Giving Feedback

Pedagogical Issues in Giving Online Feedback

Research shows the best way to give students feedback is with a combination of asynchronous and synchronous feedback. For an assignment that can be revised, the ideal situation is to provide some written comments asynchronously either through tracked changes in Word or with a letter or comments by email AND THEN in a short synchronous meeting highlight the two or three key issues for revision and allow for questions about your other comments and expectations.

Give yourself two weeks to grade and grade in small batches (30 pages an hour is standard). Students would rather have more detailed comments than have papers returned sooner. Studies prove students want fewer (no more than 8 total) comments, but they want them in full sentence format.

Expect drafts to be rough, but also insist that major components (research, ideas and structure) are in place early. Grade drafts for components if necessary. If you grade drafts, be sure to explain the difference between rewording/editing and a real revision as they move forward to the final or they will change only what you have noted.

The best comments on drafts give students a very specific “a map of your mind” as you read (Elbow). Respond as a friendly coach: “I’m confused about what you mean by “American pragmatism.” v. “unclear.”

On drafts only comment on big picture issues and prioritize those issues in an action list for students as they revise. Students don’t know what to tackle first when there are comments all over a page

Pick your battles. Consider requiring multiple drafts, which you review you different writing skills or breaking larger papers into smaller graded deliverables (abstract, annotated bib, draft). Also, remember that different writing levels will have difficulty with different skills. Remember to prioritize:

Style, Grammar, and Mechanics

Students can’t fix what they don’t understand. They dislike comments like “Unpack this” or “Tighten up.” The do not understand editing symbols, cryptic marks, overly abridged language or teacher code like “Awk” or “Frag.”

Make comments specific to that specific student paper and those specific ideas. Avoid vague generalizations like “Consider your audience.” Comments should never be interchangeable among papers. Students see this as lazy and unhelpful.


Make line notes consistent with margin notes and tie them visually through arrows to one another so students see margin notes as an elaboration on line notes and not a different comment or more commonly a sign of a “messy teacher reader.”

Copy editing is a waste of your time and teaches nothing. If I paper has major gsp errors, stop reading when you realize this and require them to come see you and/or send them to the Writing Center. Consider also just marking one paragraph to show the level of correctness expected or try check marks or highlights on areas that need work. If you do make a grammar correction, let it be for one major pattern of error and explain the correct usage fully.

Phrase comments as direct statements not as questions or indirect criticism. Students interpret almost all questions as sarcasm (Is this your thesis?) and indirect corrections (Don’t you mean argument?) as controlling or as mere teacher preferences not style or grammar rules.

Students are sensitive to attacks on their ideas and often view word choice issues as control over their writing or quirks of instructor style so explain logic fallacies and wording corrections to show the rationale behind suggested changes. If it is worth a comment then it is worth a full explanation.

Good teachers reward creativity and critical engagement even when grammar, spelling and punctuation errors are present and even when they disagree with student positions. Be mindful of the power imbalance in the teacher student relationship and respectful of their right to assert arguable positions that disagree with class readings or your opinion.

Praise is essential to student learning. Note at least one positive or good choice on their paper.

Comments on final papers should focus on justifying the grade and offer 2-3 suggestions for improvement. Rubrics with a global comment for the future are ideal for final papers.

Grade when you are well rested, calm, and well fed. Never give sarcastic or unnecessarily harsh criticism and watch the tone and style of your hand written comments. Students are quick to read emotion in handwriting (and ink color) and hostility toward a student for bad writing is both unprofessional and counterproductive to learning. Ask a colleague to review your comments with challenging students.

Line/Margin Comments Students Value

This word/sentence/idea (circled) needs ...
This would be stronger support if moved to after (arrow pointing to other sentence). To prove this add ...
Prove this by giving an example of (specific point circled)
Define this (word circled) before making the argument.
I like how you have done x, now do y.
Good point (circled), now connect it back to (sentence circled).

Useful Links For Further Reading
Richard Straub Student’s Response to Teacher Comments nt_Reaction_to_Teacher_Commenting.pdf
Jim Hahn Student’s Reactions to Teacher Comments en_Comments.pdf?x-r=pcfile_d
Nancy Sommers Responding to Student Writing