Giving Feedback on Written Work
A major component of the iterative writing process is giving and receiving feedback. Unfortunately, this can be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching for educators. How can instructors or teaching assistants, with limited amounts of time and increasing number of students, give effective feedback in an efficient manner that is read, and acted upon, by students? Many of the most effective, evidence-based strategies for providing feedback do not work outside controlled research conditions. For example, providing extensive written comments and then meeting for thirty minutes to discuss this feedback with each student individually in preparation for submission of a revised assessment is effective in stimulating students to read and accurately implement improvements (Fisher, Cavanagh and Bowles, 2011). However, this is not feasible for most educators who face time constraints.
Further complicating the issue of feedback is the limited control that a teaching assistant (and even course instructor) may have on the structure of the formal written assessments in a given course. As multiple studies suggest, students most effectively act upon feedback when they are given multiple opportunities to revise and resubmit their work (Hounsell, 2007; Freestone, 2009; Fisher, Cavanagh, and Bowles, 2011; Tang and Harrison, 2011). In many courses (especially single semester courses or compressed summer courses), this is not feasible; even if it is, the course instructor may not have created the course in a way as to allow such assessments. The educator is thus forced to rely on informal assessments or activities to mimic this revise-and-resubmit cycle.
In light of these issues, we discuss the most relevant and practical considerations when crafting feedback for students. First, we cover issues that educators must be aware of when providing feedback, regardless of whether the educators have agency over these issues. Second, we address ways in which students can be acclimatized to good feedback (what it is, how to read it, and how to implement it) via informal, low-stakes writing assessments. This section ties in to the aforementioned areas of writing for thinking and reflective practice, and writing for engagement, as the feedback process requires both engagement with, and reflection on, the feedback. Finally, we provide some concrete best practices for providing written feedback. Throughout this section, although the focus is on multi-language learners, many of the best practices are equally applicable to all students.
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF FEEDBACK
Giving effective feedback is complicated by the psychological mindset of students, which is influenced by the educational experiences of students before they enter your classroom. The various emotional reactions of students, derived from how they perceive the quality of their own work, can affect how they view any feedback received. Understandably, the educator has little control over this.
- Students with a growth mindset, who believe their intelligence is not fixed and can grow with experiences, are more likely to act on feedback that is given to them because they view the giver of feedback and the feedback itself as positive aspects of the learning process. In contrast, those who view their intelligence as fixed are more likely to become defensive in the wake of feedback in order to protect their own self-esteem and are therefore less likely to act on the feedback (Forsythe and Johnson, 2017).
- Students’ self-perception and self-worth influences whether they see comments as sincere or not, and thus whether they act on them. A simple comment such as “Good job!” may be perceived as an insincere, throwaway comment by one student, whereas another student may understand the same comment as a genuine compliment (Torres and Anguiano, 2016).
- The receptivity of a student to feedback can be influenced by source credibility and assessment face validity. If the student trusts the individual providing the assessment and believes in the legitimacy of the feedback process, they are more likely to act on the feedback (Plunier, Boudrias and Bernaud, 2014).
- Students self-assess their work even before submitting their assignment and their preconceived notions of what constitutes a good or bad grade affects how well they process feedback. If the final grade does not meet their expectations, the student will perceive the grading and feedback process negatively; conversely, if they exceed their own self-assessment, they view the process positively. Students are often poor judges of the quality of their own work because their understanding of academic expectations and what constitutes quality differs from those of their instructors (Pitt and Norton, 2017).
- Students can feel that instructors should take into account effort when assigning a grade (Tippin, Lafreniere and Page, 2012). In light of this, Pitt and Norton suggest that “what is needed is a deeper consideration of how cognitive, emotional and behavioural characteristics interact to present individual differences in students’ reactions to and subsequent use of feedback.” (Pitt and Norton 2017, 512-513).
GETTING STUDENTS USED TO FEEDBACK IN THE CLASSROOM
A useful first step seems to be exposing students to the learning process, the rationale for feedback, and feedback itself. Inside the classroom, this can take the form of simple exposition alongside low-stakes writing activities and other active learning strategies that encourage students to see how feedback fits into the larger learning process.
- Discuss with students the general pedagogical worth of feedback and its place in the learning process so that students better value feedback (Pokorny and Pickford, 2010). Students, especially first and second year undergraduates, need to be made aware of the importance of consciously reflecting on feedback (Agius and Wilkinson, 2014).
- Manage expectations of students to ensure that they make the most of the feedback. Guiding students on the purpose of feedback, and how it can used in conjunction with other campus and learning resources to improve student performance and the add to the learning process, is crucial. Without this, many students may view feedback as being a singular avenue offering all the answers to improving their performance (Robinson, Pope, and Holyoak, 2013).
