7. Responding to Student Drafts


There are many ways to give feedback on student writing. The best approach for any particular instructor depends on your purpose for giving feedback, the amount of time available to you, and your preferred communication style. Keep in mind that students often are deeply invested in their written work even when we as instructors perceive them to have put little effort into producing it, and that providing clear feedback is actually an extremely demanding writing task: students often find it difficult to understand what their instructors’ comments mean, even when those comments seem quite straightforward to the instructors themselves.

This module offers an overview of some widely shared ideas about giving good feedback on student writing, particularly on drafts. Students should able to use your feedback in order to revise their writing. For information about evaluating writing and grading, please see Module 6.

Overview/ Getting Started ^

The following texts offer an excellent starting point for developing your own strategies for responding to student writing.

In Gottschalk and Hjortshoj’s chapter, “What Can You Do with Student Writing?,” you can learn the basics about responding to student drafts, as well as several helpful hints about what not to do. Please also read Lunsford, “When Less is More: Principles for Responding in the Disciplines, which offers further tips about responding to student drafts, and provides an excerpted student draft showing alternative modes of instructor response.

Responding to Individual Drafts ^

Before starting, consider what types of comments are most effective in soliciting students’ best work.

Some of the most useful types of comments are:

  • Questions that stimulate further thought, rather than closed-end questions. (Here’s an example of non-directive use of questions from Lunsford.)
  • Brief summaries of what the reader got out of the paper.
  • Descriptions of difficulties the reader encountered.
  • Even highly critical feedback that is constructive and respectful (Gottschalk and Hjortshoj 53).

Here are Lunsford’s basic principles for responding to student writing (you’ll find the rationales for these on p. 103 of his article):

  • Say enough for students to know what you mean.
  • Don’t say too much.
  • Don’t spend very much time on matters of correctness.
  • Focus your attention on understanding what students mean to say.

In addition, Gottschalk and Hjortshoj remind us that “students’ aims and motives as writers will adapt to your aims and motives as readers of their work…” (54). They describe an adaptable method, ground in basic principles and techniques, that can help save time, too. They recommend you:

  • Give reading essays priority over grading them.
  • Respond to the writer as a reader, in comments that emphasize the most important features of the paper.
  • Respond to key issues you have identified and emphasized in advance as important.
  • Avoid line editing and random reactive comments. (58)

Nancy Sommers also provides a useful example to show how comments may be particularly confusing to students when they appear to contradict each other at the paragraph and sentence level. (Have a look at this passage from Sommers on how comments can confuse writers.)

Ways of Providing Feedback ^

Specific ways of providing feedback include:

1. End Notes (or Head Notes) and Marginal Comments

One very common approach to commenting on student papers is to combine end notes that provide a “big picture” perspective with marginal comments that illustrate specific instances of the strengths and weaknesses described in the end notes. You might also consider putting your overview note first (using head notes instead of end notes) to provide the student with a roadmap for interpreting what follows. If your students have submitted hard copies, you can write head notes on a separate page and staple it to the front of the paper. If you have collected electronic copies, you can type your head notes directly above the beginning of the student’s paper.

This approach is likely to be most effective if:

  • connections between end notes and marginal comments are made explicit;
  • the instructor prioritizes problems within the paper and helps the student to focus by addressing only the most important two or three higher order issues and one or two lower order issues in the end note, even when a larger number of problems is present;
  • priorities for revision or evaluation are made explicit; i.e., “The most important thing you need to work on in your revision is…;” and
  • only a few samples of key lower-order problems are corrected and explained—preferably those that represent patterns of error that occur throughout the paper; correcting each individual error can become visually overwhelming and does not allow the student to practice making further corrections him or herself.

2. Rubrics

Using rubrics for formative feedback can be effective. A rubric serves two purposes in responding to student writing: it explicitly communicates performance expectations and criteria for success to your students as well as providing everyone with a shared language for measuring success on a given assignment. Well-developed rubrics allow you to avoid writing out the same comments over and over on multiple students’ work, while allowing you to show areas of success or areas for revision in relationship to the assignment criteria quickly and then tailor any additional written comments to individual needs.

Please see Module 6 for information on specific kinds of rubrics as well as links to samples.

3. Commenting Forms

Using a form that sorts your comments into explicit categories such as “what you are doing well” and “what needs work,” with subcategories such as “higher-order concerns” and “sentence-level concerns” can help ensure that both you and your students take the time to think not only about the weaknesses in their writing, but also its strengths. It can also simplify your commenting process by giving you a consistent list of concerns to pay attention to and write about. A sample of one such form is available in Supplement 2, “Feedback Form.”

