November 2nd, 2009

How to Give Effective Feedback on Student Writing Assignments


How often does this happen to you? You pore over students’ writing assignments, adding what you feel are insightful and encouraging comments throughout each paper. Comments you hope your students will take to heart and use to improve their writing next time around. Then you return the papers and the students quickly look at the grade and stuff the paper into their backpacks … perhaps mumbling something under their breath as they do.

This same scenario plays out with each subsequent writing assignment, and each side gets more frustrated. The instructor can’t understand why he sees the same types of mistakes over and over again, and the students resign themselves to the fact that “I’m just not a good writer.”

In Providing Feedback in a Technology-Mediated Environment, Cleveland State University’s William Beasley, EdD. and Brian Harper, PhD., outlined a two-pronged approach for breaking this cycle.

Part one requires adopting a method of communication that pays attention to what is being said as well as how it’s said, Harper explains, while noting that “feedback has the power to engage or disengage students in the writing process.”

For example, the instructor should focus initial comments on what the student does well, and then build from there to develop other writing skills. To make feedback more meaningful, it’s also important to chip away at the widely held notion that good writers are born not made.

“In short, the content of the feedback should communicate that you care about the student, that the student is capable of being successful as a writer, and that you are willing to help map a path to that success,” says Harper.

The second part of the student feedback model involves using technology to help streamline the feedback process. During the seminar Beasley demonstrated how to use “track changes” to highlight simple errors such as misspelled words, poor grammar, and punctuation errors that require minimal commentary. For more detailed feedback, Beasley showed how to use the “insert comment” feature. Finally, on more “macro-level” content errors, Beasley provided a quick tutorial on how to embed a brief audio clip that gives more detailed guidance to the student on ways to improve the paper.

A word of caution, when using “track changes” or “insert comments” Beasley recommends converting the Word document to a PDF so that students can’t simply click “accept changes” and resubmit the paper without actually doing any of the rewriting themselves.

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