way you signal importance: Peer review can happen at different stages of a writing project, but proofreading is going to happen near the end of the process. Prompting revision isn’t useful if there’s no opportunity to revise. And, peer review or revision that doesn’t carry a significant weight in the final grade won’t be seen as needing serious effort or attention. We once heard a student explain to a faculty member that if an assignment got no attention in class, the students just assumed that it wasn’t really all that important. We think grades work as another implicit signal about what we value, how much time we think it should take, and how important we think it is. So, make sure you’re not sending mixed signals to students about the importance you place on writing.

Have an assignment or strategy you want to share with others? Contact us!