I think that this is some of the most important work I do in my teaching at the university level. Although just one form, student writing is one of the most clear windows into my students’ thinking. When I provide them feedback on their written work, I’m sharing insight, gently correcting, challenging them, and helping them to hone their voice. Still, it doesn’t mean that I always have to like it.
Providing feedback on student writing is time intensive and hard work. I’m a bit of a productivity nerd and like to make tasks as efficient as possible. At the same time, I know that it’s important to take time with each paper and give my students the attention they deserve. In this post, I wanted to offer a few of the ways I offer feedback on student writing. I hope, though, that you’ll share your own techniques, tools and strategies in the comments. I know we have a great deal of collective wisdom to share.
Providing feedback with rubrics is perhaps the most efficient way to provide feedback on student work. This can work well for assignments with a clearly defined structure, focus, and purpose. It doesn’t work as well for more divergent kinds of thinking and writing. For similarly structured projects, you can’t beat a good rubric – as long as it’s good. For the curriculum projects that are about to come in for me, nothing beats a rubric.
A good rubric should be specific, targeted, and well delineated. To create an effective rubric that provides helpful feedback to students, you need to be very clear on your expectations. For my rubric I used on a curriculum design project, I needed to clearly identify the essential elements that I was looking for – not everything – just those components that were most important. Once I had developed the specific, targeted elements – seven in total for my lesson plan rubric – I developed well-delineated performance criteria. For each level of performance (4 levels are ideal), I articulated the key features for each level and made sure that they were mutually exclusive. In other words, for a given assignment, each feature should only fit into one of the performance levels.
This level of detail, while time consuming to develop up front, means that I can read through, check boxes, and only add comments to call out particularly important elements. This saves a great deal of time while still giving students helpful feedback. BlackBoard and other learning management systems often have rubric tools built in that make scoring easy (I’ve written previously about BlackBoard’s tool). For more on rubrics, see Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning’s Rubrics resource page.
Big picture commentary
On early drafts of more emergent work – a dissertation proposal for example – I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. This kind of expansive work doesn’t lend itself to a rubric, though. My strategy with this kind of work is to convert the document to a PDF file and then add handwritten comments on my iPad or Surface Pro 3. For the iPad, I really like PDF Highlighter. For the Surface, I think that PDF Touch works for the best for me. I can save my annotations and easily share them with my students.
I don’t write a great deal of detailed feedback with this approach – I just try to highlight the big ideas, questions and suggestions. I also like the ability to circle or star a whole paragraph or chunk of text. I’ve even been known to draw diagrams or charts. The constraint of only being able to write a small amount without great detail forces me (and my students) to focus on the big picture feedback. I find this works well for early feedback on student work.
When students have completed multiple revisions or are getting close to final form, nothing beats the use of Track Changes in Microsoft Word. The reviewing tools in Google Docs work pretty well now, too. I’m just partial to Word, I guess. In this way, I can make suggestions in text – additions are included with a different colored font, and deletions are popped out to the margin so that students can see what I’ve deleted, not just that I’ve deleted something. I can also add comment bubbles in the margin connected to specific text.
My Surface Pro, with its active stylus, allows me to also incorporate handwritten comments or notes in the Word document as well. I’ve even added audio comments with the built-in microphone in my laptop. This full range of very specific to very global comments is a great fit for me to provide feedback on more developed work.
Whatever tools or strategies you use, the key thing to think about is providing constructive, specific, and productive feedback for your students. Feedback may be one of the most important contributions you make to your students’ learning, so it’s worth taking some time to think through and be strategic about.
What strategies and/or tools do you use to provide students feedback on their writing?
Please post your comments below.