Responding to Student Writing

The text that follows is adapted from a presentation the Writers Workshop provides at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning’s Graduate Teaching Academy each semester. Please contact us if you would like to schedule the full presentation for your department or unit.

Why reflect on best practices for responding to student writing?

Written responses may be the most enduring form of communication we have with our students. When we respond to Person with Lightbulb bubblestudent writing, we have an opportunity to intervene in our students’ learning, short- and long-term writing development,
engagement in the course material, and confidence. In short, teacher feedback has the power to motivate or discourage student writers.

What are best practices for responding to student writing?

Several decades of research on response to student writing suggests that effective feedback is:

  • specific
  • prioritized
  • individualized
  • nonjudgmental
  • attentive to both global (ideas, development, etc.) and local (word choice, syntax, etc.) matters
  • connected to course concepts and vocabulary.

Additionally, response scholars suggest that instructors provide:

  • in-progress feedback on drafts
  • marginal and end comments
  • suggestions for ways to improve
  • questions and open-ended comments
  • praise.

That last point is worth reiterating: Studies suggest that students who receive little or no praise are likely to produce shorter final papers and fewer drafts and to hold negative attitudes about writing.

It’s also worth remembering that each paper we see represents only one moment in a student’s long-term academic trajectory. When we look at that writing, what we see isn’t a pure representation of a student’s knowledge or effort, but a complex blend of that knowledge and effort within the contexts of writing, including the context of your course.


How can instructors implement best practices for responding to student writing?

Check List Icon
1. Read the paper holistically.

  • If possible, skim through the entire set of papers or a selection of them before commenting. This practice will save time as you notice writing problems that are common across the set.
  • Try reading the paper first without marking on it.
  • Determine the 1-2 priorities that are most important for the writer to work on: Does the draft follow the assignment? Does it have a strong central argument or claim? Is there specific evidence to support the ideas? Is it effectively organized for readers?

2. Compose an end comment.

  • Reply to the writer in your own voice as the intended reader.
  • Begin with the general and move to the specific. It’s often best to start with a summary of the argument or purpose of the paper and what the student is doing well.
  • Offer suggestions for improvement in 1-2 areas.
  • Give specific procedural recommendations for how to go about the revision.

3. Insert marginal comments.

  • Questions, suggestions, or praise that relate to the 1-2 aspects of the text you’ve highlighted in the end comment.
  • Respond as a reader.
  • Respond selectively.

4. Address error

  • Distinguish between error and stylistic preferences.
  • Don’t “fix” or edit every error, or students won’t learn how to make corrections themselves. Instead,
    • Focus on a pattern, and/or
    • Focus on a passage, and/or
    • Use minimal marking.

How can I respond more efficiently?

First, follow the steps recommended above. Remember to modify the length and depth of your response based on the length and complexity of students’ assignments. Prioritize your learning objectives before you begin marking student papers, and let those objectives guide the focus of your response.

Address common problems by responding to the class as a whole rather than marking every paper. Prepare a handout, teach the issue in class, or record a podcast.

You might also consider using a rubric. Visit the resources below for sample rubrics and tips for crafting effective ones.

Giving Feedback on Student Writing, University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing

    • Designing & using rubrics
      • Analytic rubric
      • Holistic rubric
      • Grid rubric
      • Numeric rubric

Response to Writing, UIUC Center for Writing Studies

Grading Student Work, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

Finally, if you’re having trouble formulating an effective response or prioritizing what to focus on in a student’s text, don’t try to address the issue through marginal comments. Instead, invite the student to office hours to discuss the text.

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