- Provide clear discipline-specific expectations around assessment goals and the role of feedback in particular fields. This is important as the type of assessments and the role of feedback can vary substantially between various fields (Skinner, 2014). Finally, providing models of varying levels of quality to students can help students better understand expectations, as well as how to address feedback that such sample assignments might receive (Sadler, 1989).
STRATEGIES TO CONVEY THE IMPORTANCE OF AND PROCESS FOR FEEDBACK TO STUDENTS
- Leverage your knowledge as a subject-matter expert to develop students’ trust in your pedagogy and feedback.
- Discuss the importance of feedback early on in the semester. This is especially important regarding discipline-specific
approaches in order to normalize feedback as part of the learning process.
- Provide examples of various grade levels and the kinds of feedback that each assignment would receive. Discuss with your class how a student could successfully address the feedback in future assignments.
- In tutorials or labs, model effective feedback in low- or no-stakes activities and use these to engage students in peer feedback processes. You can refer back to the first part of this resource for examples of low-stakes writing activities.
a. For example, in a tutorial setting, responding to a student contribution or comment with a simple comment such as, “Thanks for that contribution. I like how you stated your point and supported it with a specific piece of evidence from the reading” can help model the importance of an argument and specific evidence even before a written assessment is submitted.
b. In providing low-stakes feedback in tutorials, educators should be conscious of discipline specific norms and expectations, recognizing many students may not have been exposed to discipline specific conventions before. This is
especially the case for international students, who may be unaware of the general academic approaches and standards in Canadian universities. Further, what constitutes an argument, evidence, or analysis, can vary from field to field, or even assignment to assignment. Educators should be wary of making assumptions that students possess prior knowledge of the discipline.
STRATEGIES FOR GIVING FEEDBACK
- Communicate course objectives clearly, and explain how assignments and feedback help students reach these objectives.
a. Students demonstrate improvement when instructors provide clear assessment guidelines that align with course objectives. This can be achieved through distribution of assessment rubrics and self or peer grading activities that use these rubrics. Students become aware of discipline-specific expectations, their own mistakes, and of the writing process at large (Riddell, 2015).
b. When explaining the relevance of assignments, explain the grading process as “start from 0 and gain marks.” This is opposed to how many students perceive the grading process, which is “start with 100 and lose marks” (Docan, 2006; Bies-Hernandez, 2012).
c. Make clear the expectations around course assignments, why assignment guidelines are important, and how your feedback will be related to those assessment objectives. Students are more likely to respond to feedback that is consistent with learning objectives, and more like to be confused by what they perceive are arbitrary guidelines (e.g. a strict page or word limit) (Torres and Anguiano 2016).
- As the course TA, engage the course instructor in a conversation about good practices for providing feedback to students on assessments. If you are the course instructor, help prepare your TAs for providing feedback on course assessments. Providing the assignment and training to graders ahead of time can help them anticipate the general types of problems that students will likely encounter, and thus where to focus their own feedback (Tang and Harrison 2011; Vardi 2013).
- If you have control over the development of assessments, utilize scaffolded or draft assignments. Consider creating assignments that force students to apply feedback received in one stage of the assessment to a later stage of writing in the same course. Students are more likely to read and implement feedback on earlier versions of an assignment, or on chains of assignments, than on final assignments (Hounsell, 2007; Freestone, 2009; Tang and Harrison, 2011).
- If possible, try and mimic a real-world situation writing and revision process. For example, schedule time to workshop essays, or provide close supervision of students during the writing process.
- Consider providing typed feedback rather than hand-written feedback. Students sometimes find it difficult to read the grader’s handwriting. On the other hand, typing comments makes feedback easier to read, easier to implement, and allows for more of it; students also perceive such typed feedback to be fairer in multi-TA courses (Denton et al, 2008; Hyland, 2000). Use a pre-made comment bank which that can allow you to provide targeted feedback on specific categories related to the learning objectives of the assignment. Anecdotally, some graders may find using typed comments from a comment bank to be faster.
- When providing feedback, take into account the student and their individual contexts (where possible). Students understand feedback in light of their own experiences; how they interpret feedback also contributes to the construction of their own identities. In order to be more effective, feedback should take into account students’ learning styles and approaches, and their individual progress toward the learning objectives (Torres and Anguiano, 2016).
- In giving feedback, focus on the work or task itself, not the student. Consider using “the assessment” rather than “you” in your comments (Tang and Harrison 2011).
- Provide a balance of both constructive and positive feedback. Tell the students what they did well, in addition to what they need to improve (Hattie and Timperly 2007). Recognize student effort with comments, but don’t necessarily reward with grades (Tippin, Lafreniere, and Page, 2012).
