When/Why/How: Some General Principles of Responding to Student Work

Putting a “91” or “A-” on a paper or test isn’t necessarily giving students much feedback. While it does “grade” them in the sense of locating their completed performance within a tier or grade of work, and while it likely does correspond somehow to a rubric and stand in relation to the grades of other students in the course, its meaning remains, at best, somewhat implicit. Letter grades and numbers are like semicolons between sentences: they assure the reader that there is a logical relationship between the two sentences, but they don’t spell out what the logical relationship is.

In contrast with grading, feedback works more like dialogue. It happens at different moments and at different registers during an ongoing process among alternating voices, in the form of in-class discussions or response papers or office hours or quizzes, where students are able to speak and then find out how their learning is going in preparation for a paper or mid-term. Essentially, feedback is hitting “the pause button” in a conversation and providing meta-commentary that is both backward-looking and forward-looking: it uses a stable vocabulary (often drawn from a prompt and/or rubric) to draw concrete connections between students’ work and learning objectives, i.e., to offer evidence-based analysis of students’ progress (past); and it provides actionable guidance about how they can make improvements heading toward later assignments, graded or ungraded, in the course (future). From this perspective, grading gets contextualized as one of many moments in a cycle of feedback. Not only that, but feedback doesn’t get reduced to grading.

The When and Why: Creating the Conditions for Feedback

There are three important moments in responding to student work — before, during, and after each assignment. Here are some the reasons why feedback at different times is needed and some common ways to give this kind of feedback:

  • Before: At the start of the term, it’s important to create an environment for feedback, which includes a) positioning yourself as someone students trust to offer accurate, constructive, and supportive feedback, and b) finding out who your students are and what they know before they embark on any significant assignments. Before each assignment, you can “level set” and make sure that students and the teaching team are on the same page before starting an assignment. Get-to-know-you meetings at the start of the term; diversity statements and grading policies in your syllabus; designing effective prompts and going over them with students before assignments have gotten underway. For more details, see Consistency and Equity in Grading.

  • During: Lower-stakes formative assignments, whether graded or ungraded, allow students to practice and get feedback on individual elements of a larger assignment before putting them all together and getting “the grade.” It also gives them the opportunity to get feedback before it’s too late for the student or teacher to make changes on the assignment. Workshopping these assignments—and maybe doing them—in class is a great use of section time, and they can help students recognize the role of process in completing larger assignments (while helping teachers know which skills or steps their students need more support with). These formative assignments can work at any stage of a draft/revision cycle, producing their own before/during/after stages of feedback within the arc of assignment itself.  Before starting to write a full draft: in-class brainstorming of questions, keeping a reading journal, summarizing sources, drafting a thesis, research proposals, annotated bibliographies, etc.;  While drafting: writing intros and conclusions, outlining, delivering elevator pitches to classmates, free writing, practicing forms of analysis, integrating sources; During revision: peer feedback on workshop drafts, reverse outlining, topic sentence/transition exercises, citation or style exercises. For more information, see Beyond "the Grade".

  • After: This is when feedback tends to happen, and it should happen here. It’s how to give students more overarching feedback about a multi-class or multi-week or semester-long process went, and how that experience might inform the coming weeks or semesters. This can also be an opportunity to give students feedback that will help them learn how they learn so that they can use the experience of your multi-class or multi-week or semester-long process to understand how to approach these types of projects in the future. For more on this, see Rubrics.

The How: Responding Effectively to Student Work

Here, we're talking about the moment to which instructor feedback on writing is reduced—sitting down with a pile of papers—and the goal is to break things down into concrete steps and demystify the process. Here's a reliable approach: 

  1. Reread the prompt and/or rubric and make sure you know what elements you're looking for. If you don't have a rubric, create one. Having a rubric will give you the filters through which to read each essay and keep your comments focused on the elements that are aligned with the assignment. 
    • All of the criteria you include in your rubric should be "nameable" (e.g., arguable thesis, sources from assigned readings, 5 pages long), and those naming conventions should be stable. 
    • How you approach evaluating the criteria should reflect what students have learned in your course (e.g., "what an arguable thesis for our assignment looks like" was presumably an exercise in section at some point). Teach what you give feedback on; give feedback on what you teach.
  2. Make margin comments as you read. These individual comments are a running description of how moments in the essay reflect elements of the rubric, and they're the basis for the more synthetic end comment you'll write.
    • Observe and comment on patterns (= not every instance) 
    • Stick to criteria from your rubric (= let the rest go) 
    • "Name" a specific criterion from the rubric in as many comments as possible, and unpack your observation. In an essay where students have been asked to use source x to look at y, that might mean a margin comment like: “Great use of an example from x to support your upcoming analysis about y,” rather than one like "great" or like "!")
    • Avoid a negative tone, and keep your comments focused on the argument, rather than the writer (e.g., "this claim isn't supported by any evidence," rather than "you're not supporting your claim here.")
  3. Write an end comment addressed to the writer. This feedback letter allows you to provide an evidence-based assessment based on your margin comments. It doesn't need to be—and probably shouldn't be—very long, but it should organize your margin feedback into a handful of categories that identify strengths as well as areas for improvement using examples from the student's writing.
    • Restate the piece's main point or idea, so that it's clear you engaged with its overarching goals 
    • Address its strengths, using criteria from the rubric and specific examples (avoid vague gestures such as, "There were some great moments here, but...") 
    • Address its areas for improvement, using criteria from the rubric and specific examples + actionable guidance on how to improve 
    • Break your end comment up into clear categories, e.g., bullets for a handful of categories that are themselves criteria from the rubric
    • Limit yourself to 3–5 categories, and order them so that they reflect the priorities of the assignment prompt + rubric
    • Remember that your end comment is an evidence-based argument 

For more information...

Advice on providing written feedback (Harvard College Wrting Program's Instructor Toolkit).

Advice on exam wrappers (Carnegie Mellon University's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation)

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for Faculty, 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Chicago, IL: John Wiley & Sons.

Walvoord, B. E. (2010). Assessment Clear and Simple: A Practical Guide for Institutions, Departments and General Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.