Faculty Focus


Feedback Techniques that Improve Student Writing

Yvonne is frustrated. She wants to do well in her language arts class, but each essay she completes fails to earn her the grade she believes she deserves. Although her teacher thoughtfully writes out corrective comments on her essays, to Yvonne these seem to run together, forming a nonsensical sea of red ink. With each assignment, she feels less capable and grows more resentful of her instructor.

Professor Collier is frustrated. He has been teaching language arts for well over two decades. He is thoroughly convinced of the importance of developing good writing skills and spends countless hours poring over student submissions, making numerous editorial comments in an effort to encourage them to develop as writers. Sadly, he finds that many of the students he teaches focus only on the final grade and express little interest in revising their work.

Does this scenario sound familiar? We work hard as teachers to provide constructive feedback, only to find it ignored or resented. Problems in student writing persist and sometimes even worsen, while both students and faculty members grow increasingly frustrated.

Teachers who wish to provide meaningful feedback to which students will actually attend need to focus on two key components:

  1. The content of the verbal feedback. The content of the feedback should communicate the messages that the teacher cares about the student, that the student is capable of being successful as a writer, and that the teacher is willing to help map a path the student may follow to that success.
  2. The nature of the vehicle(s) used to deliver the feedback. In the modern era student writing is often submitted digitally, and feedback may be delivered in the same way. In considering which digital tools are appropriate, it is helpful to distinguish among three different types of errors, with their corresponding feedback.

Providing feedback on mechanic errors
There are generally three headings under which written errors will fall. The first of these is mechanical errors. Mechanical errors include misspelled words (or misused homonyms that have been spelled correctly and thus not caught by a spell-checker), grammatical errors (e.g., subject/verb agreement), and punctuation errors.

Though attending to mechanical corrections is certainly important, they may be the category of errors least likely to be consistently and painstakingly addressed as students revise. From the perspective of the teacher/editor, errors of this type are usually noted without the use of lengthy commentary. A word processing “track changes” feature appears best suited for this type of error (particularly if the file is sent back to the student in PDF format to obviate students’ simply accepting a teacher’s corrections without reviewing them).

Providing feedback on micro-level content errors
A second category of written errors refers to the structure of ideas within a particular paragraph. We term this category micro-level content errors. Such errors require active rewriting on the student’s part, based on constructive comments from the teacher. This requires lengthier feedback than for mechanical errors, and such feedback appears best presented using a word processing “insert comments” feature.

Providing feedback on macro-level content errors
The third and final category of written errors includes problems that detract from the manuscript as a whole. We term these errors macro-level content errors. Examples include faulty document structure and erroneous reasoning. These errors also require active rewriting based on teacher feedback, but in addition may require that the writer think about the document as a whole and possibly reorganize or rewrite multiple sections simultaneously.

Feedback provided in this category is at once both the most complex feedback an instructor/editor may provide and the most difficult for the student to apply constructively. Digitized audio feedback appears to be the preferred method for providing this type of commentary; fortunately, it can be created using commonly available tools and attached to a student’s digitized document file.

An initial trial in this context found that students who received digitized audio feedback expressed higher perceptions of competence, intrinsic motivation, and autonomy, and experienced an improvement in overall writing abilities, compared with those students who received more conventional feedback (Harper, 2009).

Effective feedback need not necessarily be overly critical, complex, or lengthy, but should instead equip students with the means by which they may take responsibility for their learning. By considering not only what they will say but how they should say it, teachers can assure that their efforts to promote the development of students’ writing skills will not be in vain.

Harper, B. (2009). “I’ve never seen or heard it this way!”: Increasing student engagement through the use of technology-enhanced feedback. Teaching Educational Psychology, 5 (1).

Brian Harper is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Cleveland State University. William Beasley is a professor and chair in the same department.

Excerpted from “Does It Matter How We Give Our Students Constructive Feedback in a Technology-Mediated Environment?” Online Classroom (Nov. 2009): 1-2.