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Responding to Student Writing

There are many ways to deliver writing feedback to students. Our research on this campus shows that students respond positively to a range of feedback styles—provided the feedback is timely, detailed enough that students can understand it, and includes positive affirmation as well as constructive criticism.

  • PDF: Five types of feedback 
  • PDF: Writer’s Workshop student consultants explain the most helpful, and least helpful, feedback they have received on writing assignments

The Center for Writing is here to support you as you comment on student papers. Director Laurie Britt-Smith and Associate Director Kristina Reardon are available to consult at any stage of the feedback process. Email centerforwriting@holycross.edu to book a 20-60 minute appointment.

General Tips to Keep in Mind as You Comment on Student Work 

  • Make comments about the paper, not about the student.

A statement like “you are not a strong writer” can paralyze students as they approach a new writing task. It also sets you up as an adversary rather than a teacher.

  • Offer choices rather than a single correction.

Instead of writing: “This is how you can fix this sentence,” try offering a few options: “I can imagine you adjusting this sentence by writing x or y. Which best represents what you meant?”

  • Avoid fix-it shop language.

Rather than saying, “This is wrong” use language that is clearer and helps the student see how to adjust based on the rhetorical situation and/or audience they are facing.

Urge students to consider their context. Example: “I am not sure the audience would understand this phrase. How can you rephrase this so that the audience will understand?”

  • Avoid making generalizations or being unclear about your expectations.

Example: A statement like “you need to work on language” is difficult for the student to understand. They are left asking: where? Why? How do I do that?

Instead, be very specific—and hone in on only the most important 1-3 things. Otherwise, students will become overwhelmed.

If you find yourself cringing and wanting to circle every error on the page after one paragraph, stop and read the whole draft through, first focusing on meaning.

This prevents you from spilling a great deal of red ink on paragraph one, getting exhausted, and then struggling through the rest of the essay.

Instead of commenting on every language issue, choose only a few. Frame them as future goals. (“Moving forward, I would like to see you work more on subject/verb agreement…”)

  • Try not to use BUT language.

“These are great ideas, but the language needs work.” In cases like this, students fail to see anything that comes before the dreaded BUT.

  • Try to separate comments on higher order concerns (ideas, arguments, organization, etc.) from lower order concerns (syntax, grammar, style).

For example, 80-90% of the grade is based on higher order concerns; 10-20% on lower order concerns.

  • Remember that academic English is no one’s native language.

Your students will not absorb and correctly use academic English after one paper, or even after one semester. (And none of us did, either.)

Taking this into account, remember that you are not responsible for ‘fixing’ the student’s language so that it conforms to academic English standards. (So, the pressure is off!)

  • If you can, find ways for a student to incorporate elements of his/her language intentionally into the draft rather than focusing solely on eradicating them.

There is a difference between intentionally and unintentionally incorporating less-common words or phrases into drafts. Understanding how to intentionally bring language from two discourse communities together can be empowering for students as they learn to successfully code mesh, not just code switch. It keeps students from bifurcating their identities and allows them to share, with some intentionality, some part of their home language with you.

Additional Resources

Also consider checking out these guides for writing about race, ethnicity, social class and disability, as well as gender and sexuality developed by Amit Taneja, Holy Cross's chief diversity officer and dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, in conjunction with the Writing Center when he was employed at Hamilton College.

Copies of Responding to Student Writers by Nancy Sommers are available for free in the Center for Writing upon request

Chapters 3 and 4 of The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj. Copies are available for free in the Center for Writing upon request. 

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Assigning, Responding, Evaluating by Edward M. White and Cassie A. Wright. Copies are available for free in the Center for Writing upon request. 

Chapters 14, 15, and 16 of Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean. 

Download a PDF of the tips