- In telling students what they need to improve, be precise and economical with your feedback and avoid jargon or cryptic annotations. Show students how to make the improvements on the most critical areas. This might mean copy-editing a small and specific section of an assignment to demonstrate what kinds of issues need improving more broadly in the essay.
a. Students do care about feedback. However, their inability to decipher annotations or what they perceive as discipline-specific jargon inhibits their ability to act on the feedback (Hounsell, 2007; Hyland, 2000).
b. Students feel overwhelmed by too much feedback, often a result of instructors focusing on everything that needs improving rather than the most critical aspects (Torres and Anguiano 2016).
c. Instead, signpost the most important and critical areas that need addressing; provide clear and precise advice on what exactly to change and how to do it (Bailey, 2009; Cho and MacArthur, 2010; Doan, 2013; Evans, 2013; Huxham, 2007; Hyland, 2000; Walker, 2009). Feedback that is descriptive and shows students how to correct their work is more effective than feedback that is evaluative and only tells students how well they did (Bailey and Garner, 2010; Hattie and Timperly, 2007; Hepplestone and Chikwa, 2014; Lipnevich and Smith, 2009; Mulliner and Tucker, 2017; Robinson, Pope and Holyoak, 2013; Skinner, 2014; Vardi, 2013).
- Provide a mix of mastery and developmental comments. Students are more likely to respond to, and act on, mastery comments because they are easier for students to understand and apply (Donovan, 2014). Mastery comments are those that consolidate previous student learning and enhance student confidence. On the other hand, developmental comments are those that focus on developing new high-order thinking and skills.
- Phrase feedback in the form of imperative comments. Reserve the use of questions for non-MLL students or more advanced students who can understand nuance and the purpose of hedged comments.
a. Although hedged comments (those that avoid directness by implying or suggesting) can lead to substantive revisions, MLL students struggle to understand the implied meaning behind this type of comment. Instead, imperative comments can be more useful, especially when dealing with issues of form (rather than content) (Nurmukhamedov and Kim, 2010).
b. At the same time, imperative comments are also more useful than question or statement comments in eliciting substantial and/or effective revisions, especially for MLL students, and especially in marginal feedback (Nurmukhamedov and Kim, 2010). This may be because imperative comments convey a sense of authority to students; students then pay attention to these comments, follow the specific instructions, and revise the work (Sugita, 2006).
c. However, phrasing comments as positive questions (as opposed to negative questions or statements) can help stimulate reflection, especially when tailored to the student’s individual learning ability (Dekker et al., 2013).
d. An example of how a comment may differ based on its form:
i. Statement: This is unclear.
ii. Question: Can you make this clearer?
iii. Imperative: Explain this more clearly.
- Where possible, provide one-on-one, in-person feedback on a draft. Although this may rarely be possible, students who receive feedback on earlier versions of assignments are more likely to improve if the feedback is discussed in person, one-on-one. These discussions can help clarify some of the feedback and identify best next steps in the revision and rewriting process (Cramp, 2011; Fisher, Cavanagh and Bowles, 2011).
SUPPORT YOUR STUDENTS’ WRITING NEEDS BY REFERRING STUDENTS TO U OF T RESOURCES:
- Writing Advice for students lots of resources for students, covering topics such as: types of writing (lab reports, book reviews, etc.), planning (e.g., organizing, thesis statements, etc.), researching (e.g., critical reading, making notes from research, strategies for reading, etc.), using sources (e.g., how not to plagiarize, etc.), revising, and editing.
- Writing website offers lists of supports related to writing. Especially useful is their list of Teaching Resources on writing.
- The University offers a variety of Writing Courses:
- undergraduate credit courses and programs (e.g., ENG100, JEI206, TRN190, TRN478)
- college programs (Innis, Victoria, UTM, UTSC)
- creative writing courses (ENG389, ENG391, or ENG393)
- SGS non-credit courses through the Graduate Centre for Academic Communication (GCAC) (which also offers Writing Intensives)
- Writing Plus program offers workshops related to writing.
- There are 14 Writing Centres across the three campuses. Writing centres provide free individual and group instruction in the many different kinds of writing done by students. Students can work individually with a trained instructor to develop their ability to plan, organize, write, and revise academic papers in any subject.
- For your English Language Learner or Multi-Lingual Learner students, you can suggest a variety of supports:
- English Language Program (UTSG): Reading eWriting, Communication Café, etc.
- English Language Development Centre (UTSC): Reading and Writing Excellence Program, Seminars, Communication Café, etc.
- Centre for International Experience (CIE): CIE Language Exchange, etc.