Essay Feedback Comments To Students

Perhaps no task is more important to my success as an English professor than that of critiquing student writing. When responding to work, I strive to give my students substantive feedback that will help them improve their writing. I tend to focus on one or two key issues at a time so as not to overwhelm a developing writer, and I strive to keep the tone friendly and encouraging. In class, I remind them that there is no such thing as a "perfect" piece of writing. When we draft (and I include myself in this "we"), we are all merely trying to make our writing better--clearer, more interesting, more concise, more potent.

To give a sense of the type of critique I offer, I have pasted examples of feedback I have sent via e-mail to students who contacted me with drafts for which they desired comments. Typically, I meet with students face to face to discuss their work, but I find e-mail to be an essential supplement to office meetings. Not only does it allow commuting and working students more opportunity for help, but it also gives students written advice that they can look back to as they revise. I encourage students to both talk with and e-mail me as they write so that I may best help them.

Excerpted comments on an early draft of a student essay on the changing role of fathers in post-World War II poetry (class: Eng 211: American Literature from 1865 to present)

As for the essay, it starts well, but I wonder if it spends a little too much time talking about fathers in general rather than specifically. I’d like to see you get to the texts themselves sooner and take a little more time talking about them. I was curious about your reading of “Daddy.” You mention that the foot/shoe image is protective, but it’s more constraining than that, right? She says that she barely dares to breathe or “achoo.” While the language is playful, it is also a little resentful, right? In class discussion, people have talked about how angry Plath sounds in many of her poems. Is the image of a father here more complicated than we might first imagine?

 In fact, I wonder if the complexity of the father/child relationship might be the through-line in the three poems you’ve selected. Your best discussion right now is the paragraph on “My Papa’s Waltz.” Here, you go into good detail about why the image is affectionate, supporting your reading well by showing how careful Roethke is with his word choice. And yet, though affectionate, there is an element of roughness in this relationship as well. I wonder if in all of these works, can we find a complicated balance of love and… what?... fear? anger? something else?

 You’re on the right track. Now, just think about how to deepen the discussions of the poems and trim the prefatory material.

 Once you have the content where you want it, I want to encourage you to submit the essay to  I’ve attached the instructions in case you need them. This essay is looking grammatically cleaner, but there are still a few lingering problems. In particular, watch out for apostrophes. You want to use them to show possession. (They can also be used for contractions, but you want to avoid contractions in formal writing because they are a casual form of writing.) In places, I see them used with plural nouns, which you don’t want to do. For example,

In the 1950’s the mother role was very simple. Mother’s were expected to stay at home and take care of the house and the children.

 In the first sentence, you want to write “mother’s” rather than “mother” because it is her role—possessive. In the second sentence, you’re talking about multiple “mothers” (plural, rather than possessive), and therefore you don’t need the apostrophe. Does that make sense?

 Thanks for sending me the draft. I hope these comments are helpful. Feel free to send another draft later on if you’d like.

Excerpted comments on a final draft of a student essay on the lack of local church involvement in addressing homeless in Commerce, GA (class: Eng 101: Rhetoric and Composition)


 Intro:You do a very good job highlighting churches’ philanthropic role in the history of the Southeastern US.Because I know where you’re going, I’m tempted to say it’s an altogether excellent intro—but that is because I do know where you’re going.A reader who isn’t aware that Commerce’s churches have resisted this duty and put funds into other programs instead might not see the relevance of the history so readily.It wouldn’t take much (a sentence, a phrase, or maybe even a change of wording) to put emphasize the importance of your call to action.You write, “While some churches continue to be active in the community, many have placed their focus elsewhere” to start heading us in the direction you’ll be headed, but consider really PUSHING this idea.Come right out and say that the efforts are falling short of the need.

(One question: is “self-sustaining” the right phrase?It implies that the projects sustain themselves after initial funding, but what I think you mean is that the church puts money into these projects to sustain itself…?)

Par. 2:Between statistics and shocking quotations, you’ve got great material here.I could see moving some of this up to your intro to grab an audience’s attention more quickly and jolt them into the realization of just how relevant—no, just how crucial—your essay is.Your essay amps up the power here.

Capitalize Thanksgiving.(Thanksgiving dinner)

Out of curiosity, what percentage of Atlanta residents live in poverty?Is it equal to, greater than, or less than the Jackson county percentage?If it’s either of the first two, I’d consider throwing that statistic in the face of the quotation from the local pastor.

Par. 6:“The vast majority of churches is…” is grammatically correct but reads strangely.I’d consider a revision.“Most churches are…” would solve it, but a percentage might prove stronger, e.g. “Ninety-five percent of Commerce churches are..”

MLA style note:Make sure to close your quotation marks before the parenthetical citation.EX. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (Frost 1).


You’ve written an outstanding paper.You make an excellent argument here and defend it well.I hope you can win some hearts and minds.This paper could go on to cause quite a lot of good.

