More Than Marginal: Give Your Students Feedback that Matters
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides
by Nancy Vazquez
This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2007.
Be quiet.

Sometimes students don’t need an instructor to say anything about their writing, particularly on brief assignments or explorations leading to a longer project. Or take a few minutes of class time to give general impressions about what you read. (“From your journals, I see that many of you are confusing two key concepts.”)

Resist the urge to correct.

When most instructors see grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, they feel compelled to correct them. Unfortunately, correcting errors for students doesn’t teach them much. It also sends the message that you’re hunting down errors rather than considering what students have to say. If a draft has an overwhelming number of errors, you might mark up one paragraph or one page and write a note offering to discuss the problems in person or suggesting the student get help from he University Writing Center. You can also er models for students to revise as a class or in a group. Another option: teach students to correct the three or four errors that paricularly frustrate you as a reader, and limit yourself to identifying only those. But isn’t it a teacher’s job to point out errors? Not if pointng them out will do nothing to help students eliminate them in the future.

Resist the urge to rewrite.

Just as it’s tempting to fix errors, it’s also tempting to rewrite a wordy passage or awkward sentence. But making such editorial changes denies students the chance to learn to revise for themselves. Furthermore, there are countless ways to revise a sentence; by choosing one, you impose your preferences on your students. Besides, if students are going to undertake a major revision, they may cut or reword the problematic section anyway. If you’d like to teach students how to revise for style and clarity, consider having the class work together to rework a model—perhaps a less-than-stellar piece of “professional” writing from your field.

Be a reader.

Writing is ultimately about communicating ideas and information to a reader, a fact students often forget. Let them know you are, first and foremost, a reader, trying to make sense of their words. The reader’s comment “I can’t follow your meaning here” is less hostile than the teacher’s “Faulty syntax!” and more likely to encourage students to revise.

Make it a conversation.

Before students turn in a draft, ask them to write their own comments about it. Then you can address their concerns and answer their questions, which allows you to be teacher and advisor, rather than judge and jury. It also encourages them to take responsibility for their written efforts and reflect on what is and isn’t working for them in their writing process.