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Response: Ways to Give Effective Feedback on Student Writing

 This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)


The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to give students feedback on their writing?


Part One began with responses from Anabel Gonzalez, Sarah Woodard, Kim Jaxon, Ralph Fletcher, Mary Beth Nicklaus, and Leah Wilson. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anabel, Sarah, and Kim on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Susan M. Brookhart, Cheryl Mizerny, Amy Benjamin, Kate Wolfe Maxlow, Karen Sanzo, Andrew Miller, David Campos, and Kathleen Fad share their commentaries.

Response From Susan M. Brookhart

Susan Brookhart, Ph.D., is the author of How to Use Grading to Improve Learning (ASCD 2017) and How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students (2nd edition, ASCD 2017)). She is a professor emeritus at Duquesne University and an author and consultant. Her focus is classroom assessment and its impact on teaching, learning, and motivation:

Giving feedback on writing is a special responsibility. If you ask students to write thoughtfully to you, it would be hypocritical of you not to write (or speak, if your feedback is oral) thoughtfully back to them. And students will notice! Here are five things to keep in mind as you think about feedback on students' written work:

#1 - Before the students write, make sure they know what they are trying to learn (more specifically than just "writing") and what qualities their writing should exhibit. Unless students are trying to learn something specific, they will experience teacher feedback as additional teacher directions they have to follow. So, for example, if students are writing descriptive paragraphs, they should know what the kind of descriptive paragraphs they are aiming for looks like. Criteria for success might be that they (1) use adjectives that describe by telling what the object of their description looks, sounds, tastes, smells, or feels like; and (2) help their readers feel like they "are there," experiencing whatever is described themselves. If this is what students are aiming to do, then the feedback questions are already set up: Are my adjectives descriptive? Do they conjure up sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch? Did you (my teacher and my reader) feel like you really experienced what I was describing, that you were there? The best feedback on student writing tells students what they want to know to get closer to the particular vision of writing they are working on.

#2 - Describe at least one thing the student did well, with reference to the success criteria. Focus your feedback on the criteria, not on other features of the work (like handwriting or grammar, unless that was the focus of the writing lesson). Even the poorest paper has something to commend it. Find that and begin your feedback there. Students can't navigate toward learning targets by filling in deficits only; they also need to build on their strengths. And don't assume that just because a student did something well, they know what that is. The best feedback on student writing names and notices where students are meeting criteria that show their learning.

#3 - Suggest the student's immediate next steps, again with reference to the success criteria. Your feedback does not need to "fix" everything possible. It only needs to take the student's work to the next level. Select the one or two—whatever is doable in the next draft of the writing piecethings that the student should do next, given where they are right now.The best feedback on student writing moves students forward in their quest to reach a learning goal.

#4 - Make sure you learn something from the feedback episode, too. Too often, teachers think of feedback as their expert advice on students' writing. But every opportunity to give feedback on student writing is also an opportunity for you to learn something about what your students are thinking, what kinds of writing skills they have, and what they need to learn next. The best feedback on student writing gives teachers a window into student thinking; it doesn't just advise students.

#5 - Give students an immediate opportunity to use the feedback. Much feedback on student writing is wasted, because students don't use it. Many teachers subscribe to the myth that students will use the feedback "next time" they write something similar. However, it's not true that students have some sort of file drawer in their heads, with files labeled according to type of writing, that they will magically open at some point in the future.

No matter how well-intentioned the student, this just isn't how it works. The best feedback on student writing is followed immediately by a planned opportunity, within instructional time, for students to use the feedback.

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Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny has been teaching for more than 20 years, is passionate about middle-level education, and serves on the faculty of the AMLE Leadership Institute. Her practice is guided by her belief in reaching every student and educating the whole child. She currently teaches 6th grade English in Michigan and writes an education blog, "It's Not Easy Being Tween," for Middleweb.com:

Good feedback on student writing is time-consuming and takes a great deal of teacher effort, but the results in the improvement of their writing is worth my time. Over the years, I have found some ways to streamline the process.

