Providing feedback on student writing is one of the most important, most challenging aspects of a teacher’s job. It’s important because feedback is critical to student learning; it’s challenging because of time constraints and the number of students at varying levels in our classes.
Making sure your feedback is specific, ongoing, action-oriented, and reasonable—the SOAR method, a strategy I developed—helps maximize its impact on your students.
Feedback is often lost on students because it’s too vague. Comments like “great job,” “good writing,” or even “needs better organization” fall flat with students because they’re not tied to specific words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs in writing.
Feedback falls into two categories: the what and the how. The what of writing deals with content. Specific feedback here includes guiding students if they need more evidence, stronger claims, or further analysis. If they’re writing fiction, you might suggest adding more dialogue for character development or further detail to establish setting.
The how is the writing itself. Specific feedback here can include comments concerning the organization of the information, rhetorical strategies, style, voice, and conventions.
Teachers who teach writing across the curriculum and feel uncomfortable assessing the how can focus their feedback on the what since that is the part of the writing they’ll feel most comfortable assessing.
Fortunately, teachers are slowly breaking away from grading final products only and are offering feedback throughout the different stages of writing. The biggest hindrance to ongoing feedback is time, but narrowing the focus of the feedback can help you meet this challenge.
For example, a science teacher may choose to focus on one particular section of a lab report each time; an English language arts teacher may choose to focus on one particular stage of writing, shifting from one stage to another throughout the course of the year.
Students can take the lead by asking for feedback on a Google doc throughout the writing process. Kaizena allows teachers to leave voice notes on a student paper, making it easy to check in and comment on work during different stages in the process.
Stations with self-guiding questions for reflection can be a great way to allow students to move through the writing process at their own pace, and the teacher can rotate through the stations, addressing small groups of students instead of the whole class.
Many teachers fall into the trap of editing student writing by focusing on marking grammar mistakes instead of offering feedback to move students forward in their writing. Helping students take specific steps is key in building a growth mindset in writing—students must see that the action taken can benefit their future writing and not just correct a mistake in the current paper.
Conferring is key when offering action-oriented feedback. I recently sat in the hall conferring with students about college essays. This allowed me time to say things like, “Notice in this paragraph how you begin seven sentences with ‘I’ followed by an action verb. How can you vary some of these sentences so they don’t all sound the same? The content is good, but let’s work on sentence variety.” The student would then offer a suggestion on how to start a sentence differently, and we would further discuss it. The student not only improves this piece but will be more likely to carry these ideas to future writing because the feedback results in an action step.
Teachers are not the only ones who can provide action-oriented feedback—peer editing with specific action-oriented writing suggestions can also move your writers forward.
When a student receives a paper with markings all over it, they can become overwhelmed and discouraged, which often prevents them from taking proper steps for revision or for growth as a writer in general. This can be remedied in several ways.
Select a focus for feedback with each assignment. Sometimes I’ll tell students, “I’ll be offering feedback on transitions in this paper,” or “The focus of feedback for this writing is on the amount of evidence.” I try to give feedback on both the what and the how of writing. This is especially strategic if I’ve given a mini-lesson on an area that I want students to focus on in their writing.
Another successful strategy is giving a Glow and a Grow comment highlighting a specific area that a student did particularly well on and one that needs improvement. Glow and Grow comments both celebrate and challenge student writing. Students refer to past Grow and Glow comments and goals before writing future assignments so they can be reminded of where they are strong, in order to continue doing these things well, and to be aware of areas for growth, in order to push themselves in these areas.
Feedback is more than a grade and should be one of the driving factors in helping students set learning goals and take charge of their own writing and learning. Help students SOAR to success in learning with quality feedback.