Five common misconceptions on writing feedback

Misapprehensions about responding to and grading writing can prevent educators using writing as an effective pedagogical tool. Rolf Norgaard and Stephanie Foster set out to dispel them


14 Mar 2023
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Writing is essential for developing higher-order skills such as critical thinking, enquiry and metacognition. Common misconceptions about responding to and grading writing can get in the way of using writing as an effective pedagogical tool. Here, we attempt to dispel these myths and provide recommendations for effective teaching.

Misconception 1: Responding to student writing takes too much time

If you are daunted by the stack of final papers to be graded, you might be misplacing your efforts and time. Feedback on student writing need not be a time sink if you factor feedback strategies into your assignment and course design. Use your time wisely with these approaches:

  • Design good assignments. Be clear about expectations in the assignment instructions as well as how the work will be evaluated. Plan how you will provide feedback from the outset; what will the process be for submitting drafts and revisions? What knowledge or skills will students need to learn to be able to do what you are asking? As a companion to good assignment instructions, rubrics help students understand what is expected, as well as clarifying grading criteria.
  • Require a short draft early in the process of writing a major paper. Use the draft to work with students in individual or group writing conferences. These sessions help students to develop ideas and enable them to talk about their writing as it progresses.
  • Take time to help students with rhetorical invention, the process by which they begin to form and develop an effective argument, to generate ideas, discover and brainstorm. Facilitate freewriting exercises, game-based peer activities or visual thinking exercises such as concept-mapping. One class devoted to prewriting can improve papers and reduce time spent on the feedback process. 
  • Peer review is an effective way to help students develop ideas and learn about the concept of audience. By serving as peer reviewers, students learn how to make judgements about their work as well as supporting other students to improve their work.

Misconception 2: Students disregard comments

Do you often lament that students merely scan your thoughtful comments on their papers and go straight to the grade? The problem might lie less with the students’ responses and more in the timing and nature of the comments themselves. Feedback is most effective when it is given at a formative time, when students can make changes. 

Grant Wiggins identified seven characteristics of effective formative feedback:

  1. Goal-referenced: Help students identify goals and determine whether they are on track.
  2. Timely: Information should be shared at key moments when students are ready to use it.
  3. Consistent: Use consistent definitions of quality and help students learn what high quality looks like.
  4. Actionable: Make careful observations and be specific about what students can do to improve their performance. 
  5. User-friendly: Use language that is appropriate to the student’s level of understanding. Focus on a few key points rather than covering everything. 
  6. Clear: Be specific about what the paper does successfully as well as what needs to be improved. Focus on issues such as the quality or development of ideas, arguments, analysis and use of evidence.
  7. Ongoing: Don’t wait until grading periods to provide feedback; make sure students have plenty of opportunities to learn and revise their work.

Misconception 3: Attention to writing detracts from course content

Working with faculty across the disciplines, a common complaint I hear is that they are not writing instructors but subject specialists.

Writing is an important component of everything we do, whether it be in the classroom or the lab. If you relegate it to “writing up” findings and research, you are not harnessing writing’s power. Writing is a tool that can be used to reflect and build understanding. It is not just a way to communicate what has been learned, but a means of learning itself. Every university instructor is a writing instructor. 

Writing-to-learn is a set of strategies that can engage students in course content in ways that help build mastery. It involves mostly informal, often ungraded writing activities, including brief writing assignments, journaling, response papers, freewriting exercises and collaborative writing.

You do not need formal training in writing instruction to use these strategies. Writing-to-learn can be used in any course in any discipline. These low-stakes activities help students to engage more fully in your course and can be used as formative assessment to help you understand how students are progressing. 

Misconception 4: I need to correct all the mistakes

Do you feel disheartened by surface errors that litter a paper, making it hard to read a paragraph without mental interruption? Imperfect grammar and syntax can make us focus on those errors instead of understanding what students are trying to say. Fight those urges. Students will learn better if you handle surface errors in a productive way.

Resist the temptation to become a copy editor. Here are some tips for handling surface errors and ungainly prose:

  • Look for patterns of error. Provide detailed comments for one paragraph and ask the student to learn from those comments to edit and revise the rest of the paper.
  • Put an “X” in the margin where there is a surface error and direct the student to look for and correct the error there and throughout the rest of the paper.
  • After identifying a certain number of errors, return the draft to the student as not being ready for feedback. Ask them to revise and resubmit the paper.
  • Encourage the student to read the paper out loud – the human voice can help us to recognise ungainly prose. We have suggested students read the paper to a younger sibling to help them explain the concepts in a simpler way. Peer review can also be a good strategy here.

It might not be as bad as it looks. Are the errors lower-order concerns such as grammar or style? Or higher-order concerns such as structure and sense-making? Try to see past the surface errors and focus on what skills students are using and how they can be mentored to make their writing work. 

Misconception 5: Good writing is error-free prose 

Were your student papers to be free of lower- and higher-order errors, would you be pleased with them? Sometimes you get a beautiful paper that has nothing at all to say.

Appropriate feedback strategies help you to focus attention on broad rhetorical issues such as audience, genre, clarity of purpose, lines of reasoning and use of evidence. Feedback can play a central role in demystifying the unspoken rhetorical conventions in your discipline.

Strategies for helping students shape their analysis or argument:

  • Scaffold short written assignments to help prepare students for a major paper. Setting a sequence of assignments that build on each other can help students practise skills in smaller chunks. Focus feedback on skill-building. Students should be allowed to revise their work as they learn more and incorporate new skills into revisions.
  • A prospectus, cover letter or similar short piece of writing can help students to clarify the audience, the motivating question, lines of reasoning, potential counter-arguments and key sources of evidence.
  • Offer models that help students gain the disciplinary genre knowledge for shaping a larger paper appropriately, such as research writing.

The grand misconception: I need to grade the writing

These recommendations are meant to support instructors in using writing as an instructional strategy to help students learn the course content and develop critical and reflective thinking skills. Teaching with writing can be a valuable and rewarding experience if you approach it with the right goals. Instead of focusing on grading, think of yourself as coaching. A good coach uses feedback as a way to build skills, rather than justify the grade.

This article was originally published by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “Five misconceptions on writing feedback”.

Rolf Norgaard is teaching professor of distinction and associate director of the program for writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Boulder; Stephanie Foster is director of assessment at Colorado State University

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