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Instructor's Guide for Giving Feedback

This resource discusses kinds of feedback teachers use when evaluating writing, best practices for evaluating writing, and various methods for delivering feedback.

Kinds of Feedback

Formative feedback is feedback that's offered during a unit, on drafts or on other scaffolding assignments, to help guide students' learning and sometimes revision. It usually helps form the final product. It tends to be more often found embedded in the text using something like Track Changes or marginal comments (also called "proximate feedback").

Summative or holistic feedback is feedback that's offered at the end of a document or at the end of a unit to sum up and give a holistic assessment of the student's performance. Depending on the stage in the writing process, this may also be formative in that it helps guide students to further writing and learning.

Comments, usually in-text but sometimes in holistic/summative endnote feedback, generally fall under the following categories from Kennell, Elliot, & Weirick (2017):

Corrective edits the writing 
Directive tells the writer what to do specifically but does not edit the writing
Interactive

speaks directly to the writer (questions, comments, conditionals)

Evaluative makes a judgement about the writing

All these types of comments are useful and valid in their appropriate situations; however, relying on only one comment type or relying on the wrong kind of comment for the situation can negatively impact student learning.

Corrective comments, for instance, can be useful for modeling a correction that the student needs to make throughout the paper; using them in each instance where the correction is needed, however, is not particularly helpful to the student. They're best used to identify patterns, especially paired with a directive comment that indicates what the pattern is, why the change needs to be made, and how to identify other instances where the error shows up in the writing.

Directive comments are often best used with simpler lower order concerns such as grammar and sentence structure; they often need explanation attached to help the writer understand why the comment is relevant and the revision is necessary. They are also useful with more advanced writers who perhaps need less explicit guidance.

Interactive comments tend to work best for higher order concerns such as argument development, organization, and other idea work. They can be even more useful as conversation starters if the course runs on a conference model where the student will speak directly with the teacher about the writing, because students can "talk back" and enter into a conversation about their writing more effectively than with corrective or directive comments. These comments are usually the most detailed and also tend to give more agency over the writing to the writer rather than to the teacher (they can position the writer as expert).

Evaluative comments are often necessary in that teachers eventually do need to grade writing, but they tend to be most effective in summative feedback or as focusing tools for other comments, rather than as standalone comments (because students struggle to apply evaluative comments in useful ways without other types of comments as guidance).

Best Practices for Offering Feedback

Writing studies and writing center studies scholars have long worked to understand how students respond to feedback in order to better facilitate student learning. This section sketches some general insights from the field that teachers can use when evaluating student writing and offering feedback.

  • Focus
Students often become overwhelmed if there are too many comments on a paper, especially if they are all referring to different aspects of the writing. They may not be able to implement all the requested changes, may struggle to interpret all the comments, and may not be able to tell which comments are most important. This often leads to students focusing on comments that are "easy" to address, usually lower order concerns such as grammar or sentence structure, and missing out on learning opportunities with higher order concerns such as content and organization. So, teachers should try to keep comments engaged with just three or four major elements to be revised. (Having multiple rounds of revision in a writing project often helps with this, because teachers can start with bigger ideas and in later rounds can comment more on surface level concerns, but it's not always possible.)
  • HOC/LOC
Unless it's an explicit part of the curriculum, students may not know how to tell higher order concerns (HOCs; these are usually to do with the ideas in the paper and the larger structure of the paper) from lower order concerns (LOCs; these are usually more sentence-level and deal with individual instances of grammar and mechanics issues). Teachers can help students by focusing (as above) their comments, and by guiding the student in end-note summative/holistic feedback as to what it's most important for them to focus on with explicit language, i.e., "I commented on paragraph structure and sentence structure above, but it's more important for you to address paragraph structure first because it affects more of the paper and makes your argument more approachable for a reader."
  • Model
Students often struggle to translate directive comments such as "break up this paragraph" because they're not sure why they need to break up the paragraph or how to do it. Modeling is one effective way to mitigate this pain point for students and help them turn feedback into useful revision. Teachers can explain why the paragraph needs to be broken up (in the example above), give a couple of suggestions for where, and/or explain how the paragraph can be broken up using a couple of appropriately structured paragraphs elsewhere in the paper. This last option is especially useful because it shows students where they are doing the right thing and allows them to apply the strategy they used well to make another section stronger. In more sentence-level instances, teachers can model a more correct structure using an example sentence of their own so that their comment is indirect rather than directive, encouraging students to apply the principle to their own writing rather than just accepting the teacher's change.
  • Praise
Students need to understand what they are doing well so that they can replicate it in other places (as mentioned in the modeling section above). Teachers can help students use this praise in their feedback by being specific about what is working well and why, rather than just saying "great work!" If a general compliment is followed with an abundance of criticism, even if it's formulated in a compliment sandwich, students won't benefit from the praise.
  • Overdo the Why
Students often struggle to interpret teacher comments in a way that helps them revise the writing at hand and future writing, usually because they aren't sure why the teacher has made a particular comment. Overdoing some of the explanation, including describing what you're seeing as a reader and evaluating how well it's working in the context of the rest of the writing, can help address this issue and help students transfer what they learn from this round of feedback into revisions now and later. It can also help students connect the assignment with learning outcomes and rubric areas.
  • Like the Writing 
Peter Elbow (1994) wrote that teacher feedback can fall under ranking, evaluating, or liking (or a mix of these). Liking student writing, regardless of its assigned grade, can help mitigate some of the negative associations and impacts students have with writing feedback. Students often brace for criticism when they receive comments, especially when the writing is something personal and vulnerable (which it often is, regardless of actual topic). Engaging with students in a friendly and approachable way in some part of the feedback, appreciating something about the writing and their work in your feedback, can help students receive and use the feedback.

