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On the question of teacher feedback

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There’s been a very interesting thread on the WPA listserv about feedback recently. All the posts have been very thoughtful:  some argued that too much negative feedback is not helpful to students; others said that we live in an age when “the student is never wrong” and are afraid to give tough criticism.  Jerry Nelms reminded everyone that neither positive nor negative feedback can be helpful if students don’t understand it or have a chance to respond to it.  Maja Wilson quoted Peter Elbow to illustrate the kind of exploratory

response she finds effective: 

This discussion got me thinking about my own research on teacher feedback (or response).  In the 1980s, Bob Connors and I assembled a large random sample of first-year student writing and wrote a series of articles based on our analysis. One of them was on teacher response, and what we found was a clear preponderance of negative commentary, some of it well meaning, some of it downright mean spirited.  (See “Teachers’ Rhetorical Comments on Student Papers.” College Composition and Communication. 44.2 (May 1993): 200-223.)  Over 20 years later, Karen Lunsford and I attempted to replicate the study Bob and I did, and while we focused on an analysis of formal errors in the large sample of writing we gathered, we also took a close look at teacher feedback. Once again, we noted a great deal of negative commentary, though we were glad not to find the ad hominem slash and burn comments I had seen in the 80s.  (We wrote about this study in “'Mistakes are a fact of life': A national comparative study.”  College Composition and Communication. 44.2 (May 1993): 200-223.)

Over the decades, I’ve experimented with all kinds of response:  for a while I was so worried about intruding on students’ texts that I wrote all my comments on post-it notes.  I’ve taped my oral feedback, used email for extensive commentary, and talked with students about what seems most helpful to them. Eventually, I found that what seemed to work best for me and my students was for me to give my most extensive response on drafts:  this I provide in a running commentary on the draft, noting what is working well, what I don’t understand, what questions I have, what I might suggest for the next go round.  Such responses are in writing—but they are a prelude first, to the student’s response to my comments, given to me in the form of a memo, and second, to a conference where the student and I focus together on the draft and simply talk through the ideas in it and brainstorm about what to try for in the next draft (which is often the final one).  This mixture of writing and talking leaves a lot of leeway for the student and allows for, I hope, frank interchange, ideally the kind of “dialogic interaction” that students in the Stanford Study of Writing identified as moments when they learned the most. 

As always, I benefit from reading the postings on WPA and think back to how often that group has been of tremendous importance to me and my students—and to our field.  I wonder if any of you read this thread and, if so, what your responses were, and what mode of feedback seems most effective to you.

[Photo via: Marcin Bajer, on Flickr]

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.