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Teaching Strategies

Giving Effective Feedback on Student Writing

By Amanda Leary

Providing feedback is one of the most critical tasks of teaching. Well-balanced feedback, addressing both achievements and areas for improvement, can help students develop new skills, reinforce their learning, and boost their academic confidence. Ineffective feedback, however, can compound students’ low motivation and self-perception, hindering their development and learning (Wingate, 2010). Good feedback does much more than correct errors; it’s an opportunity to empower and affirm students as knowledge makers, to improve their self-awareness, and to develop strategies for improvement now and in their future work.

By focusing on providing quality, effective feedback, we can maximize its positive effects on learning—not only helping students become better writers, but better thinkers, with increased confidence and motivation to succeed. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however; feedback isn’t useful for students if they don’t understand or know how to incorporate it.

Deciding what and how much to comment on will depend on your particular disciplinary, class, and assignment context. The strategies below will help you determine what kind of feedback to give and when, as well as identify potential next steps for helping students actually use your feedback.

Preparing to Give Feedback

Before you ever read the first paper, there are a few key questions to ask yourself that can help save a lot of time and make your feedback more effective: 1) why are you giving feedback, and 2) what are you looking for? Let’s take these in turn.

Why are you giving feedback?

Depending on when in the writing process you’re providing students with feedback, your comments will serve different purposes. Just as assignments can be either formative or summative, so, too, can your feedback. Summative feedback addresses what students did well or poorly at one particular instance and is often used in evaluation to justify a grade, whereas formative feedback often answers, “What can I do to improve next time?” While formative feedback often aligns with formative assignments, such as drafts and other process work such as proposals and outlines, you can also provide formative feedback on final, summative assignments and vice versa. We often switch between these two types of feedback on a single assignment, so taking time to establish beforehand what the goal of giving feedback is will focus the kinds of comments you make. It might be helpful for students to use markers in your comments to clearly distinguish between “this time” and “next time” feedback.

Two bulleted lists comparing/contrasting formative vs. summative feedback. On the left, the characteristics of formative feedback are listed as: designed to foster improvement, forward-facing, and process-oriented. On the right, the characteristics of summative feedback are listed as: offers an evaluation of submitted work, backward-facing, and product-oriented.

Another way to distinguish the two is in your mindset toward the task of giving feedback: are you a coach or a grader? If you’re approaching student work with the sole purpose of attaching a grade, then your feedback is likely to be more summative—feeding back to the writing. The mindset of a reader, however, is more aligned with a developmental approach giving more formative feedback. Here, we might think more in terms of feeding forward—concentrating our attention on actionable steps students can take to continue to improve their writing.

What are you looking for?

Sometimes, the hardest part about giving feedback can be deciding where to start. We know good writing when we see it; however, articulating those features of good writing into clearly defined criteria for a successful assignment can help mitigate the feeling that you need to comment on every feature or correct every mistake you see. Providing these criteria to students in advance has demonstrable benefits for their learning and can improve the quality of their assignments (Brookhart, 2018). Criteria should be aligned with the goals you have for the assignment, the overall goals of your course, and targeted at students at the appropriate level (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

As you’re developing your criteria, you may find it helpful to prioritize your higher-order and lower-order concerns. Higher-order concerns will be more closely aligned with your goals for the assignment. For example, if you are providing feedback on a seminar paper, your higher-order concerns may be related to how well students demonstrated their understanding of a particular set of readings through a clearly articulated thesis and synthesis of primary and secondary sources. Lower-order concerns, such as sentence structure and grammar, would not feature as heavily in your feedback except where they affect the readability of the writing. However, if teaching specific writing skills was the primary focus of your class, your higher-order concerns might include sentence structure or grammatical understanding. Knowing what your priorities are for students’ writing before you sit down with the first assignment will keep your feedback targeted to your high-priority criteria rather than noting every little detail, resulting in fewer comments—which can be overwhelming for both you and students.

Taking the time to identify why you’re giving feedback and what your priorities are for students’ writing keeps your comments focused and relevant to students.

