This is the fourth 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.
When providing feedback on your students’ writing, it can be tempting to isolate and identify every issue you see. In fact, this might seem like the most responsible thing to do, making sure that your students are aware of each and every potential problem in their writing. The question to ask yourself in these instances is what your ultimate goal is: are you looking to receive an error-free product from your students, or trying to encourage the development of your students as writers? These goals are not mutually exclusive, of course, but can get in the way of one another. If the focus is on product, your feedback can take the style of an editor, giving students directives to “fix” issues in the paper at hand, but not necessarily the understanding to avoid those issues and create more effective writing in the future. If the focus is on process, you can help students to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their written communication, but the final product could still exhibit some issues as students master certain aspects and struggle with others.
In an effort to both recognize the nature of writing development (which we discussed in this post) and to avoid overwhelming students with large amounts of potentially disparate comments, we recommend a method of prioritization and focus. What are the writing related issues most significant in this particular assignment? In other words, why is this assessment of student learning taking place in a writing assignment? There could be discipline-specific conventions of communication that you want your students to practice, or a more generalized exhibition of critical thinking and scholarly discourse. Identify the writing-related concerns that have the most significant impact on the success of the assignment. Keep these priorities in mind while reviewing student work.
Your students’ work will likely exhibit a number of writing issues of varying priority. Focus your feedback on the highest priority issues, and try to limit yourself to addressing no more than three issues on any one assignment. Doing so will allow for greater depth of engagement with the issue, on both your part and your students’. As the student improves in these high-impact aspects, your feedback on subsequent writing can focus on more and more nuanced, granular concerns. Remember to frame your responses in terms of the choices the student is making as a writer and the effects those choices have on the audience. When those effects are clearly explained, the student has the context for meaningful improvement.