A few weeks ago, the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section had a webinar on written feedback, monitored by Dana Ferris—the author of multiple books and articles on response to student writing. I found the webinar extremely helpful, and I would like to share some principles of feedback mentioned during the discussion.
1. Explain feedback. Each writing instructor has their own strategies for providing feedback. For example, some prefer writing comments in question form; others like to highlight those parts in the draft that need revision. Many factors, of course, may come into play when the teacher decides what strategies to apply in a particular context (and, truly, oftentimes it all comes down to teacher’s personal beliefs about feedback). But in order to make feedback more effective (i.e., produce student uptake), teachers need to explain to students how they give feedback. Otherwise (going back to the examples above), the questions in the margins will not be responded to, and the highlighted sections won’t be revised.
2. Make positive comments, too. Positive comments are very important when providing feedback. Sometimes teachers only focus on the parts in a student draft that need further revision or on the errors that need to be corrected. However, responses to student writing shouldn’t only point out errors or weaknesses, but they should also emphasize students’ strengths: Each student draft should have at least one or two positive comments from the instructor.
3. Feedback should influence class activities. Feedback provided in student drafts will be more effective if the teacher implements classroom activities related to this feedback, after students receive the comments. For example, if many comments in a particular writing assignment were made about transitions, the teacher should prepare a few activities that will help students use better transitions in their writing.
4. Have students respond. Another feedback strategy that helps include students in the revision process is to have them respond to teacher comments in the margins. This may work particularly well when the comments are made on the computer (by using a word processor) as opposed to giving feedback by using the “pen and paper” approach.
5. Individualize feedback. An individual approach is another important principle that teachers need to keep in mind. That is, some students need “a hand on the shoulder,” while others need “a kick in the pants” (Dana Ferris).
6. Create a feedback plan. Self-reflection is a moving force in developing effective teaching skills, including responding to student writing. Those who work in administrative positions may find it helpful to have writing instructors submit their feedback plan (i.e., goals and principles/strategies). At the end of the semester, teachers would evaluate and reflect on their performance according to this plan, in order to make new goals and adjust their strategies and approaches.
7. Allow students to argue their cases. In case students don’t agree with the feedback they received, teachers could give them the opportunity to appeal. For example, students could submit a written explanation of why they don’t agree with the comments made by the instructor. Ferris also thinks this might be a great opportunity for students to develop their argumentative skills.
Written feedback is the heartbeat of writing instruction. Most teachers would agree that it is extremely time-consuming. However, if done appropriately, it’s well worth it.