4 ways to work smarter—not harder—at giving feedback on student writing

I loved being a high school English teacher: introducing teenagers to new literature and sophisticated topics, supporting them as they grappled their way through complex texts, and helping them become proficient writers. As a college student, I had attended a school where every course was assessed through writing (I wrote papers in calculus!), so the expectations for what my students would encounter in college and career were very much at the forefront of my mind. I thought the best way to help them become successful writers was to provide feedback—lots of feedback—on their drafts.

While I might have had the best of intentions, this approach didn’t always work out (something I struggled to realize for a long time). Many of my students chose not to revise their writing based on my feedback; some didn’t even look at my comments.

I have one particularly vivid memory of my final year teaching sophomore English. I had just returned feedback on first drafts of an essay on The Bluest Eye. When I returned a paper to one student, he looked at it, crumpled it up, and stormed out of the room. I was taken aback. This student had struggled with writing at the beginning of the year, but he had grown tremendously. Plus, he had provided me a really strong first draft for this assignment. I was excited to give him notes (written in soothing green ink. I never marked papers in red) on how he could revise and refine it to make it even better. Several comments were affirmations of what he had done well.

What I didn’t realize then was that this student and I were not on the same page (pun intended) on the purpose of writing feedback. It was clear in my mind, but I realize now that I never actually communicated it clearly to my students. If I could do it all over again, I would have made the following four changes to how I taught writing:

1. Take the time to establish a supportive writing community

Despite the stereotype of the tortured writer sequestering themselves to write in solitude, writing is a highly collaborative process. Writers brainstorm ideas with others; they request feedback from fresh perspectives; and they write for external audiences.

While writing is collaborative, it is also highly vulnerable. Sharing your writing with others can be nerve-wracking. It is critical that educators devote time during their instruction to establish a shared understanding of the purpose of writing feedback and norms on how to provide and receive feedback.

First and foremost, mutual respect and trust must be established between teacher and students. Many students may struggle with trusting teachers for various reasons. However, trust is critical in the writing feedback cycle, because if students don’t understand that their teacher wants what’s in their best interest, it skews their interpretation of the feedback. The feedback may feel like it is an attack on their identity or intelligence rather than a constructive critique of their writing.

My approach to feedback is probably one of my greatest regrets as a teacher. I provided way too much feedback.

An interesting study on writing feedback and trust found remarkable results using a simple intervention: teachers provided written feedback as typical on student papers, but before the papers were returned to the students, one of two sticky notes was attached to the front. One stated, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper” while the other said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The students who received the latter sticky note were far more likely to revise their essays (80% versus 40%), integrate the teacher’s feedback, and produce higher quality writing. Amazing results from a single sticky note!

Another great way to build mutual respect and trust is to model writing in front of your students while soliciting and integrating their feedback. My teacher friend Bethany Douglass talks about this technique in “Ask a teacher: How to create a classroom community of empowered writers.”

Finally, the power of peer-to-peer feedback cannot be overstated. Indeed, research shows that peer feedback is more effective than teacher feedback for the writing development of multilingual students. But we cannot expect students to provide useful (and respectful) writing feedback without modeling the feedback process for them and supporting them along the way. This involves establishing roles and responsibilities of peer groups, teaching students how to ask for feedback on specific elements of their writing, and showing students how to provide constructive feedback on what their peers have done well and what they can improve. Providing students with sentence starters can be especially useful as students learn the feedback protocol (e.g., “I really like the example you give here because…” or “Can you clarify what you mean by ____?”)

Don’t forget about empowering students to use their home language or engage in translanguaging when working with peers. My colleague Kayla McLaughlin has a wonderful post about the role translanguaging can play in facilitating the writing process.

While establishing a classroom writing community can be time-consuming, it sets the class up for long-term success as peer feedback groups can increase the amount of learning that occurs within a class period. As the teacher is providing an individual student or small group feedback during a writing conference, the other students can receive feedback from their peers during the same time.

2. Help students cultivate an identity as a writer

Many students struggle to see what value writing has for them in their own lives. While college and career readiness were always on my radar, that was not necessarily the case for my students, who prioritized different concerns. Plus, writing has value beyond college and career, too; many people journal to process emotions and/or help with decision-making while others pursue creative writing as a hobby.

As my colleague Amy Merrill wrote in “5 ways to use writing in the disciplines to support learning,” writing has value as a tool for thinking and learning. When students write about a topic or text, they deepen their understanding of it. As educators, we need to help students make that connection for themselves.

