What if you only gave students positive feedback on their writing? Could you leave a comment that begins with “I like” on every student’s paper? How would that change the way you evaluate writing? Would that impact scores or instruction? Might that make you dread evaluating writing just a leeeeeeeeettle bit less?
Think about how far negative/constructive comments have gotten you. All those times you pointed out subject-verb agreement errors, tense errors, then vs. than, fragments and run ons, error number five on your list of frequently displayed errors, writing infraction number seventeen. Do you see student writing improve because of that?
If you’re at all like me, you’ve gone through the various response styles: circling all occurrences, focusing on a single error type, correcting only the first page, highlighting nothing and letting the rubric scores do the talking, writing a summative note at the end, fitting notes into the margin, revising papers throughout the semester, and the list goes on. Have you seen the benefits? Do you note a drop in errors because of your diligent feedback? From even the most thoughtful input you’ve provided, do you witness an increase in “good stuff” as a result? Are you making fewer and fewer of those remarks on every paper throughout the year? By the final paper, are you faced with pieces of writing that no longer need the exact same comments you left on the first paper?
For me… nope.
In an ideal world, we’d deliver ongoing feedback as students write, helping them move through the various steps of the writing process in pursuit of an ever-improving final draft. There are lots of ways we’d improve the process of writing and evaluation. Step into most classrooms, though, and I bet you’ll see a model much like mine: working on defining the writing style, reading examples, practicing some of the genre techniques, peer editing, conferencing, then turning in a final draft for evaluation. It’s on to the next one after that. And I’m still struggling to get six pieces of formal writing assigned and graded each year.
If students look at comments and don’t take any action to improve those errors, think of all the time wasted. Let’s think of another way to approach our jobs during the evaluation, then.
Perhaps it’s better to let students come to you to find out what they did wrong rather than to find out what they did right. A paper full of the errors committed doesn’t give a writer much hope. Even if you’re there for a conference after school. Even if you have ton of things that you’re proud of in that writing and you’re ready to gush as soon as that writer comes to see you.
What if we let rubric scores tell them where they need to improve (if they are interested) and we just focus our comments on what they need to keep doing in the future? If I tell what I enjoy about the writing, even if it’s only a single sentence, would writers would be more likely to use feedback then? Could the next essay be an attempt to exhibit that same characteristic I pointed out? Would that writer view my class differently?
I set a goal to write at least one “I like” sentence and one mention of “your readers” on the last essay. Mission accomplished. And I managed to get all of those papers back to students within a week of the due date, another goal of mine for at least one paper this semester. One batch I returned the weekend after they handed it in: Thursday collection day, Monday distribution day. The grading went very quickly when I was only trying to put two sentences on each paper.
A victim of even the most modest habit, I then started to do the same thing on the paper I’m grading now without even thinking. It occurred to me that I enjoy reading papers more when I’m looking for what they’ve done well.
Negative observations are my tendency so I didn’t think I could keep this up. I see how things can be disastrous far more often than how they can be amazing. But I’ve quickly become good at pointing out something positive in even the worst piece of writing I come across. My mental bank of traits to discuss as defaults if nothing stands out is growing nearly every day. You can do this, too.
Want to turn this into a bit of research? Want to set up tests and controls next year? Want to give the same prompts to different groups and give different types of feedback to see what works, both in terms of students writing and teacher satisfaction?
Leave me a comment!