In Pursuit of Meaningful Feedback

Hi, Elizabeth!

First, thank you for asking this important question! We know how important it is to find ways to give meaningful and timely feedback to students. But we also know how limited our time is—there are only so many minutes in a day, in a class, during prep periods, after school, before school. Finding time for effective feedback is the holy grail of English teachers everywhere. 🙂

Second, just a warning that this response is much longer than I initially intended—but when it comes to feedback there is just so much to say! I’ll be going into my 17th year of teaching this fall, and in those years, I still haven’t found the answer when it comes to giving effective feedback. But every year, I think I get a little closer. So much of teaching is just a series of relentless tweaking, here and there, to make our practice just a little bit better from one moment to the next, all in the service of our students.

This (long) post is a result of all that relentless tweaking.

There will never be enough time. As obvious as that sounds, I think it actually took me a long time to figure that out. I’m an eternal optimist, so I always think I can do more than I actually can—and I suspect I’m not the only teacher who thinks this way. I often struggle with wanting to do so many things that I end up doing none of those things very well.

So when it comes to giving feedback (or anything teaching-related), I think it’s important to ask ourselves—what is the one small thing I can do to make my teaching a little bit better than what I did before? Asking this question not only forces me to be more realistic and narrow my focus, but it also sets the standard for success as what I have done versus what other teachers are doing. This is an important distinction. Too often, we unfairly compare themselves to teachers down the hall—and now with social media, to teachers everywhere. I’ve been guilty of this, and I have to remind myself that it’s not about being like Nancie Atwell (one of my teaching heroes!)—it’s about being a better version of myself.

In that spirit, here are some specific strategies I’ve found that have helped me get just a little bit better when it comes to feedback. I hope they are helpful, and like with all things teaching, that you can take it and make it your own.

Principles not requirements

I know that a lot of teachers have mixed feelings about rubrics. Some teachers resist their prescriptiveness, while other teachers welcome their structure. I’ve found that when rubrics are used as guidelines versus checklists that they can be useful in narrowing our focus when it comes to feedback and help students understand how they can improve.

I’ve also found that since I’ve switched to using one rubric for 95% of my writing assignments, that feedback has been simplified and more effective for me and my students. For many years, I used to create a different rubric for almost every writing assignment. Not only was this time-consuming, but it was also ineffective at helping students understand elements of writing. How could I expect my students to internalize principles of good writing when the rubrics—i.e. the “rules”—were always changing?

In the last few years, I’ve used the same general rubric, which I adapted from Six Traits and the National Writing Project’s Analytic Writing Continuum (AWC). By focusing feedback on the same six principles—content, organization, voice/stance, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions—my students and I have a common language to talk about writing from one assignment to the next. My goal is to shift students away from focusing on the checklist of requirements for an assignment to the elements of effective writing that exist no matter what assignment they’re working on. Instead of asking, what are the requirements for this essay?, students ask themselves questions like: What content do I need? How can I best organize that content? What voice will I use? What words are best? How can I vary my sentences for their sound and rhythm? What conventions can I use to clarify what I’m trying to say? These are also questions we ask no matter the type of writing, whether that writing is informative, persuasive, or narrative. These are questions that transfer.

In addition to the Six Traits or AWC, if you have an existing state or district writing rubric, that could be something you could adapt for this purpose. One general rubric focusing on universal elements of good writing can help teachers and students stay on the same page when it comes to writing instruction.

“The most better”

In giving feedback, I try to focus on what will make the essay not just better, but “the most better.” In other words, what is the suggestion that I can give that will go furthest in improving the overall quality of the essay. For example, giving feedback on poor grammar (while cringe-worthy) may be tempting, but sometimes the feedback the student really needs is about their ideas. I’ve become convinced that problems with incoherent sentence structure is more often a problem of incoherent ideas. So feedback should be focused on content rather than on conventions. Likewise, feedback on the hook in an introductory paragraph may be less important when entire premise of the paper is shaky.

