This guide was created by Kristen Brookes on March 20, 2020.

Writing feedback is part of an ongoing conversation between you and your students. As you read and respond to students’ papers, think about voice, audience, and purpose, three things that are important to all writing.

Consider what you hope your feedback will do to its readers.

  • What do you want them to learn from it?
  • How would you like them to draw on this feedback in the future?
  • What sort of attitude do you want to convey?
  • How do you want your feedback to make your students feel about themselves as writers and thinkers? 

The quality of these messages will be especially important as we move from in-person classrooms to virtual, sometimes asynchronous ones. It may be harder to read people and to feel connected to them. Additionally, you might find yourself overwhelmed with increased demand for communication with your students, and it might feel more effortful. What follows is intended to help you make writing feedback more easeful, less time-consuming, and more effective. 

Focus on What Matters Most in Your Students’ Writing

Is it...

  • deep engagement with text(s) or concepts
  • grappling authentically and rigorously with challenging texts and with questions that matter
  • guiding the reader towards a significant insight or discovery
  • identification and articulation of a problem or puzzle worth exploring or seeking to solve
  • strength of argument
  • clarity of individual points, coherence/argument development, synthesis (the whole expressed once one has gone through the argument in a linear fashion)
  • understanding of content
  • responding to the prompt
  • something else?

Choose three things to focus on before you give feedback on papers, and limit your feedback to just those things. Of course, it may be that some students may need feedback on different things than others. The idea is to focus on what matters and to limit the feedback you give, both to save yourself time and labor and so that your students don’t get overwhelmed and can focus on the feedback that matters. 

If possible, communicate to your students in advance, in writing, what matters most to you, and then use this same language in your feedback, so that they can see how they have and have not met your expectations.

Voice, Purpose, and Kinds of Feedback

  • Be human. Be kind and supportive. Although you may need to evaluate, lead with your teaching self, rather than with your judging self. 
  • Approach your students in coaching mode, rather than in corrective mode.
  • Regard each feedback moment as an opportunity to guide your student towards growth and improvement by suggesting one or two things they might work on for next time. 
  • In the margins (using the “comment” function) is a great place for writing readerly feedback, that is, feedback that tells the writer about your experience as a reader—what you are thinking and feeling, questions that arise as you read. This helps the writer see the effects of his words on a reader and confirms the notion of writing for an audience.
  • Readerly feedback can help identify both parts that are confusing or unclear and parts that are clear and compelling.  Some readerly comments might be: 
    • “Interesting!”
    • “Good point!”
    • “I’m a little confused here,”
    • “I’m not quite sure how this point connects to the previous one,”
    • “ I would be more convinced if…,”
    • “I would love to hear more about.” 
  • Avoid acting as an editor, correcting your students’ language. This will take a lot of your time and will not help them learn to write more gracefully or concisely. You might instead remark on the particular stylistic issue or error and then refer them to a handbook (and perhaps ask them to submit a corrected version). The Purdue OWL has great general writing advice, as well as lessons and exercises on grammar, mechanics, and punctuation. 
  • Focus most of your feedback-writing energy on an end comment, where you give the student an overall sense of your understanding and assessment of their paper. Here descriptive feedback can be especially helpful, that is, “saying back” to the writer what you understand she’s saying. This helps the writer feel that his ideas are worth listening to and, quite possibly, to see the gap between what he thought he was saying and what is actually on the page. 
  • Sandwich your feedback. The bread is your encouragement. Lead with what works, then let them know what needs work, and end, if possible, with some expression of your confidence in them or with a reiteration of what you appreciated about the paper. 

Giving Feedback in a Remote Learning Environment

Many faculty members already receive students’ writing electronically and use the comment functions of google.docs or Word, along with writing a longer note on the last page of the student’s document. This works quite well, it’s easy, and many students are accustomed to it. 

If your students can work with you in real time, you might like to videoconference (using Zoom, for example) with individual or small groups of students to discuss their papers. Or you and the writer could read the paper at the same time and, using a chat function,  ask questions, ask for clarification, and make comments as you read through the paper. Then you could have a conversation--which could be both descriptive and evaluative--about the paper as a whole. This would allow a back-and-forth that static writing does not. 

Alternatively, you could increase students’ feeling of connection with you--especially if you are working asychronously and if they have the bandwidth--by sending them audio or video files of you talking to them about their papers. You could even use QuickTime or Explain Everything to screencast your verbal comments as you read a document on the screen. 

Additional Resources

John Bean. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning.  2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Ch. 16 (“Writing Comments on Students’ Papers”); plus 295-98 (on peer review but useful for instructor feedback) and 80-86 (“Responding to Error”). 

Jessie Borgman and Casey McArdle. Personal, Accessible, Responsive, Strategic: Resources and Strategies for Online Writing Instructors.  Boulder: U of Colorado P, 2019. On feedback, see especially pp. 60-62.

A Brief Guide to Responding to Student Writing (Harvard Writing Project). 

Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing (Dartmouth College).

Peter Elbow, “About Responding to Student Writing.” Great general guidelines. Includes suggestions for having a student write about their paper when submitting it, so that your response is “not the start of a conversation about the writing but the continuation of a conversation that the student started.” Elbow notes that sometimes, after handing back papers, he asks students to write him a short note telling him their understanding of and response to his feedback. This can help the instructor learn whether students understand her feedback and how it’s landing with them. 

Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Ch. 3 (“What Can You Do with Student Writing?”) and pp. 67-71 (“Revision after Submission of a Draft” and “Responding to Drafts for Revision”). 

Jim Wright. “How to Help Students Accept Constructive Criticism: ‘Wise’ Feedback.” Quick, easy reference on giving feedback that in a style that reduces stereotype threat. Based on Stanford University studies of Black and White students' responses to critical feedback.