First, students can't hit a target they can't see. Therefore, it is important that they have a clear understanding of the goal of the writing piece. I do lots of front-loading with using mentor texts to study author's craft. Valuable feedback will tell them how close they are to the target and how they can get closer to a bullseye.

For me, the most important consideration when giving feedback is how likely is this to be used? Whenever possible, my first step is verbal feedback via an individual writing conference during the first draft stage. This lets me correct any major errors before they get too far along. We use Google docs so that they have access to them everywhere, I can see the revision history, and I am able to type my comments right in line with the text (which is faster and neater than my handwriting). Prior to writing my first comments, I have students identify a couple things on which they'd like me to focus when reading their paper. Just as I have goals for the final piece, so should they. Then, I begin the process of reading for feedback.

For me, I've found that feedback works best if it meets the following criteria: It's prompt (not saying it has to be the next day, but students get very upset if they have to wait three weeks to get a draft back and rightly so), conversational and respectful in tone, specifically identifies areas for improvement and prioritizes them, focuses on larger issues such as content over small ones like punctuation, and is strengths-based with a balance of more positive than negative commentary. Feedback such as "Good job" is not helpful nor is "This is way too short." Students needs specific information about how to make improvements if they are going to do so. If I have an especially weak piece, I don't provide all the ways it can be improved via written feedback to avoid the child shutting down. That student obviously needs more assistance, and a conference is warranted. I am careful to address only a few areas of improvement per paper and I also comment on the areas in which they have a personal progress goal.

As they begin revising in class, I give some individual time to students to have a conversation about their work. The rest are looking at my comments and addressing each one or reading each other's work. Prior to them handing in the second draft, I provide a checklist of things to consider and ask students to "whisper-read" to themselves (Google Docs has a screen reader built in) to find simple errors. Once they hand in this draft, I look at their work using a single-point rubric (see Jennifer Gonzalez article) and make comments on it as a cover sheet. I hand this back without a grade on it. In my experience, once they see a grade, the learning stops. They then have one final pass to make any corrections before I receive the final. We also have a celebration of the writing and share work with one another. In my class, it's is all about the writing process and not the product and this method works well for us.

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Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher, educational consultant, and author whose most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Routledge). Her website is www.amybenjamin.com:

Recently I asked a group of English and social studies teachers to list the marginal comments that they typically write on their students' papers. Many of the comments were frowny-faced reprimands ending in exclamation points: "Check spelling! Be specific! Develop! Proofread! Follow directions! Review apostrophe use! Others were milder admonitions, often in the form of questions: Where's your evidence? This shows what? Is this accurate? Punctuation?"  Then there were suggestions that, though valid, are unlikely to do much good: "Be sure to support your claim, support the quote, make an inference, anchor the quote, connect to the question, elaborate meaning of quote, explain detail, review, set up the context for the claim, work on 'tightening up' your writing, follow the rubric." The teacher knows what these comments mean, but do the students? Despite the inordinate amount of time it takes to pore over essays and write these comments, we have reason to suspect that they are not accomplishing their intended purposes, which are twofold: 1) to justify the grade on top of the paper, and 2) to get students to improve their writing. The second is far more important than the first. But if there's no follow-up to our commentary, then what is the point? What are the best ways to give feedback that actually leads to improvement?

First, let's consider the tone of our comments: While not all of the comments I collected were negative, most were. Some of the positive ones were "nicely written, well-supported, excellent topic sentence, insightful point, great evidence provided, good intro, good sentence, good use of vocab, love your voice, I love this point." The best way to keep someone pursuing a challenge is to encourage them. It is not so hard to find somethinganythingthat merits a pat on the back.

