Written by Rebecca Wilbanks

If you’ve spent any time responding to student writing, you’ve probably wondered if students ever read your feedback. On the other side of the spectrum, maybe you’ve encountered a student seeking validation of every change they make (“Is this what you’re looking for?”).

Ideally, students will neither ignore your feedback nor become overly dependent on it, but will use your comments to inform their own judgment about the quality of their work and how to improve it. How to increase the odds that this happens? These are some obstacles we’ve encountered that prevent feedback from feeding back into the learning process, and solutions that have worked for us. We’ll discuss how to help students understand the feedback process as well as the specific feedback you provide, and how to equip students to use the feedback they receive. 

The purpose of commenting is “not to point out everything wrong with the paper but to facilitate improvement.”

Melzer and Bean in Engaging Ideas

Obstacle: Students may not understand the purpose of feedback

Solution: Sometimes students do not understand the purpose of feedback. For example, they may expect the instructor to simply correct their work.

To work around this, develop feedback literacy by discussing the feedback process with students. Explain how you expect students to make use of feedback. Discuss the role of peer review in scholarship. Consider sharing your own experiences learning from feedback, managing the emotional dimensions of receiving feedback, and even deciding when to decline someone’s advice.

Framing feedback as a dialogue can spur students to take a more active role in the process. You might ask students to leave comments in their document signaling questions or concerns for you to respond to. Providing your reactions as a reader also encourages students to write and revise with an audience in mind. E.g., “Great point about x, but I’m still wondering…”; “Because of the way you end this paragraph, I expected you to talk about y next and was caught off guard when the next paragraph opens with z.”.

Obstacle: Students may not understand the feedback or how to use it

Solution: Explaining your evaluation criteria (for example, via a rubric) before students turn in the assignment is necessary but not sufficient for achieving a shared understanding of the criteria. Students (and faculty/ TAs) will have different ideas about what each criterion means. Probably the most significant thing you can do to help students understand what your comments mean is to share and discuss examples of student work or similar pieces of writing that display to greater and lesser degrees the features you are looking for in their work.

Examples might include:

  • student work from previous semesters
  • work in progress from students in the class
  • assigned readings that exemplify particular moves (such as how to structure an introduction)

Asking students to try their hand identifying strengths and weakness of the samples and then discussing them collectively is a great way to prepare students for peer review, which gives students practice making judgments about quality. These activities build students’ ability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own writing.

Obstacle: Feedback is too specific or too general to be of use

Solution: Neither line-by-line editing nor a vague statement at the end of the paper, such as “you need to write with more authority,” is particularly helpful. Instead, tie your comments on a student’s writing to the goals of the piece itself. Draw on the same vocabulary you used to discuss writing in class and explain how the criterion applies to the student’s work. For example, if the prose is muddy, you might write in the margin: “Clarity: I’m not sure if this sentence implies x or y.” If grammar and style are part of your evaluation criteria, mark just a paragraph or so and then point out recurring patterns. At the end of the paper, list 2-3 main priorities the student should work on next. 

Most importantly, remember that—as Melzer and Bean write in Engaging Ideas— the purpose of commenting is “not to point out everything wrong with the paper but to facilitate improvement.”

Obstacle: Student lack opportunity or incentive to make use of feedback

Solution: In this case, they might receive the bulk of the feedback on a project when it is complete, and then move on to assignments that use different skills.

Learning happens when students have opportunities to practice a skill, receive feedback, and adjust. Timing is crucial: students must receive feedback while the work is still fresh in their mind, and with enough time to apply it to the next task.

When designing a course, figure out where students should receive feedback for maximum impact, and make sure you’ve built in enough time to provide it. Spending your commenting energy on drafts rather than final products will give students more opportunity to make use of your feedback. Alternately, you might have a series of assignments that gives students multiple chances to practice a skill. Whichever the case, include comments that look forward to the next task. E.g., “For the revision/ For our next assignment, I suggest focusing on x and y.”

Use a cover sheet

To further encourage students to respond to feedback, you might require students to turn in assignments with a cover sheet that explains how they made use of feedback during the revision process. In our experience, a cover sheet makes grading and responding to the final submission quicker and more dialogic. You might include some of the following questions on a cover sheet that develops feedback literacy and supports metacognition.

  1. Please highlight your favorite sentence in the essay.  
  2. What else are you most pleased with in this revision? 
  3. What are the main changes you made from the draft? How did others’ responses to your work inform your revision?   
  4. If you had more time to work on this, or if you were going to start over and do this assignment again, what would you do differently?  

Obstacle: Students lack the will to respond to feedback

Solution: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a paper that is covered in marks. Some students may also lack confidence that they can improve with effort.

Don’t overlook feedback’s motivational function. Show enthusiasm for what’s going well, in whatever way feels genuine to you. Small affirmations (e.g., “I never made this connection before!” or “Excellent point”) mean a lot to students. Moreover, positive feedback is just as pedagogically valuable as criticism, because students might not be aware of what they are doing well. One way to balance positive and negative feedback is to judge the weaker parts of the assignment by the stronger parts (for example: “Can you make paragraph 6 as coherent as paragraphs 4 and 5?”).

Prioritize your comments

Finally, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize! We will often delete comments made on the first pass if we realize they are not indicative of a trend, overly harsh, or simply not related to the priorities we want the student to focus on. A page that is completely covered in comments can overwhelm a student; rather than trying to address them all, they might pick the easiest ones to respond to and ignore more substantial issues.

Remember that like so much in teaching, the tone you set in the classroom and the relationship you have with students will affect how they interpret your comments. Some research suggests students respond positively to audio comments (a feature available on Canvas). Whatever mode you use, remember that developing excellent writing skills is a long-term process; think of yourself as coaching students to improve, and comment on their progress whenever possible.

Cited and Recommended Sources

  • Ambrose, Susan A., et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. First edition, Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  • Carless, David, and David Boud. “The Development of Student Feedback Literacy: Enabling Uptake of Feedback.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 43, no. 8, Nov. 2018, pp. 1315–25.
  • Ice, Philip, et al. “Using Asynchronous Audio Feedback to Enhance Teaching Presence and Students’ Sense of Community.” Online Learning, vol. 11, no. 2, Feb. 2019.
  • McConlogue, Teresa. Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education: A Guide for Teachers. University College London, 2020.
  • Melzer, Dan, and John C. Bean. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 3rd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2021.
  • Tai, Joanna, et al. “Developing Evaluative Judgment: Enabling Students to Make Decisions about the Quality of Work.” Higher Education, vol. 76, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 467–81.
  • Underwood, Jody S., and Alyson P. Tregidgo. “Improving Student Writing Through Effective Feedback: Best Practices and Recommendations.” Journal of Teaching Writing, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 73–97.
  • Winstone, Naomi, and David Carless. Designing Effective Feedback Processes in Higher Education: A Learning-Focused Approach. Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.