George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I am a 24-year-old college student who sometimes just wants a grade, but most of the time wants thorough, purposeful and encouraging feedback that helps me strengthen my writing skills. As a Secondary English Education major at East Carolina University, I have been exposed to various methods of teaching literature and writing, and have archived all of my past papers in binders and file cabinets for future reference. My friends think I am in need of an intervention for being over-organized, but I think that being more aware of how my instructors teach and assess students will improve my writing and provide me the opportunity to identify assessment methods that I can make my own in when I start teaching composition.

What follows is a personal tour of the various response/assessment methods I have encountered, with special emphasis on those that have positively impacted me as a student and writer.


Many of my high school and college instructors used rubrics to grade my work, and they have reminded me to include particular details in my writing. But too often, I only received scores without further feedback. I wish my teachers had annotated the rubric. Without commentary, it was difficult to decipher where I need to improve, not to mention how my grade was decided.


In many courses, I felt like an overworked employee at an essay factory, producing ten to twelve mediocre and forgettable papers -- ones that teachers accepted as final drafts that were, in actuality, first drafts. I wish those courses had given me a chance to react to instructor feedback with revised and successful second drafts. In contrast, courses utilizing portfolio assignments encouraged me to put forth more conscientious efforts to improve, letting me show how and when I strengthened my writing skills. I wish that all of my instructors had challenged me to produce portfolios with five or six mind-blowing papers instead of valuing quantity over quality.

Word Processors

To be honest, some instructors have chicken-scratch handwriting. Usually, they are available for translation after class, but I wish I could have been able to read their handwriting in the first place. If you suspect or have been told by disgruntled students that your handwriting is indecipherable (Fig. 1), perhaps you could use a word processor to respond to student work. And because we notice your spelling errors, remember to use a spell checker.

Figure 1: Can you read this? (Click to Enlarge.)

Credit: Lauren Griffin

Instructors who used word processors usually gave me more than just a sentence or two of comments; they offered meaty and purposeful feedback. I appreciate instructors who demonstrate that they care about my growth as a writer by giving me detailed and constructive advice (Fig. 2). As a consequence, I have become more aware of my writing process.

Most of the instructors who typed out their feedback included three points.

  1. Kudos for what they thought I did well
  2. Notes about what they thought my most frequent errors were, along with advice on how I could correct those errors
  3. Resources (links) to help expand my ideas and skills

Figure 2: Meaty typed commentary (Click to Enlarge.)

Credit: Lauren Griffin

Some instructors commented directly on hard copies of my writing and included typed feedback on a separate page. Though they didn't fully embrace technology's advantages, I liked how they made handwritten annotations for lower order concerns (misused punctuation, grammar, spelling) and used their typed feedback to address higher order concerns (unclear thesis or focus, disorganization, minimal utilization of research or examples).

I did have an instructor who included handwritten and typed feedback (Fig 3). This instructor would write out "(A)," "(B)," "(C)," etc. in the margins of my hard copies, and then in typed feedback at the bottom of the essay explain what concerns "(A)," "(B)," "(C)," etc. were addressing. Flipping through the pages and matching up the annotations with the feedback created confusion and paper cuts!

Figure 3: Lower order and higher order concerns are addressed separately (Click to Enlarge.)

Credit: Lauren Griffin

Several instructors only accepted and returned papers via email or learning management systems like Blackboard; this was advantageous because I didn't have to frantically search for an available computer on campus during my precious minutes before class to print out a hard copy, not to mention that virtual transactions were environmentally friendly and faster! These instructors often used Microsoft Word's "Comment" or "Track Changes" features to identify, highlight, and comment on concerns (Fig. 4). To me, this method is the most ideal because the colorful highlights showed me exactly where to look for what I should revise, and the neighboring comment boxes immediately provided advice on how to revise.

Figure 4: The "Track Changes" approach (Click to Enlarge.)

Credit: Lauren Griffin

I recently had an instructor who used Google Docs to insert comments (Fig. 5). Each time he did this, I received an email notifying me, which enabled me to watch his assessment process live. It felt as if I were spying on him, but more importantly, it motivated me to edit and revise immediately for my second draft. And that level of interactivity made the writing process entertaining and fun!

Figure 5: Snapshot of interactive assessment (Click to Enlarge.)

Credit: Lauren Griffin

Writing instructors, you should know that I don't want just grades; I want to be motivated to strengthen my skills. I am inspired to improve when you address specific issues in my prose. Using technology-enhanced commentary shows me that you care enough to use a communication channel that my generation prefers. So thank you, writing teachers who made the effort to guide me in the writing process by clearly explaining the whys and hows.