Second, let's consider the amount of correction that is necessary to foster incremental improvement. Teachers are not copy editors. The copy editor has not done her job unless she has found and fixed every single error. But a teacher's job should be to point out errors and weaknesses sparingly, staying within what she perceives to be that student's zone of proximal development. All students are novice writers. Their progress will be recursive. If they take risks to produce increasingly sophisticated language in an academic register, they are likely to make more grammatical mistakes, not fewer. One positive and one negative comment or correction on a student's paper is probably sufficient to keep the writer on a learning curve.

Think of a child learning to play the saxophone. The child has practiced and plays the rehearsed piece for her weekly lesson. Imagine a music teacher responding like this: "I heard two squeaks, one wrong note, an underplayed dynamic at Letter C, a missed quarter rest on the fourth measure, and you completely ignored the dynamics. Watch your fingering, your breathing, and your posture. Pay attention to the time signature. While you're at it, give it some feeling. It's supposed to sound like music, not noise."

And, third, consider the follow-up. Rubrics are excellent tools because they establish criteria for success and help students self-monitor. But the rubric has to be written in student-friendly language. With an accessible rubric, the student can chart her progress from one piece of writing to another. You can follow-up on a writing assignment with mini-lessons, using authentic sentences from student writing as models of good writing, not only deficient writing.

If you'd like students to take real responsibility for their own writing growth, you may be interested in a resource that I've created called RxEdit and RxRevise. There you will find a collection of DIY lessons keyed to various writing needs. You can refer students to these lessons on an as-needed basis. It's a great way to differentiate instruction.  RxEdit and RxRevise are available for free on my website.

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Response From Kate Wolfe Maxlow & Karen Sanzo

Kate Wolfe Maxlow and Karen Sanzo's are co-authors of 20 Formative Assessment Strategies that Work: A Guide Across Content and Grade Levels. Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Professional Learning Coordinator at Hampton City Schools and Karen Sanzo is a professor of Educational Foundations and Leadership at Old Dominion University:

How many times in school did you write something that made perfect sense to you only to have your teacher or professor write a big, red question mark next to it? The purpose of writing is to communicate thoughts and ideas to an audience, but because the writer cannot simultaneously be both the author and the audience, young writers often require a great deal of feedback in order to learn how to write clearly for an intended audience. Therefore, it is immensely important that teachers provide quality, frequent feedback to students on their writing.

To this end, it is also important to remember that the role of the teacher is to help students improve, not necessarily to expect a perfect product. Marzano (2017) explains that educators "should view learning as a constructive process in which students constantly update their knowledge." Likewise, Hattie (2017) emphasizes the importance of helping students to engage in metacognitive strategies, such as Planning and Prediction, Elaboration and Organization, and Evaluation and Reflection. When we think of writing as a constructive process in which we should help students engage in metacognitive strategies, we realize how crucial it is that we provide students with feedback throughout the entire writing process, not simply at the end.

What does this look like? Imagine that you give students the following prompt: Explain why we remember George Washington today. Before students begin to write, have them make a plan that includes how they will conduct research, what questions they will ask, and how they will record answers. Check in with each student and thenthis is keyprovide feedback on their plans. As students begin to implement their plan and conduct research, collect information, and outline their paper, provide feedback on that, too.

What form does that feedback take? Well, whether it's electronic (such as using Google Docs), verbal, or written doesn't matter as much as the kind of thinking that the teacher asks the student to do when providing the feedback. For instance, a student has to do less work and actually learns less when a teacher writes, "George Washington did not have wooden teeth," than if the teacher writes, "Can you find other sources that confirm that George Washington had wooden teeth?" or even "George Washington's teeth are indeed an interesting subject; do you think we would remember him even if he had his own teeth based on his other accomplishments? What are the biggest reasons we remember him today?"

Feedback can, of course, also concern writing style. If feedback is too prescribed, we cheat students out of critical- and creative-thinking opportunities; if it is too vague, we risk frustrating them. For instance, instead of simply writing, "Vary your sentence style," when a student starts each sentence in a paragraph with, "We remember George Washington because...," a teacher could ask, "How can you start each sentence differently in this paragraph to keep the reader's attention?" This points students in the right direction and also helps them understand why the change is important.

