Giving Constructive Feedback to Students

…Is the unofficial title of the presentation I’ll be giving the new English department GAs in a matter of weeks.  (Does the planning committee know what it’s gotten itself into?)

The one idea thrown out to me was the one we were given when I went through the same training a few years ago: “sandwich” a critical comment between two positive ones.  Which sounds great to me, in theory, and I do practice a form of it.  But I find it problematic for two reasons:

  1.  It’s really easy to be, or to come across as, passive-aggressive, and
  2. It’s even easier for your constructive criticism to be ignored.

When we spend time providing comments on student drafts, we want those comments to be heeded.  We want our students to use them, not to skip, miss, or disregard.  Feedback that isn’t concrete as well as constructive simply gets overlooked by busy students, who then find themselves frustrated when they don’t manage to land the grade they want.

Here’s the advice I’ve found more useful than sandwich-building:

  1.  Know what you, the instructor, want.  “Great writing” is too damn vague.  Do you want to see students employing concrete sensory details?  Building tension through dialogue?  Employing the whole of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle of doom?  Citing their sources correctly?
  2. Limit your wants.  It’s the exceptional student – and the one who doesn’t need your class in the first place – who can give you everything your instructional heart desires in a single paper.  Prioritize.
  3. Front-load your comments.  My method is to provide comments for every student on the rough draft only.  These comments align with each section of my rubric, along with a “grade so far” – an estimate of the number of points they would earn for each section if the rough draft were the “final” draft.  I give comments on final drafts only to students who specifically request them.  Students only specifically request them if they are (a) superhumanly motivated and/or (b) planning to do a rewrite.
  4. Give concrete examples.  Find one really good thing and one “thing that could use improvement” in each focus area, and point it out concretely: “I’ve never eaten a fresh fig, but your description of “the crisp skin and sweet tang” made me feel as if I had.  Good job!” or “I was a little confused by your statement that polar bears are responsible for global warming.  What’s the connection?”
  5. Use “I” statements.  I’ve been told not to do this, because it underlines that students are writing to you, not to some amorphous “audience.”  I call bollocks for two reasons.  (a) they are writing to you.  (b) that’s not a bad thing.  For the purposes of the comments, you are their reader.  You can speak most concretely and constructively from your own experience.  Adopting a distant tone that insists “the reader” doesn’t understand this or can’t follow that just makes you sound like a pompous blowhard and makes writing sound like a fart-in-the-sky endeavor.  The goal is to help your students grasp writing as a tool, not run screaming from it.

(I’m almost certain that is the correct term for the rhetorical triangle.)


About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series Buy her a coffee:
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