Finding and Fixing Student Mistakes

Credit: iStock.com/Lamaip
Credit: iStock.com/Lamaip
Students need feedback that helps them improve, and that includes identifying their errors. Without corrective feedback, efforts to improve limp along. But do students need what we typically dish out? I was a bit disconcerted by findings in a recent cross-disciplinary survey. The researchers (Knight et al., 2021) asked faculty to identify the purposes and value of the feedback they provided on students’ written work. “Nearly half of the instructors valued the use of written feedback on written assignments as fostering future improvements. However . . . when analyzing responses across disciplines, identifying specific errors seemed to be more important than making comments in the margins” (p. 121).

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Students need feedback that helps them improve, and that includes identifying their errors. Without corrective feedback, efforts to improve limp along. But do students need what we typically dish out? I was a bit disconcerted by findings in a recent cross-disciplinary survey. The researchers (Knight et al., 2021) asked faculty to identify the purposes and value of the feedback they provided on students’ written work. “Nearly half of the instructors valued the use of written feedback on written assignments as fostering future improvements. However . . . when analyzing responses across disciplines, identifying specific errors seemed to be more important than making comments in the margins” (p. 121).

Specific errors are easy to find in student writing. Most students don’t care much about grammatical correctness, fostered in part by how they (and we) communicate digitally. They also make mistakes with the content, which isn’t unexpected given that they’re in the process of learning it. Even so, accuracy and grammatical correctness still count in formal professional writing. We have a responsibility to teach both. So, I’m not proposing that teachers ignore the mistakes students make when they write. I want to explore how corrective feedback functions in the improvement process.

Teachers who look at lots of student papers find specific errors easily and correct them just as quickly—add the s when there’s a singular that should be plural, drop in the comma left out of the series, circle a misspelling, arrow the subject-verb disagreement. Those of us who assign written work take grading seriously, but we don’t lovingly linger over it most of the time. Marking and fixing specific mistakes allows us to grade quickly and feel that we’ve fulfilled our feedback responsibilities. Mark a bunch of mistakes, and the grade makes sense, at least to us.

What students aren’t going to have forever are teachers who correct their mistakes. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll assume that responsibility. Do students learn how to find their mistakes when they’re used to a teacher marking them? If students routinely submit papers that contain the same mistakes, that raises some pointed questions. Is it that students don’t think the mistakes matter all that much? Is missing motivation the problem? Or are they unable to find and fix mistakes for themselves?

I think most of us would agree that it benefits students to correct their mistakes. What we need are strategies that help them learn how to do so and then opportunities to practice. I became a big fan of marking mistakes made early on in the written work, verifying that more like them appear subsequently, and then tasking students to find and fix them. Maybe they don’t get a grade on the work until they do (good in upper-division courses with soon-to-be professionals). Maybe they get a grade boost or some extra credit if they do. Maybe they don’t correct everything all at once. They could start with spelling mistakes or work on sentence fragments or run-ons—you name it. We’re not going to run out of problems with student writing anytime soon. If grammar isn’t your forte, then get students working writing issues that you can help them with.

Most troubling in this study was the disconnect between what faculty say they want their feedback to accomplish and the “limited directives” they provided “on how to correct the errors in such a way as to help students write better assignments in the future” (p. 125). The study references research from 1988 that found exactly the same contradiction between beliefs and actions.

I remember an English colleague talking to a group of us about the focus of teacher feedback. My colleague challenged us to randomly select 10 papers we’d graded and make a grid in which we recorded the specific errors we’d marked (pretty general categories work well) “as well as the comments, including whether they were made in the paper or at the end and whether they were positive, negative, or improvement focused” A colleague and I did that for each other, and it was an eye-opening experience. I never imagined being so mistake-focused. My grading practices changed.

I’ll sum it up succinctly: If we want students to learn from their mistakes, we’ve got to teach them how.

References

Knight, S. K., Greenberger, S. W., & McNaughton, M. E. (2021). An interdisciplinary perspective: The value that instructors place on giving written feedback. Active Learning in Higher Education, 22(2), 115–128. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787418810127