How to give writing feedback to students efficiently

In any learning situation, we deepen our learning when we receive meaningful, individualized feedback. So in my high-school writing classes, I would love it if I could give my Chicago Public Schools students individualized feedback on their writing projects. But I have over 120 students this year. So even if I spent three minutes writing individual comments on each student’s essay, this would take me six hours—in addition to the time I spend planning and teaching.  I don’t have this kind of time.

Plus, there were many times in my career when I did write individualized feedback. But students skimmed my comments and shoved the essay in their folder. Or worse—they tossed it in the garbage can (not even the recycling bin).

So what’s a teacher to do? Over the last couple of years, my goal has been to increase my students’ independence as learners. To do this, I aim to create circumstances where they do the thinking. Somewhere I remember reading a quote that went something like this: whoever does the thinking, does the learning.

I figured out a way to to help students give themselves their own feedback after each major writing assignment (about 2-3 times per quarter).

As the director of the Writing Center at the University of Madison-Wisconsin highlights, effective writing feedback fulfills these expectations:

  • Follows explicit evaluation criteria
  • Identifies ways to improve and deepen thinking about analysis, persuasion, organization, clarity, power, precision
  • Signals priorities for what to work on next
  • Motivates students to care about their writing and about their revision or next writing project

Here’s how I get my students to grow as writers without spending hours and hours doing the thinking for them.

1. I make sure the assignment and grading criteria are clear.

Thanks to my science teacher colleagues at Hancock College Prep, I got introduced to standards-based grading. Instead of students receiving one grade for an essay, they get a few grades on major essays. This helps them distinguish between the content of their writing and the actual writing out of their ideas.

But first, we establish a common understanding of what grades mean (again, I thank my science-teacher colleagues for this guidance).

  • A=Writing or thinking exceeds expectations and can be used as a perfect, or almost-perfect, example for other students
  • B=Writing or thinking meets the expectations and a few minor improvements would make this perfect or almost perfect
  • C=Writing or thinking demonstrates basic ideas that might be commonly used by other students and, while acceptable, is not memorable
  • D=Something important is missing or unclear or misunderstood but the writing or thinking shows some understanding
  • F=Writing or thinking is significantly incomplete or inaccurate or unacceptable

These evaluation guidelines help me determine the grade for each of the standards (Yes, they’re Common Core; I like Common Core Standards).  I include student-friendly language and keep our default audience in mind: our high-school community of teens and adults.  For this profile assignment, we focused on these standards.

  • _____ CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.11-12.2.A Introduce and organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it (the profile starts off engagingly, develops smoothly and insightfully, and encourages contemplation at the end)
  • _____ CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.3.B Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, reflection to develop experiences (the quotes are well chosen and there is a balance between your writing and the agent’s ideas)
  • _____ CCSS.L.1. Demonstrate command of standards English grammar when writing or speaking (few writing mistakes and effective use of the sentence structures and vocabulary we learned)
  • _____  The essay is neat, complete, and turned in on time.

For the assignment in this post, students interviewed someone affected by an issue of their choice. I challenged them to model their writing after this example by Melissa Sanchez of Catalyst-Chicago. Before our reflection exercise, I remind them of the assignment’s guidelines.

  • Start with a description of the agent (person you interviewed) facing a conflict related to the issue your chose
  • Follow with some background info on the agent
  • Write about the experience and lead up to the volta
  • End with something that shows the agent’s reflection or something to make the audience reflect
  • Add quite a few vocab words and sentence structures we learned and highlight or bold them

2. I make sure I gave them time in class and set specific benchmarks for progress

Over a few days, I gave students time in class to do some of the writing. They also had the responsibility to do some writing at home and show up with specific parts complete.

This made the major writing project manageable and allowed me to float around during class, read a paragraph here and there, and offer specific, verbal individualized feedback to each student.

Through this approach, I intervene by building students’ confidence with feedback like “The quote you chose for the second paragraph reveals the agent’s conflict engagingly.”

Or I redirect them with comments such as, “I don’t see any background on your agent’s struggle. How and when did the agent recognize this was a problem?”

This way, I also avoid seeing their major essays for the first time when I grade them.

3. When grading, I focus on key sections when I grade them and do not write comments

To prevent me from spending hours and hours grading essays, I speed read one class at time in one session (about an hour or so). However, I slow down in a couple of sections where I think students will reveal their most independent thinking and writing. I based their grades on that. Even when students have challenged my grading, I’ve always been able to explain and justify why they got the grade they got.

I stopped writing comments on their major essays. It slows me down and students rarely make use out of them. At first, when students did not see comments on their essays, I’d hear comments like, “You didn’t read it!” They wanted evidence I examined every idea.

I’d joke, “As much as I would like to spend every evening reading your writing, I have a life too.”

4. We reflect using successful examples from other students

When I pass out their graded essays with the rubric, I show them one student’s admirable writing. We look at each section of the assