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.
The blog posts in this series on feedback have focused mostly on the stylistic and procedural aspects of feedback: how to prime students to receive constructive feedback, how to phrase feedback so it’s received well, and how to provide feedback in different formats for greater efficiency. Now we turn our attention to a more substantive aspect of writing feedback: what and how much to comment on.
Too often, writing instructors feel compelled to point out every issue—however large or small—that we see in a piece of student writing: a weak topic sentence at the start of the paragraph, a flawed use of evidence a few sentences later, a typo in that same sentence, and a citation error at the paragraph’s end. We sometimes measure our feedback’s value by the pound; each mark we make on the page is valuable, and more is better. But, much of the time, feedback fails not because students are getting too little feedback—but, rather, too much (Grearson, 2002).
The reality is that students can only learn so much on one assignment (Enns & Smith, 2015). By trying to force 25 different lessons on students in a single set of comments, there’s a real risk that they’ll actually take away none. Writing too many comments on an assignment also leaves students with no sense of learning priorities; they may not know which issues are most important to focus on (Enquist, 1996; Grearson, 2002). Moreover, inundating students with comments can demoralize them; they may interpret the sea of handwriting or typed comments as a sign that they’re just not cut out to be a writer.
What’s the solution? We, as writing instructors, need to be more realistic about how much feedback our students can absorb. We need to be more intentional and targeted in what we’re commenting on. We must prioritize our feedback to hit the essentials, the key things we want students to take for next time (Grearson, 2002). And we need to focus on quality over quantity in our comments—explaining those few key concepts in thoughtful ways that allow students to take those lessons to heart (Enquist, 1999).
Using these ideas, we can break the process of providing effective writing feedback into three steps:
- Before commenting, establish clear feedback priorities.
- While commenting, give fewer, more detailed comments that reflect those priorities.
- After commenting, provide global comments that summarize how your feedback connects to those priorities.
Let’s discuss each idea, in turn.
BEFORE YOUR REVIEW
1. Establish clear feedback goals and priorities.
Before you sit down to review papers, reflect on what you want students to take away from your feedback. What do you want them to think, feel, or do when they review this feedback (Frost, 2016)? This could vary depending on the timing during the semester, level of student, and nature of the assignment.
At the beginning of the semester, it might make more sense to focus on bigger-picture issues like thesis development or large-scale organization. Again, though, that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. For example, if you’re working with first-year college students or students with less writing experience, you might need some focus on writing mechanics or grammatical issues—even at the early stages.
From those goals, it’s also crucial to establish commenting priorities—a checklist of discrete issues that you’re looking for (Enquist, 1999; Grearson, 2002). Importantly, these need to be written down and put in a place where you can refer to them periodically while reviewing papers. By doing so, you’re more likely to stay on track and provide targeted feedback, rather than getting sidetracked or bogged down with numerous, less-important comments.
DURING YOUR REVIEW
2. Skim the assignment first.
Review the piece of writing—without any expectation of giving feedback (Enquist, 1999; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). The purpose of this first pass is simply to get an overview of the assignment (its length, topic, thesis, etc.) and begin to identify the likely areas that you’ll be commenting on. This will help you prioritize your priorities. For example, let’s say that your priorities are: (1) large-scale organization (introductions, conclusions, roadmaps) and (2) paragraph-level organization (topic sentences, transitions, etc.). If a quick skim of the paper reveals major, large-scale structural issues, then you’re probably going to devote your energy there, while spending little (if any) time on the secondary, paragraph-level issues.
3. Teach—don’t edit.
I know this is a familiar refrain for writing instructors, but we all need reminding from time to time: You are a teacher—not a copy editor. Your job is not to correct all your students’ “mistakes,” logical gaps, long-winded sentences, typos, or grammatical errors (Grearson, 2002). Rather, your job is to help them learn and improve in a way that allows them to apply those lessons in the future (Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). And, ultimately, that requires putting quality over quantity, reducing the amount of time you’re spending on small, repetitive comments and corrections, and ensuring that your comments prompt genuine learning from students (Grearson, 2002). Here are a few concepts to keep in mind that can help make that happen.
Explain your corrections, edits, or comments. To truly learn and improve for next time, students need to understand (a) why you flagged a particular word, made a correction, or made a particular comment, (b) what is problematic about it, and (c) how to correct the issue. Particularly unhelpful commenting techniques include:
- Short, cryptic questions (“Are you sure?”; “Needed?”; “Best evidence?”)—or even worse, a lone question mark, without elaboration to indicate a lack of clarity (Davis, 2006; Enquist, 1996)
- Merely circling, highlighting, or underlining problematic passages (Enquist, 1996)
- Sentences that are crossed out or rewritten, without explanation (Grearson, 2002)
These types of comments leave students confused, frustrated, and—most importantly—unable to meaningfully improve for next time. Also, students will be tempted to just mechanically accept unexplained edits without engaging in reflection to understand how your edits improved the writing (Grearson, 2002). Instead of editing or “correcting” innumerable sentences, we need to focus on having fewer, higher-quality comments that explain the rationale behind our comments and corrections (Enquist, 1996; Enquist, 1999; Grearson, 2002).