Focus and variety

When I was in school, the only type of feedback I received was written feedback on my final papers. Because of my (limited) experiences, this is the vision of feedback that I had when I first started teaching. But of course we know that feedback that doesn’t have to mean extended, painstaking comments all over a student’s paper. A few things I’ve done:

  • STICKY FEEDBACK. When reading a draft, I sometimes limit myself to a single sticky note for feedback. I read the entire paper first, without marking anything. When I’m finished, I ask myself, what are the one or two suggestions that would make this paper “the most better”—the one or two suggestions that stuck with me after reading? Whatever suggestions I have must fit on that sticky note, which I place to the corresponding section or page in the essay that needs work.
  • PLUS / MINUS LIST. After reading an essay, at the end, I create two columns, one with a plus sign, another with a minus sign. Under the plus sign, I write down three things that worked well in the essay. Under the minus sign, I write down one or two specific suggestions to make the essay better. No matter what, I always make sure there are more plusses than minuses.
  • QUESTIONS ONLY. Every once in a while, I give feedback in the form of questions only. In the margins, all I do is ask questions—questions that asked for clarification or more information, questions that asked if this or that detail was necessary, questions that posed alternatives. Not only are questions more engaging for students, but they forced me to respond as a reader rather than an evaluator of their writing.
  • FOCUSED FEEDBACK. In focused feedback, I—or better yet, the students—choose which element or principle of writing they’d like feedback on: content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, or conventions. Then I read the essay and provide feedback solely on that specific element.
  • LETTER TO THE CLASS. Let’s face it, we can’t always get to every single student’s paper. But we also know students need guidance on how to improve. I love Todd Finley’s suggestion of writing a “letter to the class.” The idea is that you read all the essays, making very few (if any) comments on individual students’ papers. I still use a rubric and holistic score, but I resist the urge to write any comments. As I’m reading, however, I keep track of the things I’m seeing across all students’ work: the strengths, weaknesses, etc. Then when I’m finished, I write a letter to the class that goes over what I saw in their writing as a whole and where we, as a class, can improve. This allows for a quicker turn-around and students can still receive guidance—even if it’s more general, it’s  still specific to their class—as they move forward on the next piece of writing.

Frontload the feedback

The longer I teach, the more I’ve shifted my feedback to the early part of the writing process. I try to get to students the sooner, the better. In fact, last year, I conferred with every students for 1-2 minutes even before they wrote anything down as a “brainstorming” session for their personal essays. I try to see students again after they’ve written 300 words or so, and then again near the end. In between, I make sure they also have time for peer response groups to get additional feedback (see below). By catching students in the process, we can help them while there’s still time to change, adapt, or sometimes… start over.

Status of the class

I love using Nancie Atwelll’s “status of the class” for independent reading. At the beginning of the class, students share the title of the book they are reading and what page they are on. I’ve also adapted this for writing. I ask students to quickly share what topic and what part of the writing assignment they are working on that day and how it is generally going. Each student speaks for no more than 15-30 seconds. As students share, I take note of the patterns and then at the end, I give a  3-5 minute mini-lesson on a related aspect of writing. For example, if I hear a lot of students are struggling with finding evidence, I might do a quick think-aloud / demonstration of how I find good examples to use.

Match the feedback to the process

Making the change to a single common rubric has also helped focus my feedback during the writing process. Because writing is a process, students need different types of feedback at different stages of the process. In the beginning, students need more help gathering their ideas and generating content. So all feedback in the beginning of the process is focused on the content.

As students get further into their papers, my next step is to focus feedback on organization: now that students have generated ideas, how are those ideas organized, how can they put it all together? We then get into conversations about voice and purpose—what do you want your reader to know, how do you want to come across as a writer? I’ve found we end up focusing on the first three principles—content, organization, and voice—anywhere from 50-90% of the time because they require students to really think deeply about what they are trying to say. The last three principles of word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions, are about clarify—how they want to say it. But you can’t get to those last three principles if students haven’t thought through their content, organization, and ideas.

Empower students

We may be the teachers in the room, but I think we need to give the responsibility of feedback back to students. If we can teach students to be better at peer response, we can empower them to take ownership over the entire process of writing. In the real world, writers often rely on a group of trusted friends for feedback. We have to help students see each other as valuable sources of response.

