How much time have you spent responding to student essays over the years? Probably more time than you’ve spent sleeping! Providing effective feedback is challenging and there are several reasons for this: First, there are always too many essays and not enough time; then there’s the frustration of laboring over your students’ work, returning them, and getting back a “revision” that is essentially the same paper. We look at the “revision” in disbelief; then we compare it to the first draft and find that, good heavens, most of our comments have been “ignored.”
Are you providing effective feedback? Or are students ignoring you?
It took us a while, but what we eventually figured out is that our students weren’t ignoring our comments. No, the problem had much more to do with us than we cared to admit. While we thought we were offering effective feedback, we were actually trying to do too many things at once and overwhelming our students.
We think Jim Hahn—whose article you can find in Carol Olson’s book, Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process—has done a nice job of boiling down what are essentially three categories of feedback that most of us use when we respond to student work:
- We provide comments related to content and organization
These comments may ask students to develop paragraphs, provide more support or detail—or even relocate, omit or combine paragraphs
- We make notes or marks addressing grammar, mechanics and spelling
This is obvious enough: Commas, periods and all the rest...
- We assign Final Marks
Final Marks refer to the letter grade or point system we use to “grade” the paper
Indeed, each category has a time and a place. But when we address all three simultaneously, we are sending our students very confusing and contradictory messages.
Not only are we telling them to “develop paragraphs,” we are also telling them to “insert commas” into the same paragraph we want them to change. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it, especially considering that the same paragraph may not even exist in subsequent drafts? And when we assign a letter grade to the draft—a 94%, for example—aren’t we inadvertently telling our students, “Hey, nice job—now go ahead and ignore the comments I spent so much time making.”
Here’s Hahn’s two cents: The conventions of writing (grammar, spelling) must eventually be addressed—but addressing them too early in the writing process is counterintuitive. Why? Because students will commit themselves to “correct form” even when the passage has no place in the essay. Here’s Hahn’s hierarchy, his approach towards responding to student work:
Address content and organization first. This may take more than one draft. Once you and the student are satisfied with the development, flow, organization, etc., of the essay, move on to the grammar. THEN, when the work has gone as far as it can go—because we know that “art is never finished, only abandoned”—should we consider assigning it a letter grade. Not only will this make responding to essays quicker, it will also make it more effective.
If you are looking for a few more tips for providing effective feedback, check out one of our recent blogs, “Offering your students effective feedback: 5 essentials.” And while you're at it, download our free guide, Writing Reinvented!