To start with the obvious: It’s important to respond to student writing. Giving students feedback on their written work (beyond a grade) emphasizes that writing well is a learned skill; reminds students that the learning happens over time, through experimentation and iteration; helps them to see what they understand about the writing and course content at any given moment and what they don’t; helps them to understand their grades and your grading approach; demonstrates your engagement with their work; and it allows them to go on to do better work, both in the course and beyond.
Of course, the feedback is at its most useful if it’s done well. And doing it well means a few things:
Let students know what you’re going to be looking for. Professors often share a rubric, either on the syllabus or on the sheet describing the particular assignment, letting students know what constitutes “good writing” for them. You can break it down in a variety of ways:
give an overall description of what an “A” paper looks like vs. a “B” paper, etc.
or perhaps outline several dimensions of interest (e.g., thesis, organization, use of outside sources, etc.), indicating what will lead to different grades for each part, and explaining that the final paper grade will be a combination or average of all these particular grades. Note that you might not want to weight all the elements equally; just be clear with students about what you’ll be doing. Check out our rubrics page for more information.
Giving students these guidelines articulates (and helps to teach them) the components of a well-written piece, indicates how you will be different from other professors (because, no matter how sure you are that your way is the only reasonable way, from a student’s perspective it’s still idiosyncratic), and helps them figure out how to do a good job. That said, this is not a cheat sheet. You may be worried that students will just be able to crank out a paper using your rubric as a formula, but naturally it’s not that simple. Telling students that an A paper shows “excellent attention to organization, each point building clearly on the one before it” doesn’t give students a formula that they can follow mechanically; it tells them what they need to learn how to do.
Consider building peer review into your class structure. Asking students to share solid (but not final) drafts with their classmates has a wide range of benefits:
Peer review forces students to write drafts ahead of time instead of just waiting until the night before the due date to begin considering the paper.
When students encounter one another’s papers, they experience the variety of ways that the assignment prompt is being approached, and this might spark some good ideas.
It asks students to become articulate in their analysis of their peers’ papers, which makes them more thoughtful and articulate readers of their own papers.
It provides a concrete in-class opportunity for you to address any misunderstandings about the prompt.
It helps to build community in the classroom by making students responsible for one another.
It provides an opportunity to reassert what you’re looking for in these papers, in case anyone’s off track.
Of course, it may even get students some helpful feedback on their drafts.
Some people are dubious about this last point—are students really equipped to help one another with their papers? Well, they can be, if you approach it the right way:
Students are often uncomfortable criticizing one another; you’ll need to set a tone where thoughtful, constructive, critical feedback is portrayed as immensely helpful. After all, the next person who sees the paper will be giving it a grade, so it’s not particularly kind for a peer reviewer to gloss over any problems they see.
Students also doubt their own reactions to writing. This can be appropriate—they’re still learning—but if, for example, they’re confused by a section of a classmate’s paper, they should be encouraged to say so, because the section may in fact be confusing.
It’s helpful for you to set out ground rules (e.g., students should read the papers once without making comments and then reread with pen in hand; students should point out both what’s working and what’s not working) and remind them about your own priorities (as expressed in the rubrics). Students shouldn’t focus on the occasional spelling error, for example, if that’s a relatively minor concern of yours, and if the paper at hand, say, lacks a thesis altogether.
Peer review is a learned process. Students often get better at it with practice, especially once they get some feedback from you on their own work; then they have a better sense of just what to be looking for in peers’ papers.
It can also be helpful to make sure peer review groups are actually groups (3 to 4 participants) rather than pairs; if a student gets a range of feedback, it’s more likely that some of it will be useful.
Either way, bear in mind that there are many benefits to peer review, and students can get a lot out of it even if the particular feedback they get is less expert than what you’d provide.
Georgetown University’s Matthew Pavesich explores the benefits of peer review.
Be timely with your feedback. The feedback will be most useful if the assignment is still somewhat fresh in the students’ minds. Timeliness is even more important if students will be writing multiple papers in your course; they need feedback on their first paper, for example, before they hand in their second, if you’re expecting them to improve.
Focus your feedback on the things that matter most to you. You don’t have to comment on every issue you see in a student’s paper; in fact, probably you shouldn’t. Instead, comment on the things that you see as most important. Some professors use a “Triage” or “Bones-Muscles-Skin” approach to writing feedback. In this model, aspects of the paper are seen in three categories: Bones, which are the big ideas of the piece, including the thesis; Muscles, which are concerned with the movement and organization of the paper, the development of the ideas; and Skin, which refers to surface issues of spelling, grammar, word choice, punctuation, and so on. The idea is that, if a person comes to the hospital with broken bones and acne, you treat the broken bones first. Or, to move away from this analogy, it may not be helpful to focus much attention on grammar when the student doesn’t really present an idea in the paper; it may not make sense to point out spelling mistakes in a paragraph that needs to be cut because it takes the argument off-track. Some professors who want to de-emphasize “skin-level” issues will mark them only on a page or two and tell the students to look for similar mistakes elsewhere. Others mark those issues by putting an asterisk next to the line where there’s a problem; it’s then the student’s job to figure out what went wrong, or, if the issue eludes them, their job is to come talk to you about the problem. The larger point here is to focus your comments on the things that are most important to you, so that students will know what to prioritize in their efforts to improve.
Focus on what’s not working in a piece and what is working. Students have a better chance of improving if they can see where they’re being successful; perhaps they can even use themselves as a model for how to do better, if, for example, one section is clear and another needs clarification. They will also find it easier to absorb critical feedback if it comes alongside appropriate praise.
Include both marginal comments and a final summary comment. Commenting in the margins of an essay helps you to be concrete about exactly what’s going on in a student’s piece. You can point out where things are working, and where things aren’t. You can direct the student’s attention to specific examples of an issue in the paper. A summary comment at the end of the paper helps to bring all this feedback together. The marginalia may feel scattered and disparate to the student, but you probably have a clear idea of the overall strengths and weaknesses of the writing. This final statement allows you to present that picture, to emphasize what’s most important, and to give students an action plan for how to improve going forward, what to do next.
Consider using the “overnight rule.” Students—particularly those who are upset about their grades—may want to speak with you immediately after getting their papers back. But you put a lot of time into the feedback you gave them, and you’ll want them to engage with your feedback thoughtfully before sitting down to talk. For this reason, it can be a good idea to tell students you’ll be happy to discuss their papers with them—but only starting one day after they get their papers back.
Then be willing to meet with the student about the feedback. Students may need guidance working with your feedback. Also, some students learn more in a conversation than they do from written comments.
Along with verbal feedback comes the question of grades. Grading is probably no professor’s favorite part of teaching, but it’s a reality for most of us, and bears discussing. There are a few principles to keep in mind:
Not all assignments require a letter grade. Drafts or informal writing might be evaluated on a check-minus/check/check-plus scale, or students might actually be given all the points as long as, in your estimation, they’ve put sufficient effort in.
If you’re going to apply a letter grade, make those letters meaningful. The use of rubrics, as discussed above, articulates (for you and for the student) exactly what you mean when you give one grade vs. another. Your school or department may have pre-existing standards for different letter grades, or you might need to devise them yourself. Either way, be clear, in your own head and in your communication with students, what the various grades mean when you use them.
Think of the grade as a teaching opportunity. Grades are in some ways less effective teaching tools than the written feedback you’ll be giving—one letter is not worth a thousand words—but in other ways they can be quite effective. First of all, grades are consequential for students, so they tend to be motivating. Furthermore, if your grades are tied to a rubric that you’ve made available to your students, a letter grade points them toward the issues at hand, gives them something to focus on as they work toward improving.