Formative Feedback

Words of Wisdom

The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.

— Robert Cormier

Formative feedback consists of comments or suggestion provided on an unfinished draft of writing or a presentation. It can also consist of comments on a practice performance. The purpose of formative feedback is to help the writer revise the draft or the speaker to improve the performance before a grade is given. In contrast, summative feedback is feedback given on a final product or performance. Comments made on finished work are meant to help students improve in the long run, and may also be used to justify a grade.

When you ask students to engage in giving or accepting formative feedback, you should explain that seeking out feedback is the mark of a mature composer, not the act of someone who needs remediation. Experts also use feedback differently, as a way to help them recognize and solve problems in a text, but not necessarily as a definitive solution to those problems.

W and C courses require at least some formative feedback for each student primarily to foster good composing habits and to give students the experience of revising based on comments. 

Ways to provide formative feedback

Comments on a draft by an instructor or peers is one form of providing feedback. Another is to fill in a rubric. Either way, providing formative feedback can be much quicker to accomplish than grading a finished product. The trick is to point out tendencies and patterns that the writer or speaker can then further identify and fix rather than to comment on every error or infelicity.

Before you begin providing formative feedback, review your pedagogical goals for the assignment and let them guide you. Are you looking for students to demonstrate knowledge of certain concepts? Should they be defending one side of an argument? Proposing a solution to a problem? Do you expect a nearly professional-level effort, or are you primarily hoping to make them more comfortable in front of an audience? Knowing your priorities will help you know what to comment on.

The sooner and the more often students receive formative feedback, the better and more original their work will be. Early feedback pays dividends—even if it is in the form of a class discussion on topic selection or a review of an outline. It's common for instructors to withhold feedback on speeches until delivery, but feedback on a written preliminary piece will allow early intervention in problems related to content. This preliminary writing could be a formal outline, an informal proposal, draft slides, note cards, the script for a podcast, a handout to distribute as part of the presentation, or a poster that will be used as a visual aid.

Students can benefit from formative feedback on their delivery, much like they can learn from feedback on a completed draft of a paper. Give students opportunities to practice their speaking skills with mini-presentations. Ask them to prepare a one-minute, ungraded talk—they could summarize a reading or offer a preview of the research they’re conducting. After everyone has finished, have the class discuss what they’ve learned about speaking to a group. What do they need to work on before their major presentation—being better prepared, enunciating clearly, speaking loudly, making eye contact with their audience, using gestures effectively?

Have students practice their presentations for one another. Put them into pairs or small groups to give their talks, either in class or as homework. (They can also share recordings of their presentations rather than doing them in real time.) Give the listeners in the group written guidelines so they know how to offer specific and constructive guidance to their peers. The peer responders should give some of their feedback in writing so the speaker will have something to refer back to when revising.

You can also listen to their performances yourself and provide feedback. Again, a rubric would come in handy. However, this is a labor- and time-intensive approach, so plan it carefully. The main point is to let them practice their delivery at least once before they get a grade for their work so they have time to revise.

When evaluating preliminary written material, whether a draft of a paper or slides for a speech, you’ll be responding to some common concerns:

  • Is the topic too narrow or too broad?

  • Is the evidence sufficient, convincing, timely, and unbiased?

  • Is the organization logical and easy to follow?

  • Is the argument persuasive? Is the narrative engaging? Is the information compelling?

  • Is the topic suited to the type of writing or speech? Is the length appropriate, according to the word count or time required to deliver a speech?

  • Will the evidence persuade this particular audience?

  • For a presentation, will it hold an audience’s attention? Will the proposed visual aids add to or detract from the presentation?

To grade or not to grade?

It is unadvisable to grade drafts that will be getting formative feedback, whether from written or oral comments from the instructor (or assistants) or from peer review. A graded draft implies the writing process is closed; if the student is satisfied with the grade, it may seem unnecessary to revise much, if at all, and that cuts off the experience of revising based on feedback that students, if they are to mature as writers, need. Students should be required to revise at least one major assignment after they get formative feedback. Once the draft has been revised, the grade can be assigned.

For example, a course that has two major writing assignments has mandatory peer review components built into the course. The instructor tells students peer reviews are an important component of the writing process. Thus, without evidence of a peer review, they cannot turn in their final assignment. The peer review due date is listed on the assignment sheet, and the students get a lab (or participation) grade for completing the peer review. Thus, students are graded on the process of doing the peer review, not as a grade for the revised product. In this example, both peer review grades add up to about 50 points in a 1000 point class. That's enough to make the activity worthwhile to reluctant students.

Additional Resources

The following blog posts in Stand and Deliver address responding to rough drafts in more detail: