This is the third in a series of blog pasts for faculty who might not identify as writing teachers but are still responsible for student writing. You can view earlier posts here.
In our last installment, we discussed a bit about how student writers learn. In this post, and the next several to follow, we’ll discuss how the feedback you provide to students shapes that learning experience. The feedback you offer is one of the most powerful ways you can influence a student writer’s development. It is also one of the most labor-intensive tasks of any teacher who assigns classroom writing. Our goal in these next few posts will be to help you manage that workload efficiently while having the highest impact on your students.
The first thing to consider is that feedback can take a number of forms. It’s useful to think of two big categories: evaluative feedback and formative feedback. Evaluative feedback tends to focus on rights and wrongs; as the name implies, the goal is to evaluate the student’s work. This type of feedback can be very useful for correcting factual issues in a student’s understanding of a topic or to address the kinds of mechanical issues that fall into a right/wrong dichotomy. As we know, however, the difference between an effective, well-written paper and an ineffective, poorly written one is rarely a matter of right and wrong; the differences are more subtle and nuanced, and manifest in the choices the student has made as a writer. Formative feedback helps to investigate those choices.
When providing formative feedback, your goal is a more holistic interrogation of the student’s thought processes while writing. Formative feedback questions the student’s writing decisions, creating a dialogue that, ideally, leads to introspection and deeper contemplation of the purpose of the writing. It gives you an opportunity to engage your student more thoroughly, improving the sense of co-presence in the classroom. You might ask your student why, for example, she made a particular logical leap in her writing, and prompt her for more clarity. This type of feedback can help a student to recognize the potential gap between her understanding and the text that she has produced. If your comments help to make the student’s thinking clearer, she can move to make her writing correspondingly clearer. You can serve as an interested, inquisitive audience for the student, helping her to recognize how her organizational, structural, and phrasing choices affect her reader. That valuable perspective goes a long way towards a writer’s development.