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Last week, I had to do a presentation to my department on "descriptive feedback" and most of my colleagues came feeling that they give lots of it. After all, we English teachers are masters of the pen, especially the red one.  Our pens--regardless of colour-- circle, highlight, underline and scribble notes in margins like: Use stronger verbs, Needs more detail, Lacks focus. These are all valid observations about a piece of writing, but what if students don't know how to focus or add more detail? What if they don't know the difference between a strong and a weak verb? We know --we're the supposed experts. But our students are not.  Yes, we taught the lessons. Yes, they have handouts in their binders. Yes, they should know that stuff by now.

Yet some of them still don't know what to do.

What we need to do is give our students feedback that actually feeds forward, information that gives them next steps and/or where to go for help.  For example, if I have a student who passed in an essay with a weak introduction, I could write "weak lead" or "weak thesis".  That may justify why she got a poor mark for that part of the assignment, but if she doesn't know how to write a good lead and thesis, it isn't effective feedback. Instead, I could tell her:

Your opening doesn't lead logically into your thesis (see handout on introductions; extra help is on Tuesday at noon)

Your thesis is in the correct place, but it's not persuasive (see website link on writing a thesis; extra help is on Tuesday at noon)

These statements give very focused information that the student can use to improve her skills and also provides guidance on where to go for help.

I know what you're thinking: who's got time for that?  Feedback like this would take forever, and we're already overwhelmed when it comes to assessment.  So very true. However, there are some strategies that you can use to make feedback easier for you to give and for your students to use.

1. Create some checklists that include the feedback you would normally give to your students for particular assignments. (Think about those phrases you write over and over again in the margins) Make sure the comments are short and in "student" language, not educational lingo. Those long, carefully crafted rubrics are wonder-ful, but let's face it.  Very few students actually read them.

Creating checklists will take time up front, but once you have a bank of comments ready to go, you can quickly tweak checklists for various assignments.  You will have to write a lot fewer comments on student writing, and you'll find the marking process so much faster.  

2. Have you gone digital? This youtube video is an excellent tutorial on how you can provide feedback electronically, using Google Docs and Forms:

Regardless of the method you use to provide good, descriptive feedback, the whole process is a total waste if the kids don't read it.  Unfortunately most are only interested in the mark at the top.  If you want them to use your advice to improve, there are several things you can do to aid that process:

1. Record the mark in your files but don't put it on top of the assignment.  Then, require students to do a short written reflection on your feedback before you show them their mark.

2. Let students do more of the work -- and the thinking. I wrote about this method before and I like it so much it bears repeating: highlight areas of strength in one colour and areas that need work in another.  Students will need to tell you why you highlighted each section.  I recently did this on Google Docs. Students had to write a response to something we'd discussed in class.  I told them I would only assess their idea development. Once I was done, they responded on the doc.  It worked beautifully! It was very quick for me to do and almost all of them responded with the perfect fix for their issue.

Using Google Docs for descriptive feedback and formative assessment

3. Have students evaluate themselves.  Ultimately, they need to know how to revise and edit their work.  If they don't reflect on their progress, our feedback is just empty words. This week I had assignments coming in from one class and going back to another.  The students who were passing in a lit essay on Macbeth passed in a short reflection that you can see below.  They were pretty accurate!  As you can see I added comments to the reflection -- because I don't have a checklist done for this assignment yet.

Use good descriptive feedback and engage in conversations with your students about their work.
 After my tenth grade class got their essays back, I gave them the sheets below. Their homework that night was to fill in the reflection.  That way I know that they actually read my feedback.  The sheet has room for future assignments, too, so they can keep an ongoing record throughout the semester. You can grab it HERE.
Use good descriptive feedback and engage in conversations with your students about their work.
My biggest area of growth as a teacher has been in assessment.  It's always an issue for English teachers: how do we give them good feedback without spending hours and hours grading? I don't think anyone has found "the" answer yet, but I know that using these strategies to provide more descriptive feedback has made my life easier and my students' writing improve.


  1. Do you have any tips for fast and effective feedback? Please, please share!

  2. I love the idea of highlighting areas that they need to improve on or change! In the last couple of days, I've spent a good amount of time grading argumentative paragraphs my 6th graders did in Google docs. Unfortunately, I already explained why I highlighted each section, but next time, I'll definitely try this! For the assignment I just graded, I'm planning to have them read my comments, then underneath their current paragraph, I'm going to have them re-do the work, implementing the changes that I went over in the comments. Then they will
    re-submit in Google Classroom. I struggle to get my struggling writers to actually read the comments I make. I'm hoping doing it this way will force them to really think it through and recognize the necessary changes they need to make. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Lit with Lyns

  3. Rewrites are always good--then you know they've at least done a little thinking about your feedback.

  4. Do you have copies of the "Evolution as a Writer" feedback sheets? I looked in your TPT store and didn't find them. Thanks!

    1. Hi! I just added the link to the post.

  5. Wow! Love parts 1 and 2. Now that's using technology to improve student writing. You might check out my 438 canned essay comments which identify both writing issues and solutions to cut and paste and save time. After all, identifying fragments and providing solutions on a group of 120 essays takes a lot of red ink (even if it's in digital form) and time.