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Responding to Student Writing Without Losing Your Mind

Billie Franchini, Albany SUNY

As instructors, we feel responsible for helping our students write better, and we believe that offering feedback is essential to improvement. But did you know that the amount of feedback is less important than the type of feedback students receive? In fact, spending too much time responding to student writing (especially correcting all of their errors) can actually be detrimental to their progress. All of this is good news when it comes to creating a strategy for giving students feedback on their writing: we shouldn’t spend all of our time marking every error on their papers, and we don’t have to respond to everything they write.

So how do we make sure that we’re giving the most effective feedback we can? The key is entering the feedback process with a clear strategy for responding only to the things that matter. One of the most important things students need to improve their writing in your discipline is practice—and selective, strategic feedback from you, focused only on the areas where they need and can manage your guidance.

Creating a Strategy: Three Key Questions for Feedback on Student Writing

Three key concerns should drive the process of responding to student writing: the amount of feedback that is needed, the nature of the feedback, and its timing.

1. How much feedback is needed?

The brain can only attend to so much information at one time, and when students receive papers that are covered in comments that range from “comma splice” to “awkward” to “I can’t find your thesis,” they can struggle to figure out which of those messages they should attend to.  And, in many cases, they will focus on the ones that make sense or are the easiest to respond to with a quick fix—leaving us shaking our heads when we get the next set of papers containing the same set of logical or structural problems, assuming that they just didn’t take the time to read our comments.

Starting the feedback process with a set of clear expectations (rubrics are a great way to do this!) can help ensure that you stay focused on big concerns instead of letting your feedback devolve into simple copy-editing. It is generally recommended to stick to only two or three primary areas for your written comments so that you can send a unified message about where students need to focus their energy and attention as they continue improving their writing.

2. What kind of feedback are they receiving?

Of course, to operate under a “less is more” philosophy, you need to make sure that the comments you do offer are carefully focused on key issues. This means being able to make a quick “diagnosis” or assessment of a piece of writing before you begin commenting so that you can ensure the focus is on what students need to address first.

Substance (Is this “the right stuff”? Is there enough of it?): Students who are still working through the content of their writing—whether that takes the form of an argument, a narrative, an analysis, a report, or others—are not yet going to benefit from feedback on structure or written expression. Instead, they need to continue engaging with more global issues, and this is where they need your guidance. The key is to demonstrate for students the difference between successful and unsuccessful material in their paper. Begin by identifying places where the material is well-developed and well-focused; briefly point out what students have done well, and explain that this is the kind of content you need to see throughout. Next, identify places where the writer needs to supply more detail, elaboration, additional examples, etc. It is helpful to use an end-note to give a broad assessment of the level of development of the essay with a couple of key suggestions for how they can develop content more successfully.

Organization (Is there a connective logic and order?): Sometimes students who are very good with the content in their writing are still struggling to make and convey key connections between ideas. If structural issues are the paramount concern in a piece of writing, your comments should focus on specific places in the paper where successful connections are—or are not—being made. In your marginal comments, identify where the structure of the paper is working (effective transitions, for example), show students how the paper is currently structured, and point out places where transitions are needed. The end-note is a great place to summarize the structural issues you see and point students toward next steps in creating a more coherent approach.

Written Expression (Does the language communicate effectively for the given rhetorical situation?): Only after students have worked through the content and structure of their writing is it useful to begin pointing them to surface-level errors, and then only in a focused manner. Instead of simply copy-editing entire papers, start by focusing on errors that interfere with effective communication rather than stylistic choices. Instead of marking typos, pay attention to chronic problems and patterns of error. If the errors and various and abundant, choose a sample of text (one page or one paragraph) and offer a careful edit—direct student to work on editing the rest of the essay. Most importantly, don’t correct errors for students: mark selected ones and require students to do the work to correct them (you can direct them to a source for more info in your end-note).

3. When are they receiving feedback?

While we often spend a tremendous amount of time and energy commenting on final drafts of student work, students typically care less about an assignment that is already graded than about one that is still “live.” So instead of spending hours commenting on those final drafts, find ways to work in smaller amounts of focused feedback throughout the writing cycle. This doesn’t have to mean responding to every draft, but you can ‘sample’ in-class written work, rough drafts, or portions of drafts on a schedule that lets all students have some feedback from you. Or collect drafts from the entire class and write one set of comments that addresses the key writing issues that emerge—the two or three primary writing/thinking (not grammar or mechanics) concerns that arise in many or most drafts. For most students, this is enough to demonstrate your expectations and to help them think more strategically about their own revision process. And finally, don’t discount the potential usefulness of peer review—with a carefully structured process and set of guidelines in place to help them act as readers (not as critics), students can effectively respond to their peers’ writing.

Putting the Theory into Practice

Knowing that “less is more” is the first step toward rethinking your strategy for responding to student writing, but it’s useful to have external mechanisms for ensuring that this strategy gets put to use. Here are some logistical suggestions for keeping your commenting practices aligned with your new knowledge.

  1. Start without a pen in your hand. Read students’ papers all the way through once with an eye toward developing your strategy—make your diagnosis and then go back and insert only comments that are relevant to that diagnosis.

  2. Set a timer for responding to each paper, and hold yourself to the time you’ve set. You’ll be amazed at how effectively and efficiently you can get through a paper when you’re held to a limit! I typically aim for around 15 minutes for a 5-page essay.

  3. Don’t comment primarily as a means to “justify the grade.” As soon as we start thinking about the comments as “explanation” for a poor grade, it’s easy to fall into the over-commenting trap.

Implementing these kinds of changes in my own grading and commenting practices has been nothing short of revolutionary. Not only do I spend less time on each individual student paper, but I also find myself less exhausted with my students’ writing when I don’t take on the role of copy editor. Most importantly, I see a clearer trajectory of improvement in my students’ writing because they are focusing their attention on a few key concerns that are developmentally appropriate rather than simply aiming for “correctness.”


Haswell, R. H. Minimal marking. (1983). College English, 45(6), 166-70.

Haswell, Richard. (2006, November 9). The complexities of responding to student writing; or, looking for shortcuts via the road of excess. Across the Disciplines, 3. Available at

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick,D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of food feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Perrault, S. T. (2011). Cognition and error in student writing. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 22(3), 47-73.

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