A Note on Feedback: Considering Students as Audience
The issue I want to address regarding feedback involves briefly examining some notions of Muriel Harris’ essay entitled “When Responding to Student Writing, More Is Better” from Bad Ideas About Writing. First off, however, I’d like to reminisce for a moment and share the vague memory of a horror I witnessed once upon a time as an undergraduate writing consultant. Moreover, I remember seeing that a student showed me a rubric that their instructor had given them that told them exactly how to craft an effective essay. It offered steps to follow in a detailed pyramidal structure. As part of their assignment, they needed to follow it during composition. I still cringe at the thought of it. How could such a thing help students to improve their writing? Surely, such a thing could only help the students to meet the specific teacher’s grading criteria, thereby turning writing into something formulaic like a math problem. But writing requires a bit of freedom on the part of the writer. This relates to the aforementioned essay by Harris because it brings to mind the way that students and teachers interact. In this case, the constraining effect of the pyramidal rubric relates to feedback. In other words, if I offer too much feedback on a students’ writing, then it doesn’t differ much from providing them with a comprehensive structure to follow in terms of writing. In such cases, it doesn’t seem that they the opportunity to do much thinking of their own. More importantly, it doesn’t seem that they can have a feeling of agency, or authority, in terms of constructing their own writing, their own thoughts.
In her essay, Harris finds two overarching problems with teachers who provide their students with too much feedback: (1) it is a waste of the teacher’s time; and (2) it tends to stifle students’ writing (Harris 269). This latter concern manifests in a number of different ways. For instance, students often cannot discern which feedback is primary; they often become confused by long-winded responses; and they often view criticism as negative in terms of its relation to grading. More specifically, Harris points out that “a thoroughly graded paper might include along with words of praise: suggestions; questions; indications about organization, clarity, and accuracy concerns; recommendations for future writing; and annotations to indicate grammatical, spelling, and word choice problems—plus, an explanation of how the grade was determined (269).” As Harris outlines, by providing a student with a lengthy piece of commentary, or very many pieces of commentary, or both, it stands to reason that such teachers make the actual assignment even more complex and foreboding for their students. Moreover, if they’ve included criticism of lower-order concerns among that of the more primary higher-order concerns, and if students have the propensity to do what’s easiest (Harris contends that they do), then it follows that they will gravitate toward addressing the lower-order concerns. Thus, if giving feedback must be a frugal enterprise, then it only makes sense to forego addressing lower-order concerns in the first place. These are distractions for students who are trying to think and write critically. Thus, Harris provides an articulation for what I’ve begun to understand through experience in my own classroom this year as a first-time teacher: there is a big difference between teaching and editing.
The notion that addressing lower-order concerns has more to do with editing than teaching is perhaps more obvious than the following notion I’d like to discuss. It has to do with one of Lev Vygotsky’s phrases that caught my attention when I was taking a course on child development as an undergraduate. I still have the textbook in which Laura E. Berk highlights the “zone of proximal development—a range of tasks too difficult for the child to do alone but possible with the help of adults and more skilled peers” (Berk 267). Moreover, the zone of proximal development has to do with the transmission of knowledge from one person to another which must involve calibration between the two individuals in terms of their levels of expertise. In other words, as a teacher, it is my responsibility to figure out how I can explain things to students in terms that they will understand. An example of why this resonates with me involves the day when Dr. Stephanie West-Puckett observed my class. She pointed out that I used the term “exigency” when speaking to one of my students. How would they know such a word? This question makes me wonder how often I rely on technical vocabulary that my students would not understand. How often does it seem like I’m speaking an alien language to them? Harris points out that “[t]hese terms are part of an extensive vocabulary describing aspects of writing that instructors become used to because it is the jargon of the field…But most students…do not spend class time learning this vocabulary” (Harris 270). This is something I’ve attempted to keep in mind when I write to my students and speak to them in order to make our dynamic more effective. In other words, technical jargon is helpful to the teacher-scholar in terms of organizing knowledge, but it is ever the responsibility of the teacher to translate the notions behind such terms in ways that are intelligible to their students.
Providing less feedback and making sure that it is intelligible to students can help to streamline the synergistic process of teaching and learning that takes place between students and teachers. Thus, the enterprise of providing effective feedback doesn’t consist primarily of volume but tactical strategy. Moreover, perhaps well-placed notes of feedback can do more for young students than lengthy passages dealing with ideas engendered in terms beyond their vocabularies. In other words, it’s necessary to consider how things can be simplified and yet remain effective. This process of calibration is different for each student. Thus, it is always necessary to consider audience—even as the instructor, especially as the instructor. What does the student-audience need? Shouldn’t the focus be placed on the student’s writing process rather than producing an ideal text based on the teacher’s expectations?
Berk, Laura E. Child Development. 9thedition. Pearson Education, Inc., 2013. Print.
Harris, Muriel. “When Responding to Student Writing, More Is Better.” pgs. 268-272. Bad Ideas About Writing. Eds. Ball, Cheryl E., & Loewe, Drew M. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Libraries, 2017. Digital.