Lastly, while it's important to give students feedback on their writing, feedback works best when we also collect it from students (Hattie, 2009). The more we ask students to self-evaluate and reflect on their work, the greater the impact on their achievement (Hattie, 2017). To that end, it can work well to have students first self-evaluate their writing using the rubric then come to a writing conference prepared with examples of what's working in their paper and where they need help. When we give feedback like this, we encourage students not only to become better writers, but better thinkers as well.

References

Hattie, J (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge

Hattie, J. (2017). Hattie's 2017 updated list of factors influencing student achievement. Retrieved from https://www.visiblelearningplus.com/sites/default/files/250%20Influences.pdf

Marzano (2017). The New Art and Science of Teaching. Bloomington, IN: ASCD & Solution Tree Press.

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Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

Because we care about our students, we often do two things wrong: We give too much feedback or we tell students the answer in the feedback. Too much feedback is often ground in the traditional "final draft" way of writing, where the teacher collects the papers and then spends hours marking and providing written feedback near the end of the unit and close to when the assignment is due. This is often too much for students to process and/or can be too late. "Why didn't you tell me my opening paragraph needed work when I wrote it a week ago?" Instead, teachers should provide feedback in smaller chunks in a more ongoing way. This makes the feedback manageable and timely.

For the second problem, teachers should focus on prompting and asking good questions to probe student thinking in the feedback they write. Instead of correcting a large amount of punctuation errors for students, write: "I'm noticing errors in comma and other punctuation usage in your second paragraph." Here, the student must seek out those errors and correct them. They must learn! If the teacher does all the corrections for the students, then that teacher has done all the thinking for the student. In fact, it may have robbed that student of an opportunity to learn. Feedback should cause students to think and learn, not give away all the answers.

One final ruledon't give feedback unless you can devote time for students to use and process it. We've all made the mistakes where we give feedback on the summative assessment and then students don't use it. This is because we have indicated to them that it is summative and it is too late to improve. Teachers waste their time, and students don't find value in the feedback.

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Response From David Campos & Kathleen Fad

David Campos, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in special education, multicultural education, and instructional design and delivery. He has written books on LGBT youth, childhood health and wellness, and the schooling of Latinos. He has co-authored two books with Kathleen Fad: Tools for Teaching Writing (ASCD 2014) and Practical Ideas That Really Work for English Language Learners (Pro-Ed).

Kathleen Fad, Ph.D., is an author and consultant whose professional experience has spanned more than 30 years as a general education teacher, special education teacher, and university professor. Kathy's specialty is designing practical, common-sense strategies that are research-based:

We also consider the idea of giving feedback from the special education perspective, and, that is, giving feedback so that it is individualized. Our experiences have taught us that in any given classroom, many students may struggle with the same writing issues, but most will have unique difficulties with their writing.

To help teachers give effective feedback on student writing, we created an evaluation protocol based on eight writing traits (in Tools for Teaching Writing, ASCD). Teachers can use this protocol to isolate the areas of writing that individual students struggle with the most. We identified qualities associated with each trait, which provides the teacher with a common language to use when she conferences with individual students.

Teachers can similarly create their own evaluation measure that has qualities associated with the traits or conventions of writing they address in their lessons. For example, teachers can ask themselves, "How does good presentation manifest in student writing?" Then, they can work toward developing the qualities of presentation they can regularly use in their instruction and student feedback. The key to effective feedback is to give students concrete qualities about the writing trait or convention and use those regularly in their conferences with students.  

After teachers have developed this common language about writing, students can learn to self-reflect on their work. As a way of giving feedback, teachers can provide students with checklists associated with the qualities of the trait and have the students self-reflect or review their peers' writing.  

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Thanks to Susan, Cheryl, Amy, Kate, Karen, Andrew, David, and Kathleen for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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