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5 Tips for Effective Written Feedback

Written by David Cutler
February 20, 2018

After the better part of a decade honing how I give written feedback, I’ve found a degree of success by sticking to certain practices.

As a new teacher, I considered it a badge of honor to correct writing assignments in red ink, pointing out every mistake of any kind I could find. Often, I would go as far as rewriting entire sentences, mistaking this for effective feedback that could benefit my high school juniors and seniors.

My feedback hindered rather than helped their learning. Not only did it seem that I cared more about pointing out errors than helping students learn from them (which I am ashamed to say might have held a grain of truth), but the colossal number of corrections also destroyed their interest in revising.

After the better part of a decade honing how I give written feedback, I’ve found a degree of success by sticking to certain practices.

Make Expectations Clear

For students to benefit fully, the feedback should take place at various times throughout the writing process, with the expectations crystal clear from the very start. To help guide students, I include an assignment-specific rubric to outline expectations about topics like thesis statement, transitions, quality of analysis, and clarity of writing. The last thing I want students to feel is that I’m throwing them on their own into the deep end without any direction.

I also do my best to model the kind of writing I expect students to aspire toward achieving. With the projector on and sources open in front of me, I write out a sample introduction while explaining my thought process. I make a point of criticizing my own work, continually going back to revise sentences for clarity and concision—a major part of the process I expect my students to emulate.

Show Examples

As a next step, I always take care to include examples of similar types of assignments, whether from me, online sources, colleagues, or past students who have given me their permission to share anonymously. Students work in teams to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each example, before returning as a class to decide letter grades.

Equally important, students also discuss what feedback they would include at the end of each paper. Whenever possible, I share with students my written feedback, along with what score each essay earned. I’ve found that this activity reduces anxiety over the feedback students might receive. Moreover, it goes a long way toward helping impressionable young people take to heart a valuable lesson: neither a Pulitzer Prize-winning author nor the students themselves are above benefiting from quality feedback.

Ask More Questions and Make Fewer Corrections

When it comes to offering written feedback, consider marking and correcting fewer mistakes.

I learned as much from Mark A. McDaniel, co-author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. “If you’re telling the students exactly what’s wrong every time, they never know how to figure that out on their own,” the Director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University in St. Louis told me for an Edutopia article I wrote, Making Learning Meaningful and Lasting.

Now, I point out the same mistake only twice on a particular writing assignment. If that same mistake occurs again, I ask students something like, “What do you think needs addressing here?” Rather than mark up more of their paper, I do my best to make clear that they are expected to find and correct the other problems in the essay. In my experience, this helps students take ownership of their learning—as well as the revision process.

Three Areas for Improvement

Along these lines, I want students to feel that they can be successful throughout the revision process. Sometimes, I still fail in this endeavor. Usually when that happens, it’s because I’ve included such an overwhelming amount of feedback that the student is at a complete loss as to how to continue. As a former mentor once told me, “too much of anything, even a good thing, can be bad.” In my experience, the same is true with providing feedback, especially when you are trying to help students refine their craft.

I still have far to go, but this year I’ve tried my best to limit my end comments to three areas that need the most improvement. For example, I could ask a student to pay particular attention to her transitions, use of the passive voice, and the quality of sources used to inform her analysis. When I assess the revision, I pay particular attention to those areas and the degree of improvement. For the same individual, I would likely select up to three different areas for improvement on future writing assignments.

Feedback Evaluation Form

As one of my spring semester goals, I plan to create a form that asks students to gauge more formally the effectiveness of my feedback. As McDaniel also told me, feedback isn’t a precise science. In fact, I think that it’s more of an art.

Experience tells me that to provide the kind of feedback that sticks and really makes a difference, one must really know his students as individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses. That takes time, dedication, and reflection, and hearing from students about what works for them is essential.