While You’re Responding to Student Work

Whether formative or summative, your feedback should be specific, actionable, focused on patterns, and balanced. The following tips will help you not only save time commenting, but will also ensure your comments are useful to students:

  • Be specific: Simply underlining, using exclamation marks, or the infamous “awkward” doesn’t tell students anything about how to revise their essay. Highlight strengths and weaknesses in reference to specific passages and examples and offer concrete, actionable suggestions for improvement.
  • Focus on action: If students don’t understand your comments, they can’t use them (Chanock, 2000; Lea and Steirer, 2000). We may know what periodic and loose sentences are, or maybe we wrote our dissertation on that niche author that would really round out a students’ discussion of a topic. Writing “comma splice” or “what about the kinematics of root growth” in the margins without explaining what that is or why it matters for their writing (especially if it isn’t connected to what you’ve taught in class) isn’t actionable feedback.
  • Look for patterns: There are likely to be several mistakes repeated within and across students’ writing. Keep a comment back of feedback addressing common mechanical mistakes; rather than re-writing the same comment on every paper, you can note the first instance with an explanatory comment that applies across students. Over time, you might also develop a repository of recurring comments on more structural or content-based patterns, such as thesis development, structure and organization, or use of quotes and evidence. Having stock language on hand that you can then tailor to a student’s particular essay can help save time. Where you see the same mistake being repeated across student work, you can include a more general comment about the issue with a note that more information will be provided in class.
  • Balance praise and critique: The most effective feedback contains a balance of challenge and support (Lizzio and Wilson, 2008). This doesn’t mean, however, that we should feel compelled to use the “feedback sandwich”: placing critical feedback between moments of praise. Students can recognize and discount token positive comments (Hyland and Hyland, 2001), so rather than sandwiching feedback, give valid criticism while offering encouragement, genuine appreciation for student writing, and belief in students’ ability to succeed.

Applying Feedback

Giving feedback is just one part of the process; it is equally important for students to be active participants if learning is to happen (Winstone et al., 2017). Depending on the context of your course, you might facilitate student engagement with feedback in class or through assignments that promote reflection on the writing process:

  • Use class time to address feedback that applies to many students’ work. Provide instruction or resources for how students can integrate that feedback into their writing with an opportunity to practice.
  • Where time allows, incorporate writing days into your course calendar as a dedicated opportunity for students to work through your feedback as they revise their assignments.
  • Try a reflective feedback journal as a space for students to reflect on their immediate reactions to your comments and how they plan to address them. This could be done in class or as part of an ongoing journal throughout the course.
  • Incorporate peer review as a mechanism for understanding feedback and to empower students to further self-assess their own work (McConlogue, 2020; Huisman et al., 2019).
  • Add a brief metacognitive cover letter or memo to final assignments that asks students to reflect on how they incorporated feedback from rough to final draft.

Integrating these strategies into your practice will not only save you time, but help keep your feedback targeted, educative, and effective. Viewing feedback as a dialogic process that begins before you make your first comment and involves students as active recipients of that feedback is an important part of giving students comments they can—and actually want to—use.


Brookhart, Susan M. “Appropriate Criteria: Key to Effective Rubrics.” Frontiers in Education 3 (2018).

Chanock, Kate. “Comments on Essays: Do Students Understand What Tutors Write?” Teaching in Higher Education 5, no. 1 (2000): 95–105.

Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research 77, no. 1 (2007): 81–112.

Huisman, Bart, Nadira Saab, Paul van den Broek, and Jan van Driel. “The Impact of Formative Peer Feedback on Higher Education Students’ Academic Writing: a Meta-Analysis.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 44, no. 6 (2019): 863–80.

Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland. “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10, no. 3 (2001): 185–212.

Lea, M. R. and Steirer, B. (eds). Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts. Buckingham: Open University Press, 2000.

Lizzio, Alf, and Keithia Wilson. “Feedback on Assessment: Students’ Perceptions of Quality and Effectiveness.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 33, no. 3 (2008): 263–75.

McConlogue, Teresa. Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education: A Guide for Teachers. UCL Press. 1st ed. London: UCL Press, 2020.

Wingate, Ursula. “The Impact of Formative Feedback on the Development of Academic Writing.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 35, no. 5 (2010): 519–33.

Winstone, Naomi E., Robert A. Nash, James Rowntree, and Michael Parker. “‘It’d Be Useful, but I Wouldn’t Use It’: Barriers to University Students’ Feedback Seeking and Recipience.” Studies in Higher Education (Dorchester-on-Thames) 42, no. 11 (2017): 2026–41.