The problem with peer response, as we all know, is that quality of that response. Too often students’ responses might be, at best, too shallow—comments like “That’s good” or “I liked it”—or at worst, simply inaccurate. But giving feedback is a skill that can be taught, just like any other skill. The key is scaffolding the instruction of that skill. This instruction might include modeling. For example, I’ve had other teachers come into my room and give me feedback on my own writing so that students can see what a peer response group looks like, sounds like, feels like.

I’ve also had students collect all the comments they’ve received from their peers and then together, we organized them into three categories: 1) Vague (“Nice word choice”), 2) General but helpful (“I liked the word choice in the introduction”), and 3) Specific and helpful (“The word fermented really worked when you described the crash scene because…”). After we categorized all their comments, we took a look at our percentages for each category. We discussed why the third category was the most important one—and we had their own comments as mentor texts to examine. Then the next time we did peer response groups, we repeated the process, analyzed our comments, and determined if our feedback to each other had improved (it did).

Triage

During writing workshop, I keep a “Triage” sign-up list on the board. We discuss what “triage” means in a medical context and apply it to our writing workshop. I joke with students, “At this stage of the writing, some of you have the sniffles, while some of you might be having a heart attack.” I ask students who feel like their writing is in the “heart attack” stage to sign up to meet with me. Although we would love to give feedback to every student, the truth is that not every student needs (or wants) feedback at the same time. By inviting students to reflect on when they think feedback would be most effective, we can better differentiate our instruction.

Conversational v. Written Feedback

A few years ago, I moved from written feedback to conferring. I’m not sure how much time I save, but I’ve found it’s much more helpful for students. Instead of spending 15-20 minutes of time writing extensive comments on student work, then passing back those essays with no guarantee that students will read (or understand) my comments, I spend 10-15 minutes conferring with each student. Here’s that process:

  • When I collect papers, I have students sign up for a conference. I use class time as well as some of my prep periods, plus before and after school. If I steal time from other parts of my day, I find I can get through most of my students within 1-2 weeks.
  • Each night, I read the essays of the students I’ll meet the next day. This is usually between 4-6 students per day. I read, making very few written marks. I use a post-it note as I’m reading using my plus/minus system (see above).
  • When I meet with students, I explain that I’ll simply be doing a “talk-through” of their essay. We sit, side-by-side, as I share how I responded as a reader—what stood out and why, what questions I had while reading, where I laughed, etc. At the end, I share my plus/minus feedback. During the entire process, I invite students to tell me what they were thinking and what their purpose was during their writing. We discuss possibilities and opportunities for revision, should they choose to revise this essay, or what they can do the next time they write.
  • I end the conference by discussing the summative rubric (based off of the AWC, above) to give students a “big picture” view of where they might be in terms of each principle or element of writing.

Try something new

I first learned about the single-point model rubric from Jennifer Gonzales on Cult of Pedagogy, and since learning about it this summer, I am planning to implement it this year. Unlike an analytic rubric, which includes an entire scale of success, a single-point rubric only indicates the “middle” or proficient level. Then a blank column to the left and to the right are added. On the left, the teacher (or students, if using for peer response) writes down specific places in the essay where the it was less successful on this point. On the right, the teacher (or students) write down specific places where the essay has exceeded proficiency. A single-point rubric allows for more focused, descriptive (rather than prescriptive) feedback on student writing. I can’t wait to try this out.


I’m sure there are many more strategies I’ve used that I’ve left out here, and many more that other teachers have tried. Feedback is hard! The struggle is real. But I hope this helps in whatever way it can for your classroom, your situation, and the wonderful student writers sitting in front of you. If you (or anyone reading this) have any questions, let me know in the comments! 

Thanks again for asking, Elizabeth!

Happy writing,

Tricia

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3 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Meaningful Feedback

  1. Can you share the “same general rubric” that you’re planning to use across all of your students’ writing. I love this: “My goal is to shift students away from focusing on the checklist of requirements for an assignment to the elements of effective writing that exist no matter what assignment they’re working on.”!!

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