Everyone has experienced the visceral sensations of heart racing and stomach churning that accompany receiving a returned paper covered in red markings. It is perhaps no surprise that red, the color that instructors have historically selected to critique writing, has been shown to raise blood pressure. For many of us, receiving feedback can be difficult under most circumstances. Yet there is something uniquely personal about having our writing critiqued. As writing reflects our best effort to communicate our inner thoughts, criticism of writing can quickly escalate from consideration of skills to a judgment about the soundness of our thoughts and ideas. This can feel threatening. Considering the power differential that inherently exists between professors and students, heavy critiques can leave students feeling insulted and dehumanized. In this post, I will argue that certain kinds of feedback to written assignments can interfere with course aims and offer suggestions for providing positive and constructive written feedback to student work.
Grading papers is time-consuming and can test the nerves. Because of the need to grade many papers quickly, feedback is often cryptic or incomplete. Within the context of a time-crunch, encountering similar or repeated mistakes can be doubly frustrating and cloud the instructor’s judgment, resulting in sarcastic or harsh comments. It should be no surprise that students are often quite perceptive of these shortcomings. In an effort to characterize this, Spandel and Stiggins (1990) interviewed students about their reactions to common instructor comments, such as “needs to be more concise,” “be more specific,” “you haven’t really thought this through,” and “try harder”. Students reacted with a range of responses, such as “I thought you wanted details and support,” “I tried and it didn’t pay off,” ”I guess I blew it,” and “maybe I am trying as hard as I can”. The authors concluded that negative comments often left students “bewildered, hurt, or angry.”
It is important to recognize the ways in which students’ negative feelings may interfere with course goals. The cognitive science literature shows that the experience of negative emotions is associated with activation of the physiological fear/stress system. Once activated, the amygdala, or primitive “emotional brain”, has the effect of momentarily dampening activity in the hippocampus, another primitive structure highly implicated in learning and memory. Accordingly, meaningful learning is blocked when students feel emotionally aroused.
There are multiple tools instructors can use to avoid this outcome. As a starting point, it is helpful to recall the purpose of commenting on written assignments: to facilitate improvement. This is most applicable when an assignment is scaffolded through multiple drafts. Comments on a draft have the ability to provide targeted instruction, helpful advice, and honest encouragement that motivate the student to continue. Having students refine and reconceptualize thoughts through the process of writing multiple drafts can be highly didactic. To that end, instructor comments can be instrumental in guiding the student towards higher learning.
When commenting on a student draft, a series of hierarchical questions can help maintain focus. The highest order questions surround whether the overarching goals of the assignment are being met. If the paper is so far off target, other comments are irrelevant. After establishing that the paper is on track, the instructor should focus on whether there is a clear thesis, how effectively the evidence supports an argument, and whether the overall organization is coherent. From there, it is helpful to focus on how clearly the writing is conveying and relating arguments. Specifically, Bean (2011) explains that writing ought be organized so that new thoughts/ideas build on previously state information with which the reader has already been familiarized. Finally, questions of grammar, punctuation, and spelling should be addressed. In order to maximizing the likelihood that students receive this feedback well, it is helpful to balance positive and negative elements. Returning to Spandel and Stiggins (1990) study, they found that positive and highly specific comments contributed to increased confidence and motivation to continue working on the paper.
If written feedback during the drafting stage is designed to help shape and motivate, comments on a final paper serve the goal of judging. Presumably, the guidance provided on earlier drafts facilitated student learning while improving the final outcome. To that end, comments on a final paper should be focused on larger themes and higher-order skills. A final paper often includes an end comment that both justifies the grade and helps the writer understand exactly how the paper could have been stronger. Drawing on the research discussed above, a helpful format is to couch the feedback between a discussion of strengths and recommendations for revisions. The feedback itself should be comprised of a brief summary of a few issues. A laundry list of problems at this stage suggests that there was a lapse somewhere along the writing process.
In summary, instructors should provide careful and thoughtful feedback designed to encourage learning and maximize student motivation. Negative comments on written work can have unintended consequences and interfere with pedagogical goals. During initial drafts, feedback should be presented hierarchically to encourage further development of ideas. Comments on a final paper should be more concise and targeted toward encouraging better work going forward.