Strategies for Providing Timely Feedback on Student Writing

September 27, 2019

Professional Writing policy calls for faculty to return students’ major writing projects with feedback within two weeks of submission, and no later than before the next major assignment is due.

Preparing to Respond

Be positive. The goal of commenting is to offer encouragement and honest assessment. Look for strengths and help students build on those strengths.

Start a conversation. Think of responding as teaching, not correcting. Responding is most fruitful for students when you engage them in a dialogue.

Discuss the purpose of comments. Spend class time talking with students about comments. Introduce them to the types of comments you give, and explain any symbols or shorthand you use.

Responding to Rough Drafts

Go global. Resist asking students to patch and edit before they develop their ideas. Asking students to think about grammar, punctuation, and word choice in sentences that shouldn't be in the paper in the first place could be a waste of your time and theirs.

Know when to go local. Particularly in rough drafts, you might identify patterns of sentence-level, or local, errors instead of marking individual errors. Identifying patterns--representative strengths and limitations--helps students gain control over their writing.

Continue the lesson. Responding is more effective when the language of comments grows from discussions in the classroom. Students shouldn't be encountering terms or ideas for the first time in the margins of their papers.

Teach one lesson at a time. Reading an entire draft, quickly, before commenting may actually save time. Ask: What single lesson (or two) do I want to teach here? And how will my comments teach this lesson? Avoid overcommenting. An individual writer can learn only a finite set of lessons when writing or revising a single paper.

Responding to Final Drafts

Tread purposefully and lightly. Avoid leaving too heavy a footprint in the margins of students' papers. Use your comments to show students how to start revising without suggesting specific language for the revision.

Foster reflection. Ask students to submit a cover letter or "Dear Reader" letter along with their drafts. Such a letter allows students to begin a dialogue about their work and provides an opportunity for them to articulate any concerns about their writing.

Put final comments in context. Evaluate the strengths and limitations in the context of the assignment's goals. Responding is far easier when the goals of an assignment have shaped the language and lessons that prepared students for the assignment.

Provide a bridge. Writers develop their skills over time. It's too much to expect that PWP teachers can cover every lesson students need in order to write successfully in their future civic and professional lives. Make sure your comments on final drafts do double duty. Your comments can evaluate success in relation to the specific assignment, but they should also provide a bridge--a transportable lesson--to the next assignment or to future workplace writing situations.

— Scott Wible

(from Nancy Sommers, Responding to Student Writers [Boston: Bedford, 2013])