As students turn in their first essays and research papers for the spring semester, it can be challenging to provide the type of feedback that will most help your students improve throughout the course. While college students are shown to value individualized comments on student essays, finding the balance of how to provide feedback without overwhelming or exasperating is difficult. Consider these tips for providing constructive feedback that will improve their writing over the course of the semester—making your job of evaluating their writing that much easier when it comes time for finals.

Goals for written feedback comments

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition, Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki noted that while students value comments, “they also express concern when these comments are illegible, ambiguous…, too abstract…, too general or vague…, and too cryptic” (McKeachie, 110-111). Sometimes the issue can spring from their lack of familiarity with terminology in the discipline, which can make writing in plain language more useful, especially for beginning students. It also helps students when comments are very specific and concrete, rather than overarching. McKeachie and Svinicki recommended that comments be:

  • Understandable
  • Selective
  • Specific
  • Timely (be sure to give comments on the first paper before the second paper is due to see improvement)
  • Contextualized
  • Nonjudgmental
  • Balanced (point out things students have done well alongside their areas in need of improvement)
  • Forward-looking
  • Transferable

Pre-comment preparation

Some of the work of delivering constructive feedback happens outside of the comments. In the Columbia University guide “How to Provide Constructive Feedback—That Won’t Exasperate Your Students,” the writers noted that feedback requires a “climate of trust and respect.” As you interact with students in the class, the more it is clear you respect their thoughts, the more likely they will be to listen to your feedback. The team also recommended that professors:

  • Don’t overwhelm students with too much feedback.
  • Keep comments impersonal by focusing on specific issues.
  • Refer back to your grading criteria.
  • Use “I” comments: “I got lost here.”
  • Structure comments as questions rather than corrections.

Members of the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, in “Responding to Student Writing—Principles and Practices,” recommended the technique of approaching the paper first as a reader rather than as a grader. If you were reading it in a professional journal, what would your first thoughts be? Where would you be convinced and where would you need to see firmer arguments? Determine the two or three most important elements and write an overarching comment at the end of the paper. Then go back through the student essay and make comments in the margins that support that overall comment to form a cohesive commentary.

Don’t spend time editing a student’s grammar throughout the paper, however. To help them learn, mark ongoing problems once and recommend that students find other examples of the error in their paper.

In tandem with written comments on student essays, it’s important to provide feedback in person, especially if it is requested. Be prepared to give further explanation to any of your written comments and engage in discussion with the student about the concepts in their paper. Constructive feedback is most effective if the student feels engaged in a conversation with the professor.

What tips would you offer peers in providing constructive feedback?

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.