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What Are Effective Ways to Phrase Feedback on Students Papers

What are the most effective ways to phrase feedback?

Stacey Gray


In basic writing courses, feedback is one of the best ways to encourage student growth, but the ways that teacher phrases their feedback is very important as well. Teachers of basic writing courses should makes students feel comfortable about their efforts in writing and make them feel motivated to learn more. As an undergraduate and now graduate student of English literature, I was not always comfortable with the feedback that I received on assignments yet it never occurred to me that maybe it was the ways that my teachers phrased the feedback. I am not only interested in the many methods of feedback but I wanted to know ways of phrasing feedback to encourage students to work harder to achieve college level writing.

Effects of Phrasing Feedback negatively and positively-Things to consider, the Do’s and Don’ts:

  • Do not use unfamiliar language (i.e. single question marks, squiggles, other signs/symbols, (i.e. pilcrow sign ¶) when giving feedback to basic writing students because students do not like errors that were identified without an explanation. (Mitchler and Helmbrecht).
  • Do not down play students ideas. Refrain from using insulting words such as ‘thoughtless’ or ‘sloppy’ when revising bad papers. Using insults will not improve students writing. In a close examination of negative feedback on a student’s paper, Helmbrecht in Giving Grades, Taking Tolls, found that negative feedback can be viewed as personal not textual making students feel that they cannot write. Helmbrecht claims that, “negative comments on Paul’s paper did not invite him to join a new discourse community nor motivated him to improve his writing.” She also states that, “It is unlikely that students like Paul who are labeled ‘basic’ or ‘remedial’ writers will improve their writing through negative and hurtful feedback.” (Mitchler and Helmbrecht, 31).
  • Do not use ‘tough love.’ Helmbrecht, in her close examination of negative feedback also found that negative commentary or ‘tough love’ may work for some students but not others. Offer ‘tough love’ only to those students who ask for it or display that they can handle that type of response.
  • Do not mark every mistake. Doing this will not make students feel better about their writing. According to Straub in “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments,” teachers should, “…gear their comments to the stage of drafting, first addressing large scale issues of content, focus, or organization, and purpose and only later dealing more fully with surface features.”

(Straub, 92).

  • Teachers should view and write their comments as a dialogue, “a give-and-take dialogue with the student, not as an occasion to edit and correct.” (Straub, 92)
  • Teachers should write out their responses in complete sentences and be text specific. (Straub)
  • Give both positive reinforcement and critical feedback. Give critical feedback especially to those students who ask for it and be careful about the amount of positive reinforcement as a response. Some students don’t find it useful. (Straub)
  • Teachers should be aware of how questions are phrased in responses when asking them. Sometimes these questions may lead to confusion. Ask questions that suggest to students to include their own experiences. This will allow students to explore and bring more ideas to their assignments. (Helmbrecht, Elbow)
  • Teachers should “accept the domain of error in all it indeterminacy when teaching basic writing courses” according to Anson in Giving Grades, Taking Tolls. This suggests focusing on grammar and punctuation in feedback. (Anson cited in Giving Grades, Take Tolls, 312)
  • According to Sommer in Writing Back, teachers should phrase some responses “holisticly rather than just isolating grammar and mechanical errors.” (Sommer cited in “Writing Back”, 449)


It is very important to consider the ways that responses are phrased to reduce the feeling of anxiety in basic writers. Students in basic writing classes should feel confident about their writing as well as their ideas. It is important the students in basic writing courses learn what it takes to become a better writer and rid themselves of labels such as ‘remedial’ and ‘basic’. Teachers of basic writing courses should see to student’s development through feedback and responses. Research and studies have shown that if teachers use effective methods of feedback (considering time, location, and phrasing), teachers will see a major improvement in their students writing.