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Jodie's picture
11-12 English and 9-12 Drama/Forensics Teacher from Nebraska

I favor high-level feedback over timely feedback, but at the end of the year, I gave my senior students the option -- get your explications and mimetic poetry back QUICKLY or with detailed feedback -- because I knew I couldn't realistically provide both (unless it was at the expense of my children being able to feel as though they have a mom and my husband being able to feel like he has a wife). At this point in the year, the majority of the students chose QUICK feedback over COPIOUS feedback. It worked out well.

As a student, I would've chosen copious feedback.

When I taught online classes, I was able to use some of the above-mentioned digital methods for feedback and it worked very well. Next year our district is going 1:1 so I'm hoping to take advantage of providing efficient (but detailed) digital feedback.

I thrive on feedback, even as a veteran teacher, so I can only imagine my students do too. BUT, providing both timely and heavy feedback is SUCH a challenge.

Thanks for the food for thought.

Skip Johnson's picture
Skip Johnson
I am the principal of El Crystal Elementary School

This article was posted in the Education section of Zite, a personalized online magazine operated by CNN. I really appreciate your thoughtful perspective. Giving meaningful, timely feedback to students about their writing is one of the most difficult yet essential activities in a successful classroom and learning environment. I applaud your effort to bring this level of awareness to all educators.

Cari GD's picture

Writing students need the detailed feedback in order to hone and sharpen their writing skills. Taking the time to motivate students is where the difference is made between an instructor just there to earn the pay, and the ones who really care about their students progress and future. Keep up the great work Lauren, I predict you will be the instructor that your future students will never forget!

Richard Mitchell's picture
Richard Mitchell
Senior English Teacher in West Chester, PA


I enjoyed reading your post about feedback. I think you will have a wonderful time with your students because you are well prepared to provide feedback to them. Your post was helpful to me in that I follow a lot of the "rules" you offered. My handwriting gets tired after a while and I don't have much to say after several papers in a row.

There are two things I'd like to further suggest to you. First is that you might enjoy using audio comments. I read an article by Sara Bauer in English Journal about this and I have been hooked ever since. I read student papers and then record a 3 - 5 minute commentary on their work. It's great because I can flip through and find specifics for them. I use a program called "Audacity" which is free, I believe. I then post my mp3 comments onto google docs and share with the student in question.

I forget what the other thing I was going to say was. Sorry!

Hope that helps.


mindymenn's picture

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post; I agree with you in that you are very aware of the feedback you have received throughout the years and I hope you continue this process of reflection.

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

Quality feedback, that is timely and specific to the learning task[s] can have a positive effect on learning. I'm glad you shared your experience with us and the value in using technology to enhance the feedback!

Lucas VL's picture
Lucas VL
High School English Teacher

Hi, Lauren,

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with different types of writing assessment grading. As a current 6th year English teacher, I find your comments helpful as I grade my students' writing. Like you I see the pros and cons to rubrics. I tend to use them a lot circling not just the point values but also the elements missing or deficient. However, I also try to always make a point to write at least a few positive and a few constructive comments in the margins, too. Authentic feedback was always most helpful for me as well.

I really like your insights into Word's "track changes" feature or GoogleDoc's comments function. I just started experimenting with both in my classes this fall (I know -- a little behind the curve!). The kids seem to love the instant feedback of gDocs and being able to access documents from anywhere.

With online grading I find myself writing more quality comments than when I grade on paper. However, I have trouble showing grammar and mechanical errors online. Do you (or anyone else!) have any solutions that work well for this (other than the give comments online and grade mechanics on paper suggestion)?


Bekah Lund's picture

I am so moved by your post. I agree that feedback needs to be meaningful for students, particularly when writing. The fact that you are so aware of this is a testament to your knowledge of yourself as a learner. I wonder if you are going into teaching and will change this dynamic. I think the main barrier to providing this type of feedback is time. It takes much time to do this, but I think if we can even focus on one part of the writing and give good, quality feedback it is worth it. Did you ever use writing groups to develop your writing? These are also very effective.

Feedback definitely needs to be a part of effective writing assessments.
Thank you.

NatalieB's picture
Adjunct College English instructor

Lauren, you have posted a lot of information that is helpful to instructors. I wonder if you know this about your instructors, though: roughly 65% of them were probably adjuncts. Adjuncts receive very low pay and most teach at multiple locations. The demands on their time in relation to their pay scale are monumental. My natural tendency is to give students as much and as detailed feedback as possible. If I do this, I lose sleep, get sick, and become angry and depressed. I have far too many students, too many administrative responsibilities (completely different ones in each school) and too little time to do for students what I want to and know I should do. I believe students should join with adjunct faculty and protest their horrific treatment by colleges and universities across the country. The demands administrators place on us negatively impact our students' learning experiences. This is especially true for writing teachers, as the grading process is very time intensive.

In case you don't know this either -- we are paid roughly half of what full-time instructors are paid, we receive no health care benefits, and often no retirement benefits, and we drive further and have more email addresses to check on a daily basis, as each school insists we keep one for their campus.

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