Giving Positive Feedback on Writing Assignments

I am very good at seeing the problems with a student paper and not so good with expressing what they have done right.

I know that some of my students, who work hard and still don’t do well, get very frustrated. I am not sure positive feedback will really fix that problem, but I think if I tell them what they have done well, it would be better.

Part of the problem is that I assume a 100 for whichever section of the paper I am grading (content, organization, etc) and then take off points from there. I only add points on if 1) it is novel and good or it made me smile (I cry easily.) and 2) if the paper was far more developed or detailed than I expected/wanted.

Perhaps I should go with a rubric that gives generalities instead. I did that with one paper and that seemed to be more positively received. Of course, that could be because I gave them the rubrics in an email and didn’t hand the papers back in class so that I didn’t see the frustrations.

I’m still thinking about this and any feedback that would help would be appreciated.

While reading the CHE fora, I found an answer to this problem of missing positive feedback. I am adding it here because while bookmarking on the fora works, I am far more likely to search for the information on TCE.

lasquires gave this advice:

I would say don’t give any positive feedback that isn’t sincere, and if an essay really does need quite a bit of work, the bulk of your comments will naturally address things that aren’t quite right. I usually write comments following a hierarchy of concerns:

1. Does the paper have a topic that is germane to the assignment?

2. Does the paper have a supportable argument?

3. Does the writer provide sufficient evidence in support of that argument?

4. Is the paper organized effectively as a whole?

5. Is the paper written and organized effectively at the paragraph level (appropriate transitions, etc.)?

6. Does the writer document sources correctly?

7. Does the writer use appropriate diction/style and is the paper well-edited?

8. Does the paper rise to a level of uniqueness or eloquence that sets it apart from the majority of papers produced by students at this level? (For me, an affirmative answer in this category is necessary for an A).

Almost all of these could be written about on most of my students’ papers. Perhaps I need to use a rubric that just lists these questions and says:
yes, mostly, halfway, somewhat, no

I kind of like that idea.

4 thoughts on “Giving Positive Feedback on Writing Assignments”

  1. Yes, yes, yes! My grading rubrics often look a lot like lasquires series of questions and the evaluative sequence you suggest, only I try to keep the rubric for any one paper down to about six or seven questions and usually only rate them “yes, sort of (sometimes sort of + and sort of -), no.” The rubric helps them sort and make sense of the comments they get on the paper. I’ve also found it helps me identify patterns in what the students are struggling with so that I can use class time more effectively to address those problems.

    You may do this already, but if you don’t I find it’s helpful to put a check mark next to sentences or ideas that seem particularly well expressed, to help students get a sense of what they should be shooting for (and a squiggly line under passages that communicate particularly poorly).

    There’s a bit of management advice that I read once that has stuck with me. A CEO or something getting interviewed on how to get employees to produce their best work said that the transition between the positive feedback and the negative feedback should always be “and” rather than “but.” So rather than saying, “this paper does X well, but Y and Z need improvement,” you say something like “this paper does X well, and improving Y and Z would help it communicate X more effectively.” It’s a little thing, but now that I’ve tried it, I think that CEO was right–it helps students see the feedback they get as part of an ongoing process of improvement and not as some sort of summary statement on their ability.

  2. Using the list and a check-off system is a good idea, but it is not a rubric. However, it is probably better than a rubric and probably will be better received by students. Rubrics spell out expectations in chunks and can be confining and limiting. I do, however, like the list and also the fact that it addresses higher-order concerns, though also considers stylistic or sentence-level ones, though of lesser value. This list also allows for giving credit for the paper that goes off in a different direction, that offers something new, a new insight, a new approach, etc. A rubric could ignore those possibilities. Thanks for sharing the list and how you might implement it, but don’t belittle its value by calling it a “rubric.”

  3. The comment above puzzles me. A rubric is a tool like any other, to be adapted to the task at hand. They can be ghastly (poorly designed, ineffective, trivializing), but they don’t have to be.

  4. @good enough cook, I think your use of rubrics is a good one. I have been breaking the grade down for years for my students, trying to let them see where they are doing better and where they need to improve (mostly using categories of content, organization, grammar, mechanics).

    I have actually “graded” these using a 100 starting point and reducing points for errors. That means a technically correct but not interesting paper could easily earn a 100 in all the areas. I don’t think I have ever had one that did, but it is possible.

    I do think that giving them numbers lets them chart their improvement.

    @Judy Arzt, I have certainly seen rubrics which were problematic. I have also seen rubrics which simply identified areas and gave levels of success, not limiting or ignoring possibilities. The rubric I used for the visual rhetoric in-class essay, for example, had a category for “Above and Beyond Expectations,” as well as excellent, good, fairly good, problematic, deficient, not present.

    @good enough cook, I totally agree with you on rubrics. They are tools and tools, used by inexperienced folks, can destroy buildings rather than build them.

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