This post is part of the Campfire Session series from Corequisite Composition Summer Camp 2021. You can find all recorded sessions and resources from Camp here.
By Tracie Grimes, M.A.
Professor of English, Bakersfield College
As educators, we go miles out of the way to feed the need for help when students struggle to find their academic writing voices. However, many times the words we so carefully craft, words that we just know will add college/university-level skills to their writing toolbelts, seem to fall on deaf ears.
It is a delicate dance finding that “sweet spot” of constructive criticism; one that gives them the suggestions/corrections they will see as helpful and want to use rather than critiques that send them cringing into the corner of our classrooms. In today’s arena of teaching spaces filled with underprepared composition students, it is difficult to give students usable, non-threatening feedback that provides them with a clear idea of what they need to do and how they can do it to be successful. Susan M. Brookhart, in her book How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, tells us a good start is one that takes into consideration the following:
The topic in general and your learning target of targets in particular
Typical developmental learning progressions for those topics or targets
Your individual students (12)
“Try to see things from the student’s-eye view…Which aspects of the learning target would the student benefit from improving next?” (Brookhart 12). Putting ourselves in the shoes of our students not only helps us empathize with someone who is on the receiving end of constructive criticism, it helps us understand more about the importance of the relationship between feedback and how it is used by students (Pitt and Norton 499).
Studies from 2010 conducted by Richard Bailey, Mark Garner, and D. R. Sadler tell us what most of us already know: Students are not using our feedback. “Part of the difficulty arises from changes in thinking … about what the exact purpose of feedback is, how students engage with feedback and how they use it to improve their future assessed work” (Pitt and Norton 499).
Given the fact that we are spending so much time giving feedback largely ignored by students, finding ways to connect our commentary to learning goals becomes an important consideration; it gives students concrete rationale for why they are being asked to complete the assignments. When students see the connection between a task and a learning goal, a “shared understanding between teachers and learners” is established, which can motivate students to take their learning to the next level (Bailey and Garner 188). For example, a dialogue journal in which students and professors create short entries on a Google Doc in which student entries focus on something specified in an SLO, such as integrating evidence from a credible source into a paragraph, and citing the source using MLA style. Every week, the professor then responds to what students write, providing comments on what the student is doing correctly, and what the student could do to make his/her writing stronger. This type of formative assessment provides student-centered feedback using a constructivist paradigm of teaching and learning (Brown and Glover), and, when returned to students within a timeframe that allows them to make corrections before the final draft is due, can be seen as more useful by the students.
Getting students to actually use our feedback is another challenge. Their choice to use feedback depends largely upon their reaction to what we say, and that reaction appears to involve a number of contributory factors. First and foremost is their understanding of the feedback they receive. Many times, students report that they do not understand the feedback given, which is why they do not use the comments to make revisions. For example, when a student sees a comment such as “awkward phrasing,” he/she may not completely understand what is meant by “awkward,” or how to correct it. A clear comment, such as “The writing here is a bit awkward and difficult to read because the phrase ‘for example’ is repeated several times. Try rearranging your sentence to get rid of the repeated phrase or keep the sentence the same and try plugging in different words in its place. If you’re at a loss, do a quick search for ‘other words, for example’.” This explicitly states what the problem was, why it was a problem, and what steps could be taken to improve. Another example comes from a writing tutor, “Right now, your thesis can be improved by addressing the prompt directly with the same keywords. It is tough to see that you are answering what it is asking. A strong thesis would likely mention some ways that cyberbullying affects bystanders to act positively and negatively. Yours mentions some positive reactions, but it does not clearly mention negative bystander reactions, only that it does not occur in social media.”
Critiques about something as personal as writing can be hard pills to swallow, but administering the dose is no walk in the park either. Researchers are seeing more and more comments such as, “They may read it and not understand it. The challenge for us is trying to make it as easy as possible to understand. People outside education don’t use words the way we do” -Nursing (Bailey and Garner 193), or “Some [students] are motivated and conscientious and make changes. Others don’t really care and are satisfied with less” -Social Sciences (192).
The stakes are high as we search for ways to engage our students with accessible, usable feedback. However, by offering clear direction about what our students need to do and how they need to do it in the form of information that “takes them … to the next level” (Brookhart 12), we may also find that our words become the catalyst for change in the way students respond to feedback.
Bailey, Richard, and Mark Garner. “Is the Feedback in Higher Education Assessment Worth the Paper It Is Written on? Teachers’ Reflections on Their Practices.” Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 2, Apr. 2010, pp. 187–198. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13562511003620019.
Brookhart, Susan M. How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students. Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008.
Brown, E., and C. Glover. “Evaluating written feedback on students’ assignments.” Innovative assessment in higher education, ed. C. Bryan and K. Clegg, Taylor, and Francis, 2005.
Reinholz, Daniel L., and Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer. Personalized Instructor Responses to Guided Student Reflections: Analysis of Two Instructors’ Perspectives and Practices. 2017, doi:10.1119/1.5002683.
Sadler, D. Royce. “Beyond Feedback: Developing Student Capability in Complex Appraisal.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 35, no. 5, Aug. 2010, pp. 535–550. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/02602930903541015.