• LINCS Topic 3: What can you recommend for offering effective feedback on writing? How can teachers manage the amount of time it takes to give feedback?

Cover 3 Feedback shot

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.) 

This posting is a more detailed response to my interview question on Day 3 .LINCS Discussion: Student-Centered Approach to Teaching Writing Skills. .

Below in blue, you’ll find the details that I’ve added to the Day 3 LINCS’ posting.

Giving feedback to students on their writing is such a rewarding aspect of our job.

However, it’s important to do it in a way that is meaningful to students yet user-friendly for the teacher. Here is how we can do it.

Giving meaningful feedback in in a manner that is time and energy efficient

In general, we’d like to give three types of feedback on a piece of writing:
1) Indicate what they did well.
2) Lead them to discover their grammar mistakes.
3) Point out where they could improve their content.

1) Indicate what they did well.

Imagine that you are a student and just received your paper with this positive feedback from the instructor at the end of the essay:

This was a good essay.  Your ideas were interesting.  You used advanced sentence styles, and some of your examples helped me understand your main points.

Will these comments actually help you, as a student, apply how you wrote to future writing tasks?  Which specific ideas were interesting?  Which specific sentences was the teacher referring to as advanced and which examples were helpful?

A time-consuming alternative that some teachers turn to is to write the comments in the margin next to noteworthy places in the essay.  The drawback to this, especially when commenting on paper, is that it is time consuming, there is little space to write them, and the handwriting needs to be clear.  Also, one wonders whether students will actually read the comments.

Before describing an easy, efficient and effective method for giving focused positive feedback, it’s important to understand the reason why we want to give positive feedback.  What we are trying to do is to encourage them to continue to use writing techniques which have made their writing assignments coherent, cohesive and interesting.

This means we’d like to point out, for example, where they have effectively used…

  • expressions that introduce or connect ideas (e.g., For example, However, Also).
  • conjunctions (e.g., and, but, so, or) which can show reasons and contrasts, and connect ideas;
  • subordinators (e.g., after, although, when, where, who, if, since) which can show relationship between ideas;
  • good vocabulary which can make their ideas clearer.
  • examples with enough details to clearly illustrate their ideas and make their papers more interesting.

One easy, efficient and effective method for doing this is to use a colored pen or marker to underline or highlight specific words, sentences, examples and ideas.  For example, the teacher can tell the students that “green” means good.  As the teacher reads the students’ papers, they merely underline those parts in green.  Or perhaps to emphasis especially good vocabulary words or expressions or a good use of a subordinator or conjunction, the teacher could draw a green box around them.  And it takes very little mental energy on the teacher’s part to decide what aspects of the paper to make green and very little time to do it.

These green positive forms of feedback are noticed by students.  I once overheard a student point at another student’s essay and say, “Wow!  Look at all that green!”

Another student who hadn’t produced a paper up to his usual standard asked me half-jokingly, “What happened?  Did you run out of green ink?”

It’s also easy to customize the “green” according to the needs of specific students.  For example, I once had a lower-level student who was struggling with her verb tenses on writing tasks.  On her paragraph assignment, I marked in green the verbs that had the correct verb tense.

To comment on specific content, we can write a couple of words in the margin next to specific sentences:

    • Interesting idea              • Good example
    • Good details                   • Amazing!
    • Good support                • Clever idea

(For some examples of how this looks on students’ papers, see • Writing class: Easy, focused, POSITVE feedback on essays. 

2) Lead them to discover their grammar mistake.

Before I describe a technique to do this, here are some reactions students have had to it.
      • “I like this technique because it helps me apply what I learn to future writing.”
      • “This technique makes correcting essays like a puzzle.  It’s actually fun.”
      • “I’m not stressed when I see red marks.  I know that it’s going to be an interesting

For this technique, the teacher writes a simple code in the margin to indicate that the student had a mistake in that line and to give them a hint about the type of mistake it is. For example, NF (noun form) VT (verb tense) -W (omit word) + prep (add preposition)

NF / VT             I have three friend who have help me a lot. When I have a

+comma/ -W      problem they are always stand me.                                        +prep

By putting codes (hints) in the margin, the teacher has given the student a chance to find the errors on their own.   If the student is able to do this, we can feel quite confident that the mistake was caused by poor editing or proof-reading rather than a lack of grammar knowledge.

What if the students can’t find their mistakes with the hints?  When conferencing with the student (see the Day 2 discussion about students’ autonomy and conferencing), the teacher gives additional hints to lead the student to the mistake.  For example, let’s say the student can’t find the NF (noun form) mistake in the first line.  The teacher could say, “Underline the nouns in this line.”  After he underlines “friend,” the teacher could ask, “Do you have one or more than one friend?”  99.9 % of the time the student will realize that he needs to change to “friends.”

After several of us teachers changed from directly indicating the mistake above the word to giving hints in the margin, we noticed a great improvement in students’ ability to self-edit.

Also, we found students interest in using the hints to correct their mistakes increased.   It’s often amusing to see their reaction when they ask for an additional hint and then realize that they could have found it on their own.  “Oh, no!  That was a foolish mistake.  I should have found that.”   It’s almost as if they feel like they missed a chance to score points in a game.”

Finally, I should mention that many of us teachers have used the codes-in-the-margin technique successfully with students from high-beginners to advanced.

(To read more about this technique and see examples of how it can be applied to students’ papers, see • Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills  

3) Point out where they could improve their content.

We can tell students that any words or sentence that are underlined with blue means that they should try to improve their ideas. For example:

“When I was in elementary school, I was often nervous because of the bad behavior by some older boys. However, my older brother helped me. Also, I had some health problems.”

The student could use one of the techniques that they had practice, for example, “Give an example,” “Tell a short narrative,” “Tell a personal experience.” In their next draft, they could describe the bad behavior and tell more specific details about what the older brother had done to help. (See Day 1 of this discussion about the process approach: Step 3 Preparation for the second draft.)

Interestingly, when I conference with my students about what I’ve marked on their second drafts, they may need my help or hints for correcting some of their grammar, but rarely do they need additional suggestions for improving their content. They just need someone to point out where to do it.

One final note about providing feedback. Occasionally, as we are marking some students’ essays, after going through the first couple of paragraphs, we quickly become aware that they have mistakes in almost every sentence, and the margins are becoming covered with codes. In situations like this, it makes the most sense to stop marking after a couple of paragraphs.  (See • When Marking Only Half of a Student’s Essay Makes the Most Sense. )

Time to go for a run,

David Kehe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s