Instructors who require their students to write papers dedicate many hours each semester to reading, commenting on, and grading student writing, and they often wonder if the time they have spent translates into improvements in their students’ writing skills. For their part, students want constructive feedback on their writing and often express frustration when they find their instructors’ comments on their papers to be mysterious, confusing, or simply too brief.

The following tips can help you improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which you respond to your students’ writing. These tips focus on the process of writing comments on students’ papers (whether on rough drafts or final drafts), rather than on the process of grading papers. Grading and commenting on papers are certainly interconnected processes. However, while instructors often think of writing comments on papers as simply a means to justify grades, that purpose should be secondary to helping your students improve their writing skills.

These tips are organized under four categories:

Course Planning
Writing Comments in the Margins
Writing Final Comments
What Else Can You Do?
Sources and Recommended Reading

Course Planning

Before the course begins, think about what kind of writing you will assign, and how you will respond to that writing.

1) Design each writing assignment so that it has a clear purpose connected to the learning objectives for the course. Craft each assignment as an opportunity for students to practice and master writing skills that are central to their success in the course and to academic achievement in your discipline. For example, if you want them to learn how to summarize and respond to primary literature or to present and support an argument, design assignments that explicitly require the skills that are necessary to accomplish these objectives.

2) Sequence your writing assignments to help students acquire skills incrementally, beginning with shorter, simpler writing assignments to longer, more complex papers. You might also find it helpful to develop a sequence for writing comments. In other words, decide ahead of time which aspects of the writing you will focus on with each assignment. For example, you may decide to focus your comments on the first assignment on the writing of the thesis statement, then focus comments on later papers on the success with which the students deal with counter-arguments. Sequencing your comments can help make the commenting process more efficient. However, it is essential to communicate to students before they turn in their papers which aspects of the writing you are going to focus on in your feedback at which points in the semester (and why).

3) Develop and communicate clear grading criteria for each writing assignment. These criteria will help you be as consistent and fair as possible when evaluating a group of student papers. Developing and using criteria is especially important when co-teaching a course or when asking TAs to grade papers for the course. Distribute the grading criteria to students (or post the criteria on the course Web site) so that they will know how you will evaluate their work.

While there are shared criteria for “good writing” that apply across academic disciplines, each discipline also has certain standards and conventions that shape writing in the discipline. Do not expect that students will come into your class knowing how to write the kind of paper you will ask them to write. For example, a student who has learned how to write an excellent analytical paper in a literature course may not know how to write the kind of paper that is typically required for a history course. Give students a written list of discipline-specific standards and conventions, and explain these in class. Provide examples of the kind of writing they will need to produce in your course.

4) Develop a process for writing comments that will give students a clear idea of whether they have or have not achieved the course’s learning objectives (and with what degree of success). Students should be able to see a clear correlation among 1) written comments on a paper, 2) the grading criteria for the assignment, and 3) the learning objectives for the course. Thus, before you start reading and commenting on a stack of papers, remind yourself of the grading criteria, the learning objectives, and which aspects of the writing you want to focus on in your response.


 Writing Comments in the Margins

1) The first time you read through a paper, try to hold off on writing comments. Instead, take the time to read the paper in its entirety. If you need to take some notes, do so on another piece of paper. This strategy will prevent you from making over-hasty judgments, such as faulting a student for omitting evidence that actually appears later in the paper. (In such cases, it may be appropriate to tell the student that you expected that evidence to be presented earlier–and the reason why). While you may expect this strategy to take more time, it can actually save you time by allowing you to focus your feedback on the most important strengths and weaknesses you want to bring to the writers’ attention (see “Writing Final Comments,” below).

2) Respond as a reader, not as a writer. Do not tell students how YOU would write the paper. Instead, tell them how you are responding to each part of the paper as you read it, pointing out gaps in logic or support and noting confusing language where it occurs. For example, if a sentence jumps abruptly to a new topic, do not rewrite the sentence to provide a clear transition or tell the student how to rewrite it. Instead, simply write a note in the margin to indicate the problem, then prompt the student to come up with a solution.

This strategy is especially important to follow when a student asks you to respond to a draft before the final paper is due; in this case, your aim should be to help the student identify weaknesses that he or she should improve and NOT to do the student’s thinking and writing for them. Of course, in some instances, it is necessary and appropriate to give the student explicit directions, such as when she or he seems to have missed something important about the assignment, misread a source, left out an essential piece of evidence, or failed to cite a source correctly.

3) Ask questions to help students revise and improve. One way to ensure that your comments are not overly directive is to write questions in the margins, rather than instructions. For the most part, these questions should be “open” rather than “closed” (having only one correct answer.) Open questions can be a very effective way to prompt students to think more deeply about the topic, to provide needed evidence, or to clarify language. For ideas on how to phrase open questions, see Asking Questions to Improve Learning.