4. Face-to-Face Conversation

Talking to students about their papers in person can be a remarkably efficient way to convey your thoughts about their work and be sure they understand what you’ve said, because you can speak more quickly than you can write, and because it provides your students with an immediate opportunity to ask you questions about your feedback, reducing the likelihood of misinterpretation. Spending 15-30 minutes with each of your students to give them feedback on their papers can actually take you less time than writing out formal comments on those papers—provided that you are able to spend enough time in your office (or on Google Hangout, FaceTime, or Skype) to do this within what counts for you as a reasonable work week.

 5. Screencasting

If you like the idea of speaking to your students rather than writing to them but are unable to meet with each of them in person, you might try conveying your comments via screencasts. Screencasts allow an instructor to “talk through” a paper with a student by creating a video that scrolls through the student’s paper online while recording the instructor’s audio comments about the paper. To see how this works, you can view this sample screencast. Like face-to-face meetings, screencasts let you speak to your students directly, which allows for greater speed in communicating ideas and clearer transmission of tone of voice, though they lack the advantage of allowing the student an immediate opportunity to ask questions. Screencasts are also very useful when responding to new media projects, like a website or electronic portfolio, because they can capture your navigation between pages and other interactions with the medium.

6. Helping Students Take a More Active Role in the Conversation

Students may take a more active role and become more interested in carrying on a conversation with you when you reply to questions they themselves ask. Whether you reply to your students’ work on paper, electronically, in person, or via video, you can invite them to insert questions and comments in their drafts using the “track changes” function in Word or the “comment” or “note” tools in pdf readers. (The same goal can be achieved by inviting students to hand write comments in the margins of hard copies of their work, or by requiring them to submit cover letters along with their papers.) You can then respond directly to their thoughts in addition to commenting on issues they don’t raise themselves. A PowerPoint presentation with findings from recent research on this approach is available online in “Marginal Comments: Helping Students Take a More Active Role in Getting Feedback on Their Writing,” and a sample of a student paper with inserted comments and reviewer feedback can be found in Supplement 3: “Sample of a Student Paper with Inserted Comments.”

Structured Commenting ^

The Sweetland Center for Writing and CRLT worked together to create the Structured Commenting Protocol, a method that puts the best practices presented in this module into practice.

First, follow this link to read our Structured Commenting Protocol–Handout.

Then, read this example that uses the structured commenting protocol: Using the Structured Commenting Protocol [example].

Here’s one last time-saving tip: If an essay is very confusing or if the feedback you want to convey is highly complex and difficult or time-consuming to address in your comments, make a general note of the issue, and ask the student to schedule an appointment.

Responding to Writing at the Sentence Level ^

Why not mark all the errors you see in a student paper? If we want students to improve as writers, why shouldn’t we show them exactly what they’ve done wrong?

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj explain why this technique could backfire:

However virtuous and dutiful your reasons for falling into the practice of line editing, most of that labor will be lost on your students. Those who will not rewrite the paper will simply register the mass and weight of your corrections in relation to the grade, without looking closely and will perhaps conclude that they need to do better next time–a value you could have gained simply by saying, This paper is error-ridden and disorganized. You need to do better next time. Those who will rewrite the paper will simply make all of your corrections that they can decipher becuse you have, in effect assumed responsibility for the quality of their work. (52)

However, this doesn’t mean that issues  of style and correctness shouldn’t be attended to. As the Structured Protocol explains:

If you wish, additionally to comment on “lower order” concerns (e.g., style, grammar, and/or punctuation), please focus on just one or two patterns encountered throughout the essay, explain these in a  separate paragraph of your head comment, and mark up only a single representative paragraph in the essay to model corrections.

Note that the suggestion mentions patterns. Limit your commenting to errors that occur consistently throughout the paper and are rule-bound (e.g., run-on sentences, comma splices, subject/verb agreement). Marking one-off errors throughout the essay could distract students from focusing on more important issues they should attend to in revision.

Remember: Only mark errors that you are prepared to teach to your students. If you think something “sounds wrong,” but aren’t certain how to explain the issue to students, leave it alone.

Here’s a handy resource to support you in working with your students on sentence-level issues: Responding to Writing at the Sentence Level.

Working effectively with multilingual writers to address sentence level issues requires a different set of strategies. The following set of resources from Sweetland’s website can provide guidance about working with multilingual writers: Providing Grades and Feedback to Multilingual Students.

Additional Resources:

For a comprehensive exploration on providing feedback to students, which includes general considerations, strategies for the classroom, and further reading, please read “Giving Feedback on Student Writing” (Sweetland Center for Writing).

Sweetland’s Responding to Student Writing: Principles and Practices is a neat, readable list of general principles and practices when commenting on student drafts.

Less is more, according to Ronald Lunsford. Find out why in Lunsford, Ronald F. “When Less is More: Principles for Responding in the Disciplines.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69 (1997): 91-105. Print.

Nancy Sommers provides an outstanding overview of responding to student writing, including some examples of problems: Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. 5th ed. Eds. Cheryl Glenn, Melissa Goldthwaite, and Robert Connors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 373-81. Print.