Literacy

Writing Feedback for Students

7 Min Read
Writing Feedback For Students

Owen Bondono is a ninth grade ELA teacher at Oak Park High School, located in the Oak Park School District. In 2021, Owen was named the Michigan State Teacher of the Year. You can find an interview with Owen in our Teachers in America podcast.

It’s 1 a.m. in the morning, and you’re about to fall asleep on a stack of ungraded papers. Maybe your eyesight is blurring as you look at student writing on your computer screen. It’s the classic writing teacher conundrum: students need meaningful, constructive feedback on their writing, but providing that feedback takes too much time and often doesn’t lead to meaningful results.

As a ninth grade English teacher, I’ve found myself in this predicament plenty of times. I used to think the solution was better time management; if I could use my time more efficiently, I wouldn’t find myself in this situation. After teaching a student writing elective, I’ve learned that classroom structures make a bigger impact than personal time management.

I realized that there are ways to provide writing feedback for students and help them use it to make real improvement without sacrificing sleep. By implementing the four structures below, we can streamline the process of feedback and improve both your life and your students’ writing.

Writing Feedback Examples

The One-Column Rubric

Rubrics are a useful way to provide feedback, but they can easily become overcomplicated. Rubrics should be accessible for student use and streamlined for teacher use. Consider using a simplified one-column rubric. This format avoids wasting time detailing what it looks like to miss the mark, and instead focuses on writing proficiency.

With this style of rubric, students get zero points if an aspect is missing, one point if they are working towards proficiency in that aspect, and two points if they meet or exceed proficiency. This simplifies the focus of your grading. Students are also less overwhelmed by the rubric and more likely to use it themselves to evaluate their work. You can use the empty boxes in the rubric to write comments or to simply check off which box the student’s work exemplifies.

Focused Revision

Once you have a more streamlined and student-friendly rubric, students can use it to revise their writing before submitting it. The more often students take control of this process, the less time and effort your feedback will require.

Peer-revision has long been a best practice in writing classrooms, but it’s hard to teach students how to give meaningful feedback. By using the one-column rubric, students can focus on one row at a time during revision sessions. Your class can also practice reading for one criteria like clarity, structure, or grammar.

This exercise can manifest in the classroom in many ways. Some students can become experts in one criteria, and continuously help their peers to develop in that area. Students can reread the same work multiple times and look for something different on each pass. Students can rotate works, each of them revising for different aspects.

This kind of focused revision can also be used by students for their own work. Once they get the hang of it, they can reread their own writing with only one or two criteria in mind at a time. This will also hone their ability to talk about their writing in detailed, meaningful ways, which improves the processes of both conferencing and peer-revision alike.

Teacher Feedback as Goal Setting

At this point, most writing teachers know the best practice of sandwiching feedback with praise. However, this can feel tricky when a student’s writing contains much room for improvement. In these instances, balancing the positive and negative feedback can be difficult. The following piece of advice has served me well: throw away the idea that you need to point out everything a student did wrong.

Years ago, there was a campaign for teachers to abandon red grading pens and swap them with pens of a different, less intimidating color. The logic was that students had become conditioned to cringe away from red ink bleeding all over their papers. However, I don’t think that the color of ink we use matters nearly as much as the amount of feedback we give at one time. Too much feedback is overwhelming and increases the likelihood that students will take nothing from the comments at all.

For this reason, after scoring writing using the rubric, provide only three sentences of feedback: praise, 1-2 goals for improvement, and praise again. This takes practice, but it pays dividends in both reclaiming your time and seeing actual improvement in student writing. A writing feedback example of this might look like: I really like how much great evidence you’ve included. In the future, let’s work on organizing our paragraphs for maximum impact and transitioning smoothly from one paragraph to the next. Your concluding sentence was especially well-written!

Maybe that writing sample also included grammatical errors, a weak introduction, and issues with properly formatting citations. If I pointed out all of these errors to a student, would they all be fixed the next time the student wrote? My experience tells me, no. Instead, the student and I will focus on two big impact improvements. Next time, we can focus on something else.

This is also a great structure for differentiation. When you’re honed in on only one or two goals for a student’s writing each time you’re giving feedback, you can tailor that advice for each individual. For some students, these goals will be big picture or remedial. For others, they will encourage a student to push themselves further into excellence.

Require Students to Use Your Feedback

How many times have we taken great care to provide students with meaningful, timely feedback, only to watch students glance at the final grade and stuff their work into the depths of a bag, never to be seen again? Or worse, thrown into the trash can?

Good feedback means nothing if students don’t use it. The ultimate goal of feedback should be student improvement, not a grade. However, much like many students don’t know how to effectively revise, many also do not know how to use the feedback they are given.

Try giving students a revision day in class after you have given your feedback. Conference with your class and discuss the feedback they received. Give them tasks specific to where their writing needs strengthening. For example: reread your notes on in-text citations and make corrections to your work. This is also a great chance for students to learn from each other with comments like: read Malik’s concluding paragraph, then make revisions to your own.

The goal here is for students to embrace their feedback and use it immediately. By the end of the class period, students should resubmit their writing with changes made. If grades are particularly motivating to those students, offer the chance for students to earn back points during this process. And since students were each given goals in your feedback, no one can say they have nothing to improve.

For long term improvement, have students track their goals. If you are conferencing regularly with students, their ability to quickly look back on past goals will improve the quality of these conferences. Students will have a broader picture of their strengths and weaknesses as writers, and as their teacher, you will find it easier to create goals that build on each other.

Since we’re saving time with these methods, don’t take responsibility for keeping detailed records about each student’s writing growth. Instead, give students this responsibility, and have them bring their notes to every conference. If you need these notes for yourself, or you’re afraid a student will misplace them, have students keep their notes in a shared digital space, or take a quick photo at the end of the conferencing session.

When used together, these structures frontload much of the feedback process and place more of the responsibility in student hands, while scaffolding them toward success as writers. This allows the feedback process to become more collaborative and cyclical. Ultimately, it frees the writing teacher from the burden of finality that often hampers us when giving feedback. We feel the need to notice and note everything, to give students every correction, because we want to give them every tool for future success. When feedback becomes part of a larger cycle of student improvement, we can remove this weight from our shoulders. Students will grow, step by step, and if we don’t get to that particular critique this time, we’ll get it next time.

And we’ll do it all with a few more hours of shut eye.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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