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Responding to Student Writing

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Feedback on student work-in-progress, whether in the form of written or spoken comments, is one of the most important ways we have to teach writing. When we give feedback, we motivate revision while honoring the student as a thinker and intellectual. 

Here are some frequently asked questions that instructors have about responding to student writing.

Why give feedback on in-process writing?

Writing in the Major courses at Stanford require students to substantially revise at least one piece of writing, with instructors or TAs providing comments on a draft.

Students benefit more from feedback on drafts than from feedback on final versions for at least four reasons.

  1. Your focus can be on their development and learning rather than on evaluation.
  2. Feedback on all types of pre-writing, annotated bibliographies, outlines, and response papers, can serve as important scaffolding that aids student learning by allowing you to meet each student where they are developmentally and engage with them directly in that place.
  3. They can apply that feedback immediately to improve their writing. And, to the extent that you encourage them to hand in drafts that are true drafts (complete, but unpolished), students may be able to revise more deeply, attending to structural issues rather than focusing on surface details.
  4. The experience of revision can become a resource for students in future revising contexts. When students only receive feedback on finished writing in the context of evaluation, they may have difficulty applying that feedback to their next written assignment, which may differ in substance and may be assigned by a different class by a different instructor. Additionally, when students read comments in the context of evaluation, they often receive it as a judgment only on the value of their work (and, by extension, their worth as a student) and not as instruction, something from which they are meant to learn.  

Isn’t this kind of scaffolding really just hand-holding?

So, yes, in the sense that all teaching is hand-holding, leading students from where they are to the next stage in their development.

But also, no. You won’t be over-directing; you will instead give them room to make choices in how they respond to your feedback. Unlike the instructional scaffolding that teachers in all disciplines use to help students learn how to do the work of their fields, the draft/feedback/revision process is not something that goes away once students learn how to write: instead, it is a feature of a good writing process. When you engage your students in a draft/feedback/revision process, you are modeling a real-world writing practice for them. The goal is not for them to learn how to write without feedback, but to learn how to make the most of the feedback they get by developing strategic responses and effective revision strategies.

Expert writers don’t write fewer drafts, they write more drafts. And most professional writers don’t seek out less feedback than novice writers; instead, they seek feedback throughout their writing process, not because they don’t know how to write but because feedback helps them see their writing through the eyes of a reader. The feedback academic writers receive on journal articles through the peer review process is often as much about writing as it is about the “quality of research” because readers can’t evaluate the quality of the research if it isn’t communicated effectively. Indeed, most academic writers, especially in the sciences and social sciences, get feedback from colleagues and collaborators well before they send articles for peer review (or grant applications for consideration).

What kind of feedback will actually help my students become better writers/thinkers?

In responding to drafts, the most effective kind of feedback is “formative” rather than evaluative, focused on how a writer can improve his or her writing in the process of revising. Formative feedback is:

  • Future-Oriented (focused on next steps, what is possible)
  • Prioritized (more important issues first)
  • Specific (pointing to concrete features of the text, offering explicit reasoning)   
  • Descriptive or questioning (reader-based)
  • Supportive (attentive to the writer’s goals, mindful of the learning process)

For more details with examples of what effective feedback looks like in actual comments download this handout by Julia Bleakney, Shay Brawn, and Sohui Lee. It can also prepare students to be effective peer reviewers.

What kind of feedback will help my students become better writers in my discipline/major?

In PWR, students learn that taking into account audience needs and expectations is an important element of good writing. However, students learning to write in the major or discipline often need your help in understanding the needs and expectations of the specific audiences addressed by writers in your field. That help begins with designing assignments that ask students to write in real genres that people in your field use to communicate with each other (research articles, research proposals, literature reviews, technical reports, etc.), with other professionals (policy briefs), or the public (op-eds, podcasts, blogs) and showing them models of what that communication looks like. Their learning is reinforced when your comments tie your observations about their writing choices to the specific audience expectations associated with the genre. That is, instead of saying “weak evidence” or “explain,” say something about what counts as evidence in your field or why their audience might demand an explanation. Read more about teaching genre here.

What aspects of their writing should I comment on?

Ideally, your rubric identifies the qualities that make writing in this genre successful, and so you should comment on the specific qualities you identified in your rubric. Because you are responding to drafts, which are likely to be rough, it’s usually best to focus on higher order concerns, like the quality of the argument and the structure, before you move on to more local concerns (issues of style, grammar, mechanics) and only if those seem important. While it is appropriate to focus your comments on areas for development, it is also important to let students know where they are headed in a good direction or doing something effectively as writers, which may not be apparent to them.

Should I just comment on the writing, or should I also comment on the quality of their ideas and their grasp of the subject?

Ideally, your comments on the writing will be linked to the quality of their ideas because writing is the only evidence readers have of what the writer thinks and knows. While students will at times write things that are wrong (they have misunderstood a concept), often the problems with their ideas can be framed in ways that introduce students to communication norms for analysis and research in your field. For instance, if a student is relying on sources that are questionable or unacceptable, rather than simply offering the judgement, you can point to the norms for evaluating sources in your field. If the student is using critical terms incorrectly or loosely, you have an opportunity to point them to some of the canonical definitions or knowledge in your field.

Where should I put my comments?

Students benefit from both marginal comments that respond to specific moments in the writing and a holistic assessment, which can come in the form of a final comment at the end of the writing, a framing comment inserted at the beginning of the writing, or as comments attached to the specific criteria in your rubric. Marginal comments help students see what you are responding to specifically. If, for instance, a student is working with an ill-defined (or under-defined) concept, it helps the student to see where in the writing that problem arises.

You might also consider delivering some of your comments in a face-to-face conference with each student.

Giving feedback is time-consuming. How can I be efficient in responding to drafts?

It is true that responding to drafts is time-consuming. However, many instructors report that they enjoy giving feedback on drafts more than on final versions because de-emphasizing evaluation allows them to focus more on supporting development in a positive coaching role. Nevertheless, there are ways to make the process more efficient.

  • Limit the amount of time you spend with each draft so that you don’t get bogged down in any one essay. (However, allow for the fact that the first few essays will take longer as you get a feel for how students are responding to the assignment.)
  • Use a rubric: it will help you organize your thoughts quickly by giving you a framework. It will also make sure you are being comprehensive and consistent in your comments.  
  • Use more scaffolding--have peers respond to very early draft, saving your response for a second draft. (One benefit of this is that when students use the rubric to peer review, they internalize it and that benefits their own revisions.) 
  • If there are multiple instructors giving feedback on the same assignment, have a norming session before you start so that you can establish shared understandings of how to apply the rubric, and shared language for addressing issues you encounter in the drafts. While norming takes time, it ultimately saves a lot of time you might spend trying to wrestle the issues you encounter in the drafts. (Norming is also a good idea for grading, both to help with efficiency and to make sure students are getting the same messages and being held to the same standards across sections.)

Who should give feedback?

Multiple people, including Hume Center tutors and peers.