August 31st, 2011

Giving Feedback on Student Writing: An Innovative Approach


I ran across an interesting idea in the British journal, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education involving the use of something called interactive cover sheets. First-year students in an outdoor studies degree program took a two-semester, six module course which required preparation of a number of written assignments. After preparing their papers, students attached an interactive cover sheet on which they raised questions about the paper they had just completed, thereby identifying the specific areas for feedback.

The goal was to overcome the one-way communication that occurs when teachers write comments on student papers. Students prepare the papers, teachers grade them and write comments providing feedback which they hope explains the grade and simultaneously offers advice, suggestions and insights that help the student write a better paper next time.

But often the feedback does not achieve these goals. Most all of us can tell stories about how students respond to our comments including those who don’t read them at all and many others who may read the feedback but show no signs of understanding or acting on it in subsequent papers. Students also tell stories about feedback received on their papers—the illegible scrawl that can’t be read, the comments they just plain don’t understand, the very negative/critical tone that reinforces their sense of inadequacy as writers. In many cases it just isn’t a very successful exchange of information.

Does this idea of having students frame questions about their papers and writing offer a solution? The faculty who tried the approach found that students struggled mightily with the task, even though they had participated in a workshop designed to help them understand what kinds of questions they could ask. And a lot of the questions they did ask weren’t about aspects of their writing that should have been of concern.

It’s pretty easy to understand why students would find this task challenging. Most (especially beginning students) have little or no experience assessing their own work and then to have to frame a question that would elicit feedback helpful to improving your next paper—that’s a pretty complicated task. But it’s such a good one. To be able to look at something you’ve written, drawn, or otherwise performed and ask a question that will elicit helpful feedback—that’s a really useful skill and some students did see the value of what they were being asked to do. Beyond future applications, the faculty who developed the task also thought that if students had the power to focus the feedback from their teacher, that might increase their motivation to improve.

I wonder if there might be some ways to reframe the task that would make it easier initially. Maybe students need guidelines early on: Identify the part of the paper you had the most trouble with and ask a question about it. Identify the part of the paper you think turned out best and explain why you feel good about it. Maybe students complete the interactive cover sheet and attach it to a draft of the paper so they aren’t worried that identifying a problem will call the teacher’s attention to it and result in a lower grade. Maybe some peer review could be used to help students generate possible questions. Maybe this is an approach better suited for more senior students.

The faculty proposing this approach didn’t want to add more to teachers’ grading work. Their idea was that the comments teachers provided would be in response to the questions students raise. But what if students don’t ask questions about the aspects of their papers that really need to improved? Perhaps with beginning writers (performers, etc.) it’s a combination of response to questions student ask and commentary faculty direct toward other aspects of the writing or performance.

I’m not sure they got the task fitted to the developmental level of their students all that well, but I think it’s a potentially promising idea with the dual benefits of developing a great self-assessment skill and directing feedback to areas that students may have some interest in improving.

Reference: Bloxham, S., and Campbell, L. (2010). Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: Exploring the use of interactive cover sheets. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (3), 291-300.

  • tsasser

    Rather than asking freshman to pose questions about their writing, I pose the questions and have them answer them and then I respond to their answers, oftentimes by posing additional questions. The 5 questions that I ask are: 1) What are you trying to say here (what's the thesis/main point)? 2) Why is what you are trying to say important? 3) What is working in the piece and why? 4) What is not working in the piece and why? 5) What questions do you have for me?

    What I've found is that by having students think about and answer the first four questions, they are able to discover specific and sometimes surprisingly perceptive questions about their writing to ask in response to the fifth question. I really don't worry if they select an aspect that's not working but ignore something else that I would consider of more importance (they usually have several things that are not working). I respond to the the aspect that they're focused on and then try pose a follow-up question that is designed to draw their attention to the bigger problem (sometimes this works, sometimes not).

    • Gaberg56

      I think the questions you have posed are a great idea….as I read the article , I was thinking about how often times students do not know what to ask about…the four questions help them zero in on the function of the writing..Thank-you!

  • shawnpatrickdoyle

    I work almost exclusively with first-year students on writing outside of classes. Last spring, I had a discussion with a student who was in a class that asked for a reflective piece on their own writing. He was asking me specifically how a professor wanted a particular part of an assignment, claiming he had little experience with this skill. This was a student who was fairly advanced in writing and he was very grade-conscious. I suggested his issue would be a perfect topic to address in his cover letter, and he looked at me shocked. He then asked, "Why would I ever tell a teacher what I did wrong?"

    My take on this is that students can and will be honest and reflective on their own writing if students are rewarded for taking on challenges, putting in extra effort, and taking risks. If students feel that they are graded on the writers that they currently are rather than the writer that they are trying to be, many will be hesitant to open an honest dialogue.

    If someone wants honest answers from students in reflective pieces, I suggest that you have reflective pieces throughout the class starting from the very early part of class. Students should be encouraged to write with what they struggle with and they should be told that if they aren't struggling at any point in the class, then they're not trying hard enough to improve themselves and that you'll see that as a sign that they're just coasting.

    • tsasser

      I think you're so right in your last point. I'm considering adding the question: What challenged you the most on this assignment and what did you do to work through it (or if you didn't/couldn't work through it, then why not)?

  • The idea of a dialogical cover sheet dates back to the expressivist movement in composition studies in the 1980s. I first came across it through Peter Elbow's writing and work at U Mass Amherst. What is novel here is for the instructors to require students to pose questions about their own writing. I concur with the view that this is a challenging task because it is so difficult to gain critical perspective on one's writing. But I think scaffolding the feedback process by offering students the opportunity to identify aspects of the paper or parts of the paper they would like their instructor to respond to is empowering pedagogy. The challenge is making the cover sheet simple enough. I agree that Tsasser's questions are sound and less arduous. I wonder whether we are watching US innovations slowly diffuse to the more traditional HE system in the UK.

  • Noor

    Sounds good & maybe useful as students will have a chance to critic their own writing.

  • Katie

    What an interesting discussion! I think students at all levels struggle with self-evaluation, which is essentially what is being asked in this writing cover sheet. I think the guiding questions above are an important refinement in the process, since often students do not even know where to begin to assess their writing. I have a feeling, however, that this difficulty is just indicative of a larger problem: students are used to being 'assessed' by others (weren't we all?) and have not yet cultivated the capacity to selectively self-assess. I say 'selectively' because in some areas of our lives we self-assess naturally. Generally these are areas where we have had some success and that has made us less afraid of failure, or we have gotten a more accurate picture of 'failure' as just a step toward learning and improvement.
    I really like the idea that students are not assessing for a grade, but for themselves. But I have found it difficult to make this feel natural. When asked to assess their work or other student's work with rubrics, for example, student responses run the gamut of too critical or too generous. Self-assessment is not a simple skill to cultivate, though I do think it is an essential preparation for life. The process of refining this skill should be built into many courses (whether through activities or modeling or other means) until becomes an established habit of mind in a community.
    It would help, I think, if the instructors were able to model this behavior in their own work. And so I ask: How can we create a genuinely self-reflective process that is authentic and incisive without at the same time making the 'assessed' feel uncomfortably 'exposed'?
    (I'm not sure I captured that question quite right. I'd love some help with refining it…)

  • meseret

    in need more information about written feedback.b/c I got this one important

    • Olga Stella Toro

      I would like to have a sample of the Interactive cover sheets. I hope it would be useful. Thank you very much for your ideas.