Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Voluminous Written Feedback and 'Over-Efforting' Instructors": A conversation among writing faculty

In a recent conversation on the Writing Program Administrators List-Serv, faculty from across the nation discussed issues with instructors who provide too much feedback on students' papers and essays. According to their research, instructor over-commenting on student writing has a diminishing ROI for both the students and the instructors.

Since I have heard from SNL faculty members who feel that providing written feedback can be too time-intensive, and I have heard from students who have difficulty navigating and prioritizing their instructors' suggestions for revision, I thought it might be useful to share some key points and tips from this discussion (emphasis is mine):

-->"A common bit of advice is to avoid overwhelming students with exhaustive written feedback. As I understand it, it's a problem to provide too many written comments for a few reasons: (1) can be overwhelming or discouraging for novice writers, (2) makes it difficult for students to discern what Nancy Sommers has called a "scale of concerns", (3) is unlikely to result in comprehensive improvement may result in instructor exhaustion and frustration" –Jonathan Hunt, University of San Francisco

-->"[Our] surveys suggest that students don't even look at teacher commentary unless the grade is something they didn't think they deserved.  In other words, if they hand in the essay thinking it's a "B" and they receive a "B," then they don't look at the commentary.  If they hand in the essay thinking it's a "B" and they get a "C," then they look at the commentary." -Jill Dahlman, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Reno

-->"One thing I've done is to take real examples of student papers with voluminous feedback (blinded), and ask my colleagues to imagine themselves as the student authors. I ask them to read through the feedback and 1) write about how it makes them feel, and 2) describe their plan of action for revising. Some people have actually said that they would simply throw it in the trash!  They realize that with so much feedback (including copy-editing) they simply wouldn't know what to do." –Jonathan Hunt, University of San Francisco

-->"Comments written by teachers who are respected by students and who work to ally themselves with students' intentions (about writing that the students are heavily invested in) are devoured by students -- not just for their potential to help the writer better do what s/he was trying to do, but also for their potential to make the student feel seen and heard." -Maja Wilson, University of Maine

-->"[Piper Selden and I] are finding that when we have the students write their own notes on the essays (as opposed to our writing commentary), more is retained by the student.  The essays are coming out much better by the end of the semester.  -Jill Dahlman, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Reno

-->"The research […] recommends restricting the volume of teacher commentary in ways that are task, discipline, and learner specific." –From abstract of "The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess" by Richard Haswell

-->"Josephine Coster-Tarvers […] advises commenters to focus on patterns rather than everything. -Christopher Sean Harris, California State University Los Angeles

-->"Try a time-limited screencast program like Jing. It allows you five minutes (maximum) of oral commentary, which also forces you to focus on the most important issues, accompanied by scrolling and highlighting through the student's paper. Interestingly, it also controls the student's focus--you lead the student through the commentary, instead of the student deciding what to look at (sometimes little of it but the grade?). We've done three years of research on this method and it surpasses written commentary on a number of dimensions (including amount of commentary: teachers who used it provided an average of 780 words in five minutes, compared with their typical written responses, which were about 150 words). Teachers said more, explained more, and, affectively, were perceived by students to be supporting them a lot more." –Chris Anson, North Carolina State University

-->"[…] even if an instructor maintains that it is helpful to, say, circle every comma splice on every students' writing, they might be able to concede that a short, interactive lesson on comma splices would both cost less time and produce more benefits." -Paul T. Corrigan, Southeastern University

-->"[Josephine Miles] was a scholar of British and world history at Berkeley, an acclaimed poet, and a widely read compositionist. At Berkeley, despite being made University Professor in 1973, she continued to teach a section of English 1A every year. She was tough and known for commenting sparsely on student papers. She would put little check marks beside passages that she liked. One of her students was Kate Blickhahn, early member of the Bay Area Writing Project. Blickhahn recalls "a great welling of pleasure on seeing several of those tiny marks on something I had written." –Richard Haswell, Texas A&M

If you are a School for New Learning faculty or staff member who is interested in learning more about efficiently providing effective, targeted feedback on students' writing, consider taking Steffanie Triller Fry's online professional development course, "Teaching with Writing in Any Course", which starts April 13. More information is here.

Works Cited
Writing Program Administrators List-Serv. WPA-L Digest 22 Feb 2015 (#2015-74). Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University WPA-L, 2015.

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