Methods of Delivering Feedback

There are many different methods available for delivering feedback; these include, but are not limited to: marginal comments via track changes, audio/visual responses, and screeen recording. Each of these options are outlined below. 

Marginal Comments via Track Changes 

Traditionally, most teachers offering feedback on writing use marginal comments and endnotes to mark up a student paper for revision, either by hand on paper or using a feature like Track Changes in MS Word. This method offers some particular affordances:

  • the comments are linked to specific places in the document that need attention
  • the comments are easily readable along with the text
  • the comments can include drawing or other indicative marks to help students see relationships between sections

Audio/Visual Responses 

Other methods for delivering feedback include audio (spoken) feedback and video (of the teacher, or a recording of the screen + the teacher's voice) feedback. Different learning management systems support different feedback methods, so these multimedia feedback strategies may be easier or harder depending on your available tools. Outside learning management systems, however, teachers can use common built-in screen & microphone recording equipment available with most computers (Quicktime or the Capture utility on Apple machines, the Xbox Game Bar on Windows machines). Tools like PowerPoint also have screen recording capability, and there are a number of easy to use, free screen recorder programs available online. Most computers and cell phones also have built-in voice recorders teachers can use to record audio feedback that can be uploaded to a learning management system.

Screen Recording

Screen recording or audio feedback do involve a little more work on the part of the teacher, especially when you're switching from a more traditional method. But these delivery methods have some special affordances that make the initial effort worthwhile:

  • summative audio feedback offered after you've read the paper allows you to use tone and emphasis in your voice to help indicate what's most important to you
  • formative feedback offered as you read the paper allows you to show the students a real time reaction to their work from a reader's perspective, and helps you focus on developing ideas rather than following a checklist
  • screen recording feedback (and to some extent audio) allows students to track your mouse as you read their work, showing students where your attention is most drawn and what you pick up on most immediately. this is especially helpful for offering feedback on multimodal compositions that focus more on visual rhetoric and design.

Finally, many teachers grading writing find that the length of time spent giving feedback becomes prohibitive, especially as their number of students increases. One method for still giving significant feedback while also mitigating some of the time costs involved is to use general class feedback notes in addition to personalized feedback. Teachers using this method typically read through the papers quickly one time, taking notes on common issues many students can benefit from revising. They then write one general note full of feedback that applies to most students, and reference it when writing private feedback for each individual student on a second pass through the assignments (this second pass is when grading typically happens). The entire class receives both the general feedback note and their own personalized feedback, which addresses which sections of the general note they should attend to and discusses any unique issues the student should revise. 

References:

Elbow, Peter. (1993). Ranking, evaluating, and liking: Sorting out three forms of judgment. College English, 55(2), 187–206.https://doi.org/10.2307/378503
Kennell, Vicki; Elliot, Amy; and Weirick, Joshua, "Tinkering with Comments: Tailoring Practice by Spying on Written Artifacts" (2017). Purdue Writing Lab/Purdue OWL Presentations. Paper 15. https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/writinglabpres/15