Making Feedback Matter

Teacher working at desk

As teachers, we spend countless hours staying up late, reading essays, and making comments to help our students improve. We walk a delicate line, wanting to give students enough support to develop their papers while not overwhelming them with red ink. We carefully foster their growth as writers, finding areas of success that merit congratulations while still providing helpful advice, reminders of requirements, and strategies for achieving the assignment’s goals. As we drink still more coffee to power us through the last few essays, we do so believing that all of this effort will pay off. After all, we’re offering feedback that matters. It can make a difference.

But we’ve also all experienced this frustration and disappointment: We pass back the papers and watch in horror as students quickly flip to the back page, check their grades, and tuck the essays away. Will they even read those pearls of wisdom over which we so thoughtfully pondered, or will they move on to the next assignment without considering anything we suggested?

What can we do about this? We can tell our students to read the comments and use the feedback in their next paper. Maybe some will, but a lot won’t. I’d like to share three practices that are helping my students make the most out of feedback I provide.

Separate the grade from the feedback

Many students hold negative perceptions of themselves as writers. Any commentary that critiques their work corroborates this sense of failure—it’s just more evidence that they can’t write. Removing the threat of bad grades can build confidence and motivate students to complete the assignment. You may think that asking students to do work that won’t be returned with a grade attached will result in papers written without much effort. Surprisingly, I have found this to be quite the opposite. I require a peer review and revision before submission, which means there are standards students must meet. However, my choice not to assign a grade based on the paper’s quality persuades more students to read my comments. What happens in class when I pass back these ungraded papers is quite different from the quick shuffles of pages to reach the end and the “What did you get?” questions. Instead, quiet settles over the classroom. I see students poring over their papers and reviewing my advice—a far more positive response. They are more open to suggestions when they aren’t bearing the burden of yet another low grade on their writing.

Assign grades based on student effort and improvement

I hold students to a high standard—but with less anxiety—by awarding grades based on revision and reflection. I explain to students that I want them to think, not just about the quality of the final product, but the journey to get there. I assign completion grades for both rough drafts and revisions; for example, I might award fifteen points for the revised draft, ten for the rough draft, five for completing the peer review, and another five for the graphic organizer. I emphasize that they will need to make deep changes and create a final draft that is significantly different from the original so they don’t just get points for printing out the same paper twice. They may have to shorten wordy sections, expand explanations or descriptions, reorganize paragraphs or sentences, increase sentence variety, change examples/support, vary word choice, etc.

That’s not all. I want my students to become metacognitive about the revision process. In order to showcase these revisions, I ask them to highlight each change, articulating what they changed along with why they felt they needed to change it. Practice has shown this to be a very reflective process, as students search for areas in which they can improve their papers and strive for their personal best.

Require a follow-up assignment based on your feedback

Another way I get students to take my feedback seriously involves an assignment with an individualized task. For example, I will ask them to write down a comment I made about the development of their papers and then expand that section by revising it on the paper itself or by explaining how they should have done it. Awarding points for this follow-up assignment motivates students to complete it; while I usually count this as a small separate grade, it could be used to earn back missed points or earn a small bump in extra credit. Giving the incentive helps students actively engage with the comment, and I’ve observed that this increases the chance that they will address this area in future writings.

Obviously, grades need to be assigned to measure achievement against a standard, and I build in plenty of opportunities throughout the semester for just that. However, I believe that we must experiment with methods that encourage students to “listen” to the feedback we so painstakingly provide. Students may not always appreciate our attempts to make them better writers, but taking a few simple actions in how we deliver our feedback can greatly increase the effectiveness of what we work so hard to provide.

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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