4) Resist the temptation to edit. Instead, mark a few examples of repeated errors and direct students to attend to those errors. Simply put, if you correct your students’ writing at the sentence level, they will not learn how to do so themselves, and you will continue to see the same errors in paper after paper. Moreover, when you mark all mechanical errors, you may overwhelm your students with so many marks that they will have trouble determining what to focus on when writing the next draft or paper.

5) Be specific. Comments in the margin such as “vague,” “confusing,” and “good” do not help students improve their writing. In fact, many students find these comments “vague” and “confusing”–and sometimes abrupt or harsh. Taking a little more time to write longer, and perhaps fewer, comments in the margin will help you identify for students exactly what they have done well or poorly. Information about both is crucial for helping them improve their writing.
Here are some examples of specific comments:

Rather than “vague”

  • “Which research finding are you referring to here?”
  • “I don’t understand your use of the underlined phrase. Can you rewrite this sentence?”
  • “Can you provide specific details to show what you mean here?”

Instead of “confusing,” “what?” or “???

  • “I lost the thread of your argument. Why is this information important? How is it related to your argument?”
  • “You imply that this point supports your argument, but it actually contradicts your point in paragraph 3.”

Rather than “good

  • “This excellent example moves your argument forward.”
  • “Wonderful transition that helped clarify the connection between the two studies you are summarizing.”
  • “An apt metaphor that helped me understand your argument about this historical metaphor.”


Writing Final Comments

1) Begin by making positive comments; when pointing out weaknesses, use a descriptive tone, rather than one that conveys disappointment or frustration. Give an honest assessment, but do not overwhelm the writer with an overly harsh or negative reaction. For example, do not assume or suggest that if a paper is not well written, the writer did not devote a lot of time to the assignment. The writer may have in fact struggled through several drafts. Keep in mind that confusing language or a lack of organized paragraphs may be evidence not of a lack of effort, but rather of confused thinking. The writer may therefore benefit from a few, targeted questions or comments that help them clarify their thinking.

2) Limit your comments; do not try to cover everything. Focus on the 3-4 most important aspects of the paper. Provide a brief summary of 1) what you understood from the paper and 2) any difficulties you encountered. Make sure that whatever you write addresses the grading criteria for the assignment, but also try to tailor your comments to the specific strengths and weaknesses shown by the individual student.

While you may think that writing lots of comments will convey your interest in helping the student improve, students–like all writers–can be overwhelmed by copious written comments on their work. They may therefore have trouble absorbing all the comments you have written, let alone trying to use those comments to improve their writing on the next draft or paper.

3) Distinguish “higher-order” from “lower-order” issues. Typically, “higher-order” concerns include such aspects as the thesis and major supporting points, while “lower-order” concerns are grammatical or mechanical aspects of the writing. Whatever you see as “higher” in importance than other aspects should be clear in your grading criteria. Whatever you decide, write your comments in a way that will help students know which aspects of their writing they should focus on FIRST as they revise a paper or write the next paper. For example, if a paper lacks an argument or a main point in an assignment in which either an argument or main point is essential (as is usually the case), address that issue first in your comments before you note any grammatical errors that the student should attend to.

4) Refer students back to comments you wrote in the margins. For example, you might comment, “Your argument loses focus in the fourth paragraph (see my questions in margin).” You might also note a frequent pattern of mechanical error, then point them to a specific paragraph that contains that type of error.

5) Model clear, concise writing. Before you write final comments, take a moment to gather and order your thoughts.


What Else Can You Do?

1) Provide opportunities for revision. If you want students to improve their writing, give them an opportunity to apply what they have learned from your comments to a new, revised draft. Note: You should decide before the course begins whether you will allow students to revise their papers and, if so, when such revisions must be turned in (e.g., one week after papers handed back) and how you will grade the revision (e.g., average the grade of the revision with the grade earned on the original paper). If you decide not to allow students to revise papers, consider rewarding improvement from one paper to the next (e.g., the grade on the second paper is worth a greater percentage of the final course grade than the grade on the first paper).

2) If students are struggling with their writing, suggest a meeting during office hours. Often, students who are struggling to write clearly are also struggling to clarify what they think about the course material. Ask questions that help them figure out what they think and how to put those thoughts into a well organized, effective paper.

3) Recommend that students seek tutorial help at The Writing Center. At The Writing Center, students can meet with writing tutors who will read their papers and provide feedback. Writing Center tutors are trained to provide students with feedback on the clarity of their writing in a general way and will not necessarily be familiar with the criteria you are using to grade papers, unless you or the student have shared those criteria. However, seeking such feedback can be very helpful to students as they learn to write for academic audiences.


Sources and Recommended Reading

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gottschalk, K. and K. Hjortshoj (2004). “What Can You Do with Student Writing?” In The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice.Studies in higher education31(2), 199-218.

“Responding to Student Writing.” (2000). Harvard Writing Project Bulletin. The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Straub, Richard. (2000). The Practice of Response: Strategies for Commenting on Student Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial​​​-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. © 2009, Washington University.


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