Promoting Learning and Revision with Comments

In other sections of our site, we offer specific advice for responding to student work (e.g., see Evaluating writing performance, Evaluating oral performance), but here we want to establish some of the key principles.

What feedback is most helpful?
Many of our students have had response from teachers and peers that was not helpful, whether a quick “I liked it!” or a cryptic “Awk” written in the margins or, very likely, no feedback at all. The question becomes, then, what feedback is most helpful?

Our advice is to think of feedback that will promote revision. In other words, consider what you want students to do next with their writing or oral presentation as a result of your feedback. Response can take several forms: You might respond as a way of starting a discussion with a student about his or her paper or talk’s content. You might respond as a way of building a relationship with the writer. You might respond to share your reactions as a reader. You might respond in the role of “expert” to provide specific knowledge and feedback about the student’s approach. However, whatever your specific purpose, the bigger picture to keep in mind is that your response should enable the writer to learn, whether that learning will show up in subsequent drafts or future papers. In other words, the most helpful feedback will promote revision.

Feedback: Audience, Purpose, Context
It’s helpful to think of this communication situation (you giving feedback to students’ work in progress) in terms of its rhetorical elements—audience, purpose, and context:

  • Your audience: The student, both the student before you now and the one you want the student to become as a result of learning, writing, speaking.
  • Your purpose: To help the student improve both the piece being written or talk being prepared (i.e., the product) and to help the student learn strategies to be applied to the next communication task (i.e., the process).
  • Your context: The assignment or communication situation to which the student is responding. Is a student’s problem partly a function of an assignment that’s not clear or one that’s been misinterpreted?

A potentially powerful way to think of your response to student work is in terms of a conversation that you’re having over the text (whether it’s written or oral). Your response as a reader or listener should open up space for the writer/speaker to respond in turn, whether in the form of a revision or simply a consideration of your reaction. On a subsequent reading/listening, you’ll take another turn in this conversation, the goal of which is for the student to learn both the course content and ways of communicating that content.

What is the big picture?
Finally, a key consideration in responding to promote learning and revision is initially to focus on the big picture—is the student being clear and focused? Is evidence being used effectively? Does the document or talk conform to expected standards and formats? Note that these questions do not address wording or grammar or punctuation. Certainly, all of those elements are important for successful communication, but cognitive studies of students writing point to their need to shape the bigger picture before they can effectively deal with the language-level issues. Unfortunately, mistakes in wording or syntax offer readers a first impression that can be hard to overcome; however, your goal of helping students to revise this talk or paper or report calls for digging below the surface.