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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

5 Ways to Provide Meaningful Feedback

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

In my first few years of teaching, I remember feeling completely consumed by grading. I spent long hours at the library on the weekend with a bottle of Coke and a bag of gummy bears to keep me going. I spent my time at school lesson planning because I knew it was more important than the red ink that covered all of those essays. Students value feedback, but they don’t want to be overwhelmed by conversations about how to write and what they did wrong. They would much rather talk about literature, the source of all great ideas.

Here’s my rules of thumb about grading:

1. If I feel like I’m spending too much time grading, then I’m probably assigning too much work.

I’m always thinking about how frequently I assign writing. Writing should be an enjoyable activity and not feel like busy work. It’s true that practice makes perfect, but we should prioritize learning over assessment. When we ask students to demonstrate what they know over and over again, we’re getting in the way of valuable reading time and conversations. After students write an essay, they need timely feedback, so I never assign an essay unless I returned the previous essay with feedback. In fact, I usually return one essay the day before I give the next essay. It gives students the chance to reflect on their writing and set goals before trying to achieve them. This way, I can establish clear expectations and articulate what they should focus on the next day.

2. Feedback can be oral as well as written.

As I grade essays, I take notes on the ideas and issues with their writing because it’s a lot easier and less time consuming to teach than it is to write feedback on over one hundred essays every few weeks. I tend to provide oral feedback on ideas and written feedback on ways to express ideas. As students read over my comments and revise a part of their essay, I walk around the room so that I can answer their questions and have a real conversation about how to best express their idea. Conversations are always so much easier than trying to decipher lines, symbols, letters, and rubrics.

3. Students should be in charge of revising their essays.

A limited amount of written feedback forces students to find ways to revise without our assistance. When I ask them to revise their essay, they should be able to determine what they need to revise. When I return an essay, I will pick something to focus on like the thesis statement or conclusion. They pick a sentence or paragraph, revise it, and then post it online or write it down. I can then share model work with the class right away.

By the time they graduate, we want students to revise and edit their essays without teacher feedback. In college and in life, they generally receive feedback on the idea itself, not on the clarity of the idea.

4. Checklists should be simple and consistent.

I have one checklist of simple expectations that I use all year long. This way, they know what they accomplished and what they need to work on. I don’t use the checklist to determine a grade – it only makes providing feedback easier and less time consuming. I know a lot of teachers that love rubrics, but I remember freaking out when I first saw one, and I never got over that feeling.

5. Shortcuts should be meaningful.

A check takes less time to write than a full comment, just as a letter or symbol takes less time to write than a full comment, but symbols and letters should represent a clear statement about what the student needs to do. Students also need frequent positive commentary on the strengths of their writing (or if you want to get really crazy, a sticker). I try to avoid giving students too many directives. Think about it – if you tell a student to bang a pot, drink water, kick a soccer ball, and sing all at the same time, they’ll think about it and then not do it. On the rare occasion that I write a full sentence on an essay, it’s usually a question. Questions put the ball in their court, not mine.

Scott Cameron

online professional development for high school English teachers

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