Generous Feedback

It’s confessional time (pardon any sarcasm and my overuse of parentheses):

I give a lot of feedback: on writing, on speaking, and recently on teaching. However, there is a problem with my feedback. It’s all negative. Now, it’s not negative in that I am telling students they are terrible and they should go back to their country and study something else (I never think this!). It’s negative because of the absence of positive. I rarely leave a “Terrific!” or “Good job!” or “You worded this thesis statement in an excellent and clear way.” type of comment. My comments are cold and calculated (“SV,” “noun form error,” “use the past tense,” “I didn’t understand this word”).

It’s not because I am mean (I’m really a nice guy), but because it’s not in my personality, I am a bit lazy (there is a lot more wrong than right which I need to address), and mostly because students both want and need feedback on their problems/mistakes/errors/glitches (grammar, organization, content, plagiarism, etc.) more than they want feedback on what they did right. After all, isn’t me not ripping up their paper in anger and throwing it at them a nice enough gesture?.

Mistakes are important and I not only highlight mistakes, but I talk students through their mistakes, give examples, models, and language rules to help them understand what they did and how to make it better. I rarely correct things for them. And I always have them record their errors, the reason they made them, and how to correct these errors so that they have a catalog of their own specific problems, which they can then use to help them in later work. I do this for both written and oral work.

I remember taking a class on writing instruction. One of the articles we had to read offered what was considered a very good technique. For every written assignment submitted, a good teacher should read it three times: once, pencil down, just to get a sense of what the student is trying to say; once to make comments on general organization and content issues; and once on the grammar and language mechanics. Give me a break. This sounds great, but teachers do not have that kind of time. If I had to read every assignment three times, I’d still be giving feedback on our first assignment! Why not just give feedback correctly the first time? There is no reason one cannot read, understand, and comment on all aspects of the paper during the first read.

Plus, I give my comments only when I am working with a student, so that we can talk about the issues and try to resolve them in real-time. This works because I am dealing with a small class (~12 students) and short assignments (~1 page or less). For longer assignments, I give comments via Google Drive and reserve time for writing conferences. This is time intensive. I couldn’t imagine adding more reading to this.

My technique, while it may not be the “nicest” or most “humanistic,” is effective. My students learn. Their writing improved. And they never cry.

One final confession: I use a red pen. Actually, I have several multicolored pens (with red, blue, green, and blank inks) that help me better comment on student writing. I use red not as a mark of evil but because it is bright and stands out, which makes it easier for students to focus on their issues. Sometimes I use orange because orange is the color of my school and I have a lot of orange pens. I also use blue to make more general comments and content comments. I use green and black too for various and sundry purposes.

Someone once told me, “Never use red.” Until someone presents some empirical evidence showing a red pen can undo a semester’s worth of mutual respect, constructive feedback, and rapport, I’ll treat this as I treat rules such as “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

What kind of feedback do you leave? What color is your feedback? How does your feedback smell?


2 thoughts on “Generous Feedback

  1. Glenys Hanson says:

    I would say your comments to students aren’t cold but neutral. I worked in much the same way. Students don’t need teachers to be “nice” they need them to be effective. Students give us their time; in return we owe them learning experiences which enable them to attain their goals more efficiently than they would have without our intervention.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      “Students don’t need teachers to be ‘nice’ they need them to be effective.” This is very true! I think that we can be nice and build rapport in other manners in the classroom, but it some instances, it is more effective to be neutral. However, I worry that not building in some system of praise will neither encourage/motivate nor discourage students from writing, which may have a negative impact on their writing in general – especially if they are very young.

      Thanks for the comment!

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