Give examples. One helpful alternative to correcting or editing is to suggest a possible way to improve the writing (Enquist, 1999). This is different from simply crossing out the sentence and rewriting it, which gives the (usually false) impression that the current sentence was objectively “wrong” and that your fix was the single, authoritative, “right” way to do it (Davis, 2006). Instead, an effective example needs to have two parts: (1) a brief explanation of the problem, and (2) a suggested solution, framed as just one of various possible ways of ameliorating the issue For example, if you encounter a long, run-on sentence, you could write something like, “This sentence is rather long and combines several different ideas—which might confuse the reader. One way to improve things might be to put a period at the end of the first clause and then starting the next sentence with ‘But…’ to show the contrasting idea.”
Flag common issues once. Writing the same comment over and over—“Another run-on sentence here”—wastes your time and merely clutters the page by repeating something the student already knows they have an issue with. Moreover, if the repeat issue reflects something the student doesn’t know—for example, a grammatical quirk or a formatting rule about citations—what good does pointing it out multiple times do? You’ve pointed it out; now they know. Move on. These repeated issues—especially more important mistakes—can be useful to mention in an end note or cover page (more on this later) (Enquist, 1999).
Connect comments to class content. This will help students make explicit connections between course readings, lecture (Enquist, 1999). It also puts the onus on them to do a bit of digging and self-reflection—rather than passively receiving your feedback. Say something like this: “Recall that we discussed headings in Week 7. It may be helpful to revisit those slides for some additional examples.” It also reminds students that your feedback isn’t arbitrary—that it’s tied directly to things they’ve learned (or should have learned) in class (Davis, 2006).
Show students where they did it right. Another way to help students cement writing lessons is to show them where they did it right. In the learning stage, students might experiment with different writing techniques, hoping that one of them will land. So point out places where they got it right. This will reinforce the lessons that they’ve already learned and are capable of replicating (Enquist, 1999; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). There is, perhaps, no more effective and genuinely encouraging comment you can give a student than to show the need for improvement—by referencing a place where they did it better: “This paragraph needs a clearer, stronger topic sentence to show the reader where it's going—just like you had two paragraphs above! You nailed it there; we just need to add a similar thing here” (Frost, 2016).
Refer students to external resources. The burden is not all on us to actively teach every single lesson; we also have to empower and trust our students to take responsibility for their own learning. Particularly with ancillary issues like grammar and citations, refer students to outside resources, rather than explaining these concepts through in-depth comments. Will every student avail themselves of the extra resources you provide? Of course not. But some will. (You can improve the chances of students doing this by making these resources easy to find, for example by linking to online resources in your comments or by posting PDFs of relevant sources on the course homepage.)
In addition to helping students directly, sharing such resources can improve students’ perception of your teaching. Even those students who don’t use the resources in detailed ways may appreciate your going the extra mile to provide the extra help. And sharing your knowledge of these outside resources bolsters your credibility by showing that you have expertise and your feedback is rooted in deep knowledge in your field, which can help increase student receptivity to feedback (Davis, 2006).
AFTER YOUR REVIEW
4. Write a “cover page” with 2-4 points, lessons, or themes.
In addition to commenting throughout the piece of writing, it’s critical to also provide “global comments” that distill your feedback into a few key points and identify broader themes that your comments reflect (Enquist, 1996; Enquist, 1999; Gionfriddo, et al., 2009; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004; Grearson, 2002). These global comments can take various forms. For example, if you’re providing handwritten feedback on physical papers, this could be a separate typed “end note” or “cover page.” Or it could be in the body of an email that accompanies comments on an electronic document. Or it could be a short video or audio recording that summarizes some of your feedback’s themes (Bahula & Kay, 2020).
While many writing instructors call these global comments an end note, I prefer the notion of a cover page (Enquist, 1999). That way, students see your holistic feedback before diving into your specific comments and suggestions on individual sentences. Putting your global comments first has two advantages. From an emotional standpoint, it offers you the chance to prepare the student for feedback they’re about to get. (This can be especially important for students earlier in their college careers and earlier in your courses, when they might be feeling particularly anxious or vulnerable.) Second, it gives students context for the feedback, making it more likely that they’ll see your individual comments and points not as scattershot suggestions, but as specific examples of a few larger lessons.
By summarizing your feedback into a few key points, students are more likely to take away those few, truly important lessons and less likely to view your feedback as just a smattering of unconnected ideas. And that’s the kind of feedback that’s most likely to stick with them for the rest of your course—and beyond.