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What Are the Most Efficient Ways of Individualizing Our Feedback

What are the most effective means of individualizing feedback?

Ryan Flaherty

Like students and like their writing

Elbow believes that something intangible—one’s attitude towards his or her students— influences the way teachers respond to the student writing, and that something equally-intangible—a student’s motivation for writing—hinges on the student-teacher relationship built through response practices. Elbow argues that “[If a student] doesn’t like her writing enough to be pushy and hungry about finding a few people who like it, she probably won’t get better” (Elbow, 200).

Explain your reactions from a reader’s perspective

When teachers respond from the position of an interested reader, it can fuel a student’s desire to improve and gain control over his or her writing. Some of the following statements that Elbow made in response to a student who struggled to maintain his focus on a writing assignment indicate how a teacher’s perspective could affect a student’s attitude towards revision:

I felt something interesting going on here…The trouble is I like your stories/moments. My preference would be not to drop them…Not sure how to do it. Break it up into bits to be scattered here and there?… Good writers often get lots of narrative and descriptive bits into expository writing (Elbow, in Straub, “Response,” 377).

In line with this idea of reflecting a personal investment in the reading of students’ texts is what Summer Smith calls the “reader response” approach to providing feedback. Some of the qualities of this genre include using the personal “I” (the teacher) as the subject of statements, responding to aspects in the student’s writing which reflect something about the student, and describing the effect that the writer’s text had on the reader’s experience (Smith, 257–258).

Wilson offers support for this kind of reading of student texts, explaining that part of the responsibility a teacher has with regard to a student’s writing process is to give the student a “…chance to see what happened in (the teacher’s) mind as (he or she) read (the student’s words)”(Wilson, 63). The emphasis here should be on how the student text impacted an individual reader. Straub supports this subjectivity, claiming that response should be “..ideologically charged with (the teacher’s own) ideas, interests and perspectives…,”(Straub, “Student, Teacher and Classroom, 32).

Use response to foster dialogue

The purpose of sharing one’s own ideas and reactions with the writer is to create opportunities for students to think about specific issues their texts’ are raising, or a “response conversation,” as Straub calls it. Straub sums up a synthesis of the “reader response” position and Elbow’s “liking” philosophy, with the following definition of response conversation: “…the best conversational responses integrate informal dialogue and serious inquiry”(Straub, “Response as Conversation,” 388). Mathison Fife and O’Neill believe that creating dialogue through inquiry and giving students an opportunity to respond to teacher feedback fosters metacognition, which in turn makes students better self-editors (Mathison Fife and O’Neill, 316). The list below highlights some aspects of addressing students’ individual needs through written response:

  • Have students submit short notes indicating what they are trying to accomplish with a given draft, and what questions they have for the reader of this draft (Brannon & Knoblauch, Elbow, Mathison Fife & O’Neill, and Sommers).
  • Take an incremental approach to responding: respond to the originality of students’ ideas, then to their struggles with elaborating on ideas, then to the voice with which he or she expresses those ideas, and finally to the organization of his or her expression (Straub, “S,T & C,” 43).
  • Do not neglect commenting on mechanical issues for students who struggle with these in early drafts (44).
  • Vary the tone of commentary for different students (directive, explicit, complimentary) with respect to their demeanors (45).
  • Evaluate the disparity between what the writer has said and what he or she has intended to say, as opposed to what you (as the teacher) think the text should say (Brannon and Knoblauch, 161).

The following questions are ones I generated in reflecting upon my own response practices with students:

  • Who is the writer of this text? (What do I know about her background,experience, etc.)
  • What are this writer’s strengths as a writer and as a student?
  • What are some of this writer’s weaknesses or areas of difficulty?
  • How does this writing compare and or relate to other works he or she has produced?
  • What can I say that might help him/ her and in what way could it help?
  • What parts of this writing do I subjectively like?
  • What parts do I subjectively dislike and why?

Works Cited

Brannon, L, & Knoblauch, C.H. “On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model Of Teacher Response.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 2, (May, 1982), pp. 157–166.

Elbow, Peter. “Ranking, Evaluating and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English, Vol. 55, No. 2, (Feb. 1993), pp. 187–206.

Graupner, Meredith. “How Can instructors Provide Efficient and Thorough Feedback?” http://compile.tamucc.edu/wiki/BasicWriting/EfficientandThoroughFeedback. Retrieved 2 Mar 2008.

Mathison Fife, Jane and Peggy O’Neill. “Moving beyond the Written Comment: Narrowing the Gap between Response Practice and Research.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 53, No. 2, (Dec., 2001), pp. 300–321.

Smith, Summer. “The Genre of the End Comment: Conventions in Teacher Responses To Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 48, (1997), pp. 253–265.

Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, (1982), pp. 148–156.

Straub, Richard. “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study.”Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 31, (1997), pp. 91–119.

“The Student, the Text, and the Classroom Context: A Case Study Of Teacher Response.” Assessing Writing, Vol. 7, (2000), pp. 23–55.

Wilson, Maja. “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing.” English Journal. Vol. 96, No.4. March 2007, pp.62–66.

Connecting Feedback to Course Content

How can teacher commentary be linked to the classroom context?

A more comprehensive approach to feedback goes beyond textual response and takes into account the relationship between classroom context and teacher commentary (Mathison Fife and O’Neill, Straub, Smith). What matters in assessment should mirror what matters in our courses.

