Advice for Responding to Student Writing

Students benefit greatly from timely and effective feedback on their projects, but it can be difficult to know how much feedback to provide, how best to provide it, and how to keep the process manageable in terms of the time it takes to respond to each project. Here are some strategies you can try with your students:

  • Determine how you will focus your feedback ahead of time. Write out a clear and concise articulation of your expectations in your assignment prompt, and use the criteria you laid out in the prompt to guide your feedback. (For some advice, see our Quick Start Guide or contact us for a consultation; we’re happy to help you craft effective assignment prompts.) If you notice students struggling with something you didn’t anticipate, plan an in-class activity and/or future assignment to address that concernAssess what you told your students you would assess.  

  • Aim for specific and targeted marginal comments. Students are easily overwhelmed with a heavily marked paper, so it’s best to be strategic about your feedback. Use marginal notes to point to specific moments that interest you, that you have questions about, and/or that address writerly moves you want to reinforce. Do not overload the margins with comments. 

  • Provide a terminal comment of one to two paragraphs that summarizes your response. Focus on larger-scale global concerns based on the criteria you established for the assignment. Make sure to comment both on what feels promising to you in the project and what the student will want to consider in revision and/or future projects. If there was a pattern to your marginal comments, refer to that pattern. For example, you might say: “You’ll see that in my marginal comments I was often asking you “how?” and “why?” to encourage you to further develop your analysis... 

  • Limit the time you spend on editing or rewritingTeach your student to effectively edit and proofread their own writing by attending to sentence-level concerns in class activities and workshops rather than spend your time “correcting” their work. If you notice a pattern of error or difficultyexplain a method of approaching the issue and mark subsequent occurrences for your student to address on their own. For example, if a student occasionally writes overly long and complex sentences, suggest how you would break up the ideas and why at the first occurrence, and mark each subsequent occurrence but expect the student to address those on their own. It might help to develop a shorthand of signs and abbreviations for concerns you come across frequently. Just make sure to share a key to your shorthand with students! 

Invite Students to Participate in Feedback 

Involving students in responding to their peers’ work and reflecting on their own writing can have a dramatic impact their ability to think metacognitively about their own writing  

  • Ask students to reflect on their projectA brief companion reflection or process statement can serve as a cover sheet or rationale that describes the process they undertook to achieve the essay in front of you. Think of the reflection as a place to start your feedback, so that you are reacting to the concerns students already have about their work. 

  • Have students engage peer review, beginning with a discussion about what kind of feedback is valuable to student writers. Have students avoid statements like "your essay is good,” and practice strategies for articulating how and why a particular passage is effective. Work with students to learn what questions are effective for pushing thinking forward (“what do you mean by _____”, “what are the implications of this idea?” “So what?” “How does this idea connect to your earlier point about ____ etc.). Students can engage in traditional modes of peer review like reading and annotating each other’s drafts and writing letters of feedback to one another, can engage in general troubleshooting conversations so peers can offer strategies and ideas, can be a “speed review” session where students change partners in rapid succession looking at a key moment in a project (like an introduction or conclusion, to get multiple peers’ reactions).  

  • Design a rubric collaboratively with students to articulate to your students (and yourself) the 4-5 criteria you will expect to see in the assignment and a sense of various levels of achievement (adequate, meritorious, superior). Have students determine in small groups and then in a large group discussion what they believe a successful response to the assignment would look like.  

Some alternatives to traditional written feedback: 

  • Hold one-on-one conferences: Conferences are most helpful at a key moment in the writing process (before a major revision, for example). You can cancel in-class sessions with the whole class for a week to make room in your schedule for these meetings. 15-20 minutes per student should be plenty.  

  • Video/Audio Recordings: Canvas enables video and audio uploads under the Speed Grader option when you grade assignments. You can record yourself giving verbal feedback rather than writing feedback. Some find this approach to be more personable and efficient 


For a deeper look at commenting practices, visit the WAC Clearinghouse page on feedback and scroll down to Beyond the Basics to explore the Hierarchy of Rhetorical Concerns.