Many teachers mistakenly believe that spending their precious time and energy writing long comments at the end of students’ papers is what Writing teachers should do. As one instructor wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “I am an English professor, and responding to student writing is what we English professors do…For 25 years, I have diligently, thoughtfully, and fastidiously written comments on my students’ essays. In my neatest hand, I’ve inscribed a running commentary down the margin of page after page, and at an essay’s conclusion I’ve summarized my thoughts in a paragraph or more.”
This instructor decided to stop writing comments on her students’ paper after she came to this realization: “Most students seemed to spend little time taking in my comments on their papers. They quickly skimmed, looking for the grade, and then shoved the papers into their bags.” Her solution: Instead of writing comments, she decided to meet in her office to discuss her students’ papers one-on-one.
For most ESL Writing instructors, meeting with students in their offices is not a realistic option. At the same time, writing long comments at the end of papers is often a waste of time and energy, just as that professor discovered.
It seems that there are two approaches to giving feedback to each student
General Feedback Approach
Part of problem with giving general feedback at the end of an essay is that the comments tend to be so generalized that there is little for students to apply to future writing assignments. For example, here is what one teacher wrote:
“You wrote deep ideas. Some of your examples were especially interesting. But sometimes, you needed some additional details to connect the content to your thesis statement. In general, you had strong support for your opinion.”
No doubt, the student reading this feedback would wonder what specific idea the teacher found “deep” or “especially interesting,” or which specific support was “strong”. By indicating specific sentences in students’ papers, the teacher could help them see what they could apply in the future.
Fortunately, there is another option for Writing teachers.
A much more practical and yet effective way to provide specific feedback
Specific Feedback Approach
Besides being much more user-friendly and less time-consuming for the teaching, the major advantage of giving specific feedback within the essays is that students can clearly see what helps a reader understand their ideas or where they need a revision. This knowledge is what they can apply on future assignments.
How the Specific Feedback Approach works.
As the teachers read the essays, in the margins, they write brief comments like these:
| interesting point/ idea|
good example / details
good / interesting details
| good analysis|
good connection to your thesis
For example, here are three paragraphs written by students with specific feedback by the teacher:
Topic: Characteristics of good older sibling.
Topic: The death penalty should be abolished.
Topic: Extended definition of the word “sarcasm”.
Please note: I write NO COMMENTS at the end of their papers. The only feedback is in the margins.
Which do students find most helpful: General Feedback at the end of an essay or Specific within an essay?
During two terms, I gave feedback to my students alternating between these two approaches with each essay. At the end of the term, I surveyed the students to find out which approach they preferred to help them improve their writing skills and which one made them feel more encouraged by.
The results: It wasn’t even close. Almost all of them chose the “Specific Feedback within an e.”
Providing more feedback on essays. (User-friendly techniques for teachers.)
In addition to the positive comments demonstrated in the examples above, needless to say, teachers will want to provide suggestions for improving the grammar and content.
For marking grammar, see Common Teacher Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers.
For improving content, see Powerful Tool for ESL Writers: Giving Examples in Essays.
For giving positive feedback on grammar/style, see Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique
To save yourself from burnout, see, • Writing class: How many drafts should ESL students write? Three!