We can also tap into the value of writing beyond self-interests. As my colleague Julie Richardson said in an earlier post, research shows that students become more engaged in the writing process when they “understand how a writing task can benefit them (a self-oriented goal) and how the writing task can connect to or benefit the wider world (a self-transcendent goal).” We can help broaden the purpose for writing by giving students agency in choosing their own topics and broadening the authentic audiences they are writing for.

Also, due to challenges they have encountered in the past, many students have internalized the idea “I’m bad at writing.” This negative self-concept can be challenging to overcome, but promising research has shown that having students read about and reflect on growth mindset for less than one hour is linked with a long-term increase in GPA for students identified as at-risk of dropping out of school.

3. Focus feedback on targeted goals

The human brain can only take in so much information at once. When we provide students with too much writing feedback, it can be overwhelming and lead to a shut down. This can be especially taxing for multilingual students who may be receiving feedback in a language they are still learning.

My approach to feedback is probably one of my greatest regrets as a teacher. I provided way too much feedback.

Writing feedback should be targeted to the specific task at hand and relevant to what you have been teaching in whole or small-group instruction. If students have been working on incorporating expert sources to support their claims, then it is a great focus area for feedback. However, if the purpose of a counterargument and how to craft and organize one hasn’t been introduced yet, providing feedback on a student’s lack of counterclaims is not going to be an effective strategy. Note: Rubrics are a great tool for focusing feedback on targeted goals because they explicitly outline the criteria of success for students and teachers.

We can help broaden the purpose for writing by giving students agency in choosing their own topics and broadening the authentic audiences they are writing for.

Feedback should prioritize the deep features of writing (e.g., development and organization) instead of getting caught up on superficial features (e.g., capitalization and commas). When students take the time and energy to revise deep features of the writing, it leads to deeper learning.

That doesn’t mean issues with grammar or spelling aren’t important, of course. Readers expect a piece of writing to adhere to a certain level of normed conventions. Refrain from providing feedback on every grammar or usage error in a piece, as it can overwhelm students and shut down their motivation to revise. (In reality, even professional writers don’t produce error-free first drafts. Shout out to my editor for her proofreading work on this post.) Instead, focus feedback on a recurring issue that you notice in a student’s writing (e.g., comma splices) or a specific topic you’ve been working on during instruction, (e.g., subject-verb agreement).

Feedback on the deeper features of writing should be especially clear and elaborated on. If students do not understand what is meant by a comment, they will be unable to integrate it in their writing. Comments like “undeveloped,” “disconnected,” or “rephrase” are unlikely to make a difference because they don’t provide enough context for students to make sense of the writing feedback. A comment like “This evidence doesn’t really support your claim. Find another detail/example/quote from your research to strengthen the connection to your argument” identifies the problem and offers a potential solution. Of course, a comment like the one above takes more time to write, which is why it is important for student’s bandwidth and teacher capacity to limit feedback to focus on specific goals. To save additional time, you might save an online document of frequently used feedback sentence starters that you can plop in as comments on a student’s online draft.

Another interesting piece of information from the research for teachers and school leaders to consider is that providing feedback—not grades—is more effective in promoting learning. For more great information on best feedback practices, I highly recommend checking out this research review, particularly the tables at the end. Also of note is the research on grades versus feedback.

4. Provide feedback on the process of writing, not just the product

Perhaps the biggest “aha” moment I’ve had since leaving the classroom is that I should have put less emphasis on the final written product and spent more time leveraging the many cognitive processes taking place during theprocess of writing. As my colleague Kellie Schmidt wrote about in “Understanding the writing process and how it can help your students,” so much learning and critical thinking takes place during writing. Additionally, students learn how to set and revisit goals, plan for their writing, self-assess their writing, and self-regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when encountering challenges. Moreover, research shows that feedback on process and self-regulation leads to a greater transfer of learning than feedback focused solely on the task.

I wish I had sat down with my students to ask them questions about the different processes they were using during their writing, had them reflect on what was working well and what wasn’t, and provided suggestions for how they might adjust those processes to be more productive and efficient with their writing the next time around.

Try something different

Feedback is a wonderful tool to promote learning, but it requires the right conditions to be effective. Looking back, I wish I had spent more time at the beginning of each school year creating a positive environment for students to be receptive to writing feedback, not only on their drafts but also on their individual processes for writing.

I also wish I had done more to distribute the work of providing feedback, so I, as the teacher, didn’t shoulder all the work. Taking home stacks of paper (or reading online drafts) every weekend is not a sustainable model for work-life balance, nor does it always help students to become independent writers. I wish I had been more intentional with setting the foundation for effective peer feedback groups and helping students be more strategic in evaluating their own writing and writing process.

Learning is a journey for students and teachers alike, and I hope the ideas in this post spark some new thinking on how you might approach writing in your classroom.

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