I still get feedback anxiety. It’s a very specific kind of writer’s block that inspires a very specific kind of procrastination. It happens when there’s a stack of papers on my desk; or, more often these days, a pile of files in the D2L Dropbox. With those papers sitting there, waiting for my comments, all other tasks in my day become more appealing. Responding to emails becomes as attractive as a bubble bath. Going to a two-and-a-half hour meeting? A piece of double-chocolate cake. Vacuuming all my floors? A romantic dinner in a nice restaurant.
It takes me about twenty minutes to read and provide feedback on a five page draft. If the time commitment doesn’t exhaust me, the gravity of my task does: What will greet me when I open those documents? What can I possibly say to these students that will make a difference? And how many comma splices can I stand right now?
With this mindset, it’s no wonder that Nancy Sommers called most of the teacher feedback in one of her case studies “mean-spirited,” and Peter Elbow argued that writing instructors should follow the physician’s oath to “do no harm.”
At the same time, Elbow says there is no right or wrong when it comes to feedback. Rather, Elbow and Sommers both advise that the best feedback allows students to accomplish what David J. Nicol and Debra MacFarlane-Dick call “self-regulation,” or the ability to become reflective about their writing and take their learning into their own hands.
I’ve taught with another instructor who “sets the mood” for giving feedback on student work. She gets her favorite pen, arranges her workspace just-so, lights candles, and mentally prepares herself to accept the written work in front of her.
A strong process, I think. But I needed something more specific, more concrete than a state of mind. I needed a method to respond to first drafts that I could fall back on. I also needed a way to avoid over-efforting, or trying to be the “good student” myself and pointing out every single gaff in form, content, or language that I could find (see “Voluminous Written Feedback and‘Over-Efforting’ Instructors,” SNL Writing News, March 31, 2015).
I analyzed my own idiosyncratic methods of offering feedback, and isolated five types of comments that I wanted to offer on every paper: a Compliment, an Opportunity, a Comment, a Question, and an Edit. On a first draft, I limit myself to one of each, though I make an effort to choose the most relevant compliment, opportunity, comment, question, and edit that I can.
I still provide students with a brief letter at the top of their draft that gives my overall response to the essay and summarizes the five comments that I’ve made. Then, I have a note that I copy and paste into each student’s essay to tell them that I’ve made five comments, and this is what they should do with them:
In the paper below, I’ve given you five different comments: a Compliment (something you’re doing well and should do more often), an Opportunity (something you’re not doing that you might want to do), a Comment (something I notice as a reader of your essay), a Question (again, something that I wonder as a reader of your essay), and an Edit (the grammar “tic” that I notice happening most often in this paper). I’ve pointed these things out once, but you’ll want to look over your paper for additional opportunities, questions, and edits that you’ll want to address for draft two.
In the time that I have been using this process, I have never once heard a student complain that I did not offer enough comments on her paper, but I have received substantially revised drafts. Prompted not to use my feedback as a checklist, but rather, as a step toward self-regulation, students seem to take revision to heart, looking at their paper again and trying to identify additional Compliments, Opportunities, Comments, Questions, and Edits.
Elbow, Peter. "Options for responding to student writing." A sourcebook for responding to student writing (1999): 197-202.
Katie (Kathryn Wozniak). “VoluminousWritten Feedback and ‘Over-Efforting’ Instructors.” SNL Writing News. School for New Learning at DePaul University. 31 Mar 2015. Web. 28 Jan 2016.
Nicol, David J., and Debra MacFarlane‐Dick. "Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice." Studies in Higher Education 31.2 (2006): 199-218.
Sommers, Nancy. "Responding to student writing." College Composition and Communication (1982): 148-156.