Research has also shown that the most effective forms of feedback is feedback that allows the voice of students to be heard (one-on-one conference), marginal comments and end can be either effective or non effective depending on rather it is illegible and text specific, personal letters seem to show that the teacher put forth more effort into grading student assignments. Research has also shown that down playing students ideas does not make them grow as writers nor does marking every mistake. Teachers should focus their comments on content as well as grammar and teachers should also show concern when giving feedback. Teachers should be aware of those students who can accept critical feedback or ‘tough love’ and provide it to them only. Teachers need to be aware of the ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ of their students in basic writing courses and also be aware of what they expect to receive from teacher responses. Research shows that students wanted feedback that explained exactly where and ways to correct their errors along with explanations explaining why. The feedback provided by teacher can not only encourage improvement but also help them throughout future courses.

 Works Cited

Edgington, Anthony. “Encouraging collaboration with Students on Teacher Response.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 31.3 (2004): 287–96.

Elbow, Peter. “Responses to Bartholomae and Elbow.” ‘’College Composition and Communication’‘46.1 (1995): 84–92.

Elbow, Peter. “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard: Reflections on the Inability to Write.” Reflective Stories: Becoming Teachers of College English and English Education. Urbana IL, 1998: 91–114.

Haswell, Richard. | “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess”

Helmbrecht, Brenda. “Giving Grades, Taking Tolls: Assessing the Impact of Evaluation on Developing Writers”. Teaching English in the Two Year College. 34.3 (2007): 306–19

Mitchler, Sharon. “Writing Back.” Teaching English in the Two Year College, 33.4 (2006): 446–54.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Straub, Richard. “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study” Research in The Teaching of English 31.1 (1997): 91–119.

Other sources to consider on the subject of feedback:

Durham-Reese, Nancy. “Peer Evaluation as an Active Learning Technique” Journal of Instructional Psychology 32.4 (2005): 338–43.

Gay, Pamela. “Dialogizing Response in the Writing Classroom:Students Answer Back” Journal of Basic Writing 17.1 (1998): 3–17.

Gray-Rosendale, Laura and Raymona Leonard.“Demythologizing the ‘Basic Writer’: Identity, Power, and Other Challenges to the Discipline.” BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal 3.1(2001).

Grobman, Laurie. “Building Bridges to Academic Discourse: The Peer Group Leader in BasicWriting Peer Response Groups.” Journal of Basic Writing 18.2(1999): 47–68.

Hanson, Sandra Sellers, and Leonard Vogt. “A Variation on Peer Critiquing: Peer Editing as the Integration of Language Skills.” A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random House, 1987. 575–78.

Horner, Bruce. Rethinking the ‘Sociality of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation.” Rhetoric Review 11.1 (1992): 172–99.

Hull, Glynda. “Research on Error and Correction.” Perspective on Research and Scholarship inComposition. Ed. Ben W. McClelland and Timothy R. Donovan. New York: Modern Language Association, 1985. 162–84.

Kim, Loel. “Online Technologies for Teaching Writing: Students React to Teacher Response In Voice and Written Modalities.” Research in the Teaching of English 38.3 (2004):304–37.

Kulik, James A. “Timing of Feedback and Verbal Learning.” Review of Educational Research 58.1 (1988): 79–97.

Lynch, Denise. “Easing the Process: A Strategy for Evaluating Compositions.” ‘’College Composition and Communication’‘33.3 (1982): 310–14.

Perry, Debbie. “Peer Editing with Technology: Using the Computer to Create Interactive Feedback.” English Journal 94.6 (2005): 23.

Webb, Noreen M. “Group collaboration in Assessment: Multiple Objectives, Process and Outcomes.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 17.2 (1995): 239–61.

List of other terms for researching feedback:

Two Year College Students/Community College

Evaluation/Writing Evaluation


Writing Teachers/Writing Instructors/Writing Instruction

College English



Peer Evaluation

Writing Improvement

Educational Strategies/Teaching Methods

Student Attitudes/Student Reaction

Teacher Influence

Teacher Student Relationship

Online Courses

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Page last modified on April 21, 2008, at 03:45 PM