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By Joe Fore
Professor Fore is a CTE Faculty Fellow and Co-Director of the
Legal Research and Writing Program at the University of Virginia School of Law.
Providing written feedback on students’ writing is one of the most important—and time-consuming—parts of any instructor’s job (Grearson, 2002). But even the most thorough, helpful feedback can fall flat if it’s delivered in the wrong tone. Feedback written in a productive tone is more likely to be understood, appreciated, and acted upon, whereas the wrong tone can prevent students from hearing and implementing your guidance (Fink, 2013; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004; Rupiper Taggart & Laughlin, 2017). Particularly harsh comments can demoralize students, dissuade them from further writing experiences, and even haunt them years later (Ferris, 2018).
What exactly is the “right” tone? The precise tone you want to convey depends on various factors—including your relationship with your students, the level of students involved, the length and type of assignment, the point in the semester, and your personality. But, generally speaking, students tend to respond best to feedback that’s candid, empathetic, supportive, encouraging, constructive, and respectful (Enquist, 1996; Fink, 2013; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). By contrast, students respond worse to feedback that’s interpreted as sarcastic, cruel, accusatory, condescending, disrespectful, pessimistic, or patronizing (Enquist, 1999; Rupiper Taggart & Laughlin, 2017).
Fortunately, there are many strategies to help you strike the right tone in your writing feedback.
Making sure that students hear the right tone in your critiques starts before they even turn in their assignment. The very first step is preparing students to understand and receive your feedback the way you intended it.
Before commenting, expressly remind yourself of some core principles and goals. This will keep you on track and make it less likely that your tone will drift into negativity.
As instructors, we sometimes get so hung up on the need to critique our students’ writing that we forget the other side of the coin: pointing out things they did well (Enquist 1996; Enquist, 1999; Fore, 2017).
Positive comments reduce defensiveness, making students more receptive to the rest of your feedback. After all, it’s a lot harder to be angry or defensive when the other person starts off by saying something nice about you. That’s why the classic self-help text How to Win Friends and Influence People says the very first step in encouraging someone to change their behavior is to "begin with praise and honest appreciation" (Carnegie, 1981, p. 198). Positive feedback also motivates students, "provid[ing] a powerful incentive to continue learning and to continue improving" (Fink, 2013, p. 108). So point out good things early and often (Fore, 2020; Hanley, 2009).
However, your praise must be genuine. While it’s tempting to sprinkle in niceties to soften the blow of harsher critiques, fake compliments can do more harm than good. Blanket statements like "good job" or "great work"—if not entirely honest—might drown out areas that need improvement. Similarly, telling a struggling student that their paper is “almost there” or “very close” or “just needs a bit more work” can give a false impression that the work requires only some minor tweaks. So students might resist or ignore more extensive changes or leave themselves too little time to revise (Rowe, 2014, pp. 18.) Instead, positive feedback should focus, honestly, on specific "examples in the student’s own work that he or she can draw on and use again in other contexts" (Enquist, 1996, pp. 188).
If you’re struggling to find positives to say, you can always acknowledge the student’s effort. A simple, honest phrase like “I appreciate the time you spent on this assignment” can set a positive tone without sugar-coating the substantive issues (Rowe, 2014, pp. 15).
Think about some typical comments you might write on a student paper:
Even though our task is supposed to be critiquing writing, these comments all have one thing in common: they focus on the student. The first two comments have—directly or indirectly—the student as the subject, while the third comment assigns the writing ownership by using the possessive your. "This kind of 'you'-centered feedback immediately puts recipients on the defensive by suggesting that they—and not their work product—are being judged" (Fore, 2017).
Instead, we want to focus on the words on the page. An easy way to do this is to banish "you" from your comments. Using "you" in written comments "creates an unnecessary opposition between reader and writer that can be seen as confrontational by the student" (Davis, 2006, pp. 101). Cutting "you" puts the focus—appropriately—on the writing and "produces enthusiasm rather than defensiveness" (Enquist, 1999, pp. 1148). With this idea in mind, we can rephrase our comments to remove any reference to the student and make the writing the subject:
Another way to depersonalize feedback and avoid the me-vs.-you dynamic is to frame your comments in terms of a generic reader’s wants and needs. One way is to couch things expressly in terms of what a particular, third-party reader would think: "Here, a reader might be a bit confused…" or "A supervisor might be wondering…" (Davis, 2006, pp. 92; Enquist, 1996, pp. 185-86; Grearson, 2002, pp. 164).
You can go one step further and align yourself with your students by wording comments like, "It would be more helpful to the reader if we…" Phrasing comments this way builds ethos by giving you and your students a shared goal of helping the unseen reader (Davis, 2006, pp. 101-02). Phrasing comments in terms of the reader’s needs also helps students develop empathy by showing "why the successes and problems in the document are so important to the reader" (Fore, 2017; Fore, 2020; Gionfriddo, Barnett, & Blum, 2009, pp. 198). Because it focuses on the reader’s particular needs, this strategy might be most beneficial in courses or assignments where students write to a specific audience, e.g., a policy memo to an elected official, a motion to a judge, or an op-ed to a local newspaper (Enquist, 1996, pp. 185).
Despite our best efforts, it can be tough to get the tone exactly right in writing. So try replacing or supplementing your written feedback with audio or video recordings, which lets you speak directly to your students (Bahula & Kay, 2020; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). Research on video feedback suggests that the combination of audio and visual elements helps students understand and implement feedback. Research also shows that video feedback increases student engagement, with students spending more time reviewing video feedback than written comments. And, specifically, from a tone perspective, seeing and hearing the instructor leads students to see video feedback as authentic, personal, friendly, and positive (Bahula & Kay, 2020).
Indeed, video commentary even offers some advantages over in-person meetings, including the ability to edit or re-record—helpful for times when you might say something confusing or with an improper tone. And, of course, students can go back and watch the video multiple times to ensure that they get the point. Knowing that they can revisit the information, students can focus on big-picture ideas and learning rather than note-taking, the way they might be tempted to in an in-person meeting.
Specific questions directed at the writer can be an effective and efficient way to point out issues: Is there published research that we could cite to substantiate this point? What are the potential counter-arguments to this point? (Gottsschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). Indeed, these open-ended questions are often the most effective kinds of comments, since they require students to reflect on their own instead of just mechanically making edits (Ferris, 2018). On the other hand, shorter, generic questions—Really? Are you sure?—can come across as sarcastic or condescending. Likewise, exclamation points—especially when paired with brief, vague comments like Great job!!! or Yikes!—might be interpreted as angry, sarcastic, or insincere (Enquist, 1999, pp. 1148; Enquist, 1996, pp. 180, 189).
For those who still rely on handwritten comments, the quickest way to improve your tone is to ditch the red pen. Studies suggest that students interpret comments written in red more harshly; so try blue or green (Bahula & Kay, 2020; Dukes & Albanesi, 2016; Enquist, 1999). And for those who type their comments, AVOID TYPING IN ALL CAPS, which appears angry and sarcastic (Davis, 2006).
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