Thinking Like a Coach
Coaches model skills and show athletes how to improve with practice. Feedback on student writing can work the same way.
Coaches teach athletes how to improve. But they don’t simply yell, “Play better defense!” What would that “feedback” really tell the player?
As teachers, we are our students’ coaches in the classroom. Providing vital, quality feedback is essential to helping students improve. Just as a coach has to show players how to box out under the hoop on the basketball court, teachers must model and explain to students how to improve their work.
I still recall sitting in a professor’s office to conference about my writing. He always provided examples of sentences to improve my work, often punching the keys of his typewriter so I could take the examples with me and use them. I often thought to myself, “This is awesome—the guy rewrites my assignment for me and I get an A.” What I didn’t realize was that he was teaching me how to write through meaningful, engaging feedback.
Ensuring That Writing Feedback Is Effective
Make it meaningful and specific: Students don’t know what they don’t know. Writing, “Use more transitions,” doesn’t really help a student who may not know what a top-notch transition looks like or what type of transition to use. Instead, use the feedback process as a chance to model for students. You might show students good spots to use even very simple transitions, such as “For example,....”
Feedback can focus on one key topic—such as transitions—and it should model the technique for the student, who should be free to use the example provided in the feedback before trying to use the technique elsewhere in the writing.
Focus on the positives: Enter the feedback process with a mindset that has you looking for what students did well instead of what needs to be fixed. Students will often implement what you taught them during a lesson at least once in an assignment. Rather than point out where they didn’t do what you expect, focus on where they did. Use the feedback process to reinforce positive aspects of an assignment.
The above feedback focuses on topic sentences and points out where the writer crafted a clear lead sentence with a central idea and a transition. The rest of the essay or response may lack clear topic sentences. Instead of pointing those out or writing, “Make sure you have clear topic sentences,” the teacher focuses on the positives and encourages the writer to employ the same strategy throughout the response as they continue to draft, revise, and edit.
Limit the feedback you provide: While providing meaningful and specific feedback sounds perfect, time limits our ability to address every aspect of a piece of writing. But students will not master every single skill right away anyway. Nor will they break bad habits developed over years the instant they enter your classroom. Instead of trying to fix everything, we just need to realize that education and student growth are processes. Focus on your teaching points that coincide with the assignment. This helps students concentrate on improving in a few areas, which helps keep them from being overwhelmed.
Suppose that during the course of a week you focused your mini-lessons on crafting topic sentences, using commas after introductory clauses, and using transitions to signal evidence. When providing feedback, focus on those areas. This will cut down the amount of feedback you feel compelled to provide.
Provide feedback throughout the writing process, not at the end: Writing, like most things in life, is a process. As such, feedback is a process, too. Until the summative assessment, when students may write a full essay on demand, writing should be taught in stages. What they produce during the process should be used for formative assessment. Checking an essay for topic sentences the day your teaching point is topic sentences allows you to focus on one area. You might only need to leave one piece of feedback that class. Again, this will save time as you give feedback throughout the process instead of waiting to address everything when the draft is complete.
Make feedback interactive: “I provide all this feedback and students just hit ‘resolve’ without looking at it.” Been there, done that myself. To avoid that situation, make students interact with the feedback. As the online guide “Give Your Students Better Writing Feedback” says, “Feedback isn’t helpful unless the student is forced to respond to it.” Have students choose one or two pieces of feedback and write a brief response explaining how it helped them or inspired them to make changes elsewhere in the assignment.