Evaluating Writing Feedback

Exploring One Faculty Member’s Decision to Stop Writing on Student Papers

Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 12.13.36 AM

When it comes to feedback, students often fear the image of a professor armed with red pens, poised to slash away at the words that they have lovingly crafted.  As professors, however, we are more often than not trying to give students insight into how we might develop their drafts so that they might move their work forward.  But, frequently, the revisions students make don’t seem to connect with the feedback that we give. So we have to wonder: do these painstaking comments really make a difference?

That is the question Michael Millner considers in his recent discussion on feedback: does the practice of “making the paper bleed,” or putting so many comments on student papers that the white space all but disappears, support better student writing?  He used to believe that it did, but those comments never seemed to make a difference. And over 25 years, Millner tried everything – rubrics, notes, and apps – until he just stopped.  

So with what did Millner replace his comments?  Nothing. He began to return papers without comments.  Instead, Millner adopted a new practice for delivering feedback: one-on-one conferences.  He sat down with his students and talked with them about their writing, asking them open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about your essay.”  And Millner found that his students seemed more than happy to meet him halfway. In fact, he found that his students engaged with the paper; they engaged with their process of writing; they engaged with the experience of sitting for 30 minutes with a professor one-on-one; and most importantly, his students engaged with his “passion,” as they said in class feedback.

To many faculty, the idea of a returning a blank paper, lacking any sort of mark or interaction, is intimidating.  As Millner admits, this wasn’t an easy choice, by any means: “To say that I wasn’t going to respond in kind to their essays — that I wasn’t going to write back — felt like a kind of betrayal, like not replying to a letter from a friend asking for assistance or advice.” But he knew he needed a dramatic change when he noticed that most of his students did not engage with his comments.

So, the next time you provide feedback on student work or develop your syllabus, consider how conferencing might help you engage your students and their writing. If you decide written feedback is necessary, maybe consider:

  • allowing the students to guide your assessment of their writing through reflective cover letters
  • and writing marginal notes that respond to their questions and processes rather than their products.

For more concrete ideas regarding feedback and revision, check out our blog posts from earlier this semester: Characteristics of Effective Feedback and Helping Students Revise.