Sommers describes that comments and classwork should “…mutually reinforce each other”(Sommers, qtd in Straub, 34). Some variable contextual factors that influence the feedback dynamic, according to Larson, are class discussions and exercises, students’ attitudes and feelings towards their teacher, and feedback students have received on previous writings (Larson, in Straub and Lunsford, 375).

Take an incremental approach

Straub suggests that teachers structure their courses so that an emphasis is placed on developing, supporting and elaborating upon ideas in the first part of the semester. Formal concerns, like sentence structure and correctness, should be progressively given greater precedence (Straub, “Student, Text, Classroom,” 26). Ferris acknowledges the value in choosing issues that become particularly prevalent in student writing, and responding to students with references to their past work. She encourages her pre-service teachers to adopt a “selective” approach to feedback, guided by the following mantra: “I will focus on the two to four most significant feedback points in this paper, rather than addressing every single problem/ error I see” (Ferris, 169–170).

Make the content of your feedback visible and flexible

The influence of students’ perceptions of their writing instructor is highlighted in a case study by Sperling and Freedman. A ninth grade student who granted complete authority to her teacher’s comments was unable to re-think her writing. Instead, she, and other students who aim to “please” their teachers, are unable to make decisions beyond those recommended by teacher comments, and only correct aspects related to the “…information, skills and values embedded in the learning context” (Sperling and Freedman, 4). This effect illustrates the importance of establishing what Auten calls a “Rhetoric of Commentary,” where teachers demystify the types of comments they use in feedback, and explain their purposes in using these comments (Auten, as paraphrased in Mathison Fife and O’Neill, 310).

Tie comments directly to what is going on in the student text

Brannon, Knoblauch and Wilson suggest that the classroom context is constructed through our response practices. They emphasize the importance of helping students discover their own intentions in writing, as opposed to imposing visions of an “ideal text” or rubric requirements upon students. Wilson calls it “[focusing on what [students] want to accomplish and on what effect [their] writing [has] on [the teacher]”(Wilson, 65). Brannon and Knoblauch propose the following questions: “what did the writer intend to do? What has the writing actually said? And How has the writing done what it is supposed to do?”(Brannon and Knoblauch, 162).

The table below suggests a relationship between comments and the larger classroom context:

What the researchers say

How it might apply to a student paper

Comments need to be appropriate for the stage of the draft (Mathison Fife and O’Neill, 302)

Students should offer an explanation of what they are trying to say (Knoblauch and Brannon, 163)

What class discussion elements relate to what shows up in students writing (Larson, in Straub and Lunsford, 375)

Make commenting practices visible to students: why we use the types of terms and phrases that we use and what they mean (Auten, 310)

“Mary, this does a very good job of hitting on the main points of this article. How can we bring out the author’s views more?”

“What did you mean in that 5th sentence of intro—I like the ‘silence in the street’ phrase.”

“You’ve made great use of the transitional phrases we’ve discussed, particularly in the second paragraph.”

“When I talk about clarity and organization, I’m referring to what’s within your sentences mainly. I think sometimes you try to get a little too much information within your sentences. These pieces tend to break up the main clauses of your sentences.

Works Cited

Auten, J.G. “A Rhetoric of Teacher Commentary: The Complexity of Response to Student Writing.” Focuses, Vol. 4, (1991), pp. 3–18. In Mathison Fife, Jane and Peggy O’Neill. “Moving beyond the Written Comment: Narrowing the Gap between Response Practice and Research.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 53, No. 2, (Dec., 2001), pp. 300–321

Brannon, L, & Knoblauch, C.H. “On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 2, (May, 1982), pp. 157–166.

Ferris, D. “Preparing Teachers to Respond to Student Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing, Vol. 16, (2007), pp. 165–193.

Larson, Richard. “Writing Assignments: How Might They Encourage Learning.” In Mathison Fife, Jane and Peggy O’Neill. “Moving beyond the Written Comment: Narrowing the Gap between Response Practice and Research.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 53, No. 2, (Dec., 2001), pp. 300–321.

Mathison Fife, Jane and Peggy O’Neill. “Moving beyond the Written Comment: Narrowing the Gap between Response Practice and Research.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 53, No. 2, (Dec., 2001), pp. 300–321.

Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, (1982), pp. 148–156. In Straub, Richard. “The Student, the Text, and the Classroom Context: A Case Study Of Teacher Response.” Assessing Writing, Vol. 7, (2000), pp. 23–55.

Smith, Summer. “The Genre of the End Comment: Conventions in Teacher Responses to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 48, (1997),pp. 253–265.

Sperling, Melanie, & Freedman, S.W. “A Good Girl Writes Like a Good Girl: Written Response and Clues to the Teaching/ Learning Process.” University of California at Berkeley Center for the Study of Writing. Technical Report No. 3. May, 1987, pp. 1–16.

Straub, Richard. “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study.”Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 31, (1997), pp. 91–119.

“The Student, the Text, and the Classroom Context: A Case Study Of Teacher Response.” Assessing Writing, Vol. 7, (2000), pp. 23–55.

Straub, Richard and Lunsford, R.F. Twelve Readers Reading: Responding to College Student Writing. Creskill, NJ: Hampton, 1995.

Wilson, Maja. “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing.”English Journal. Vol. 96, No.4. March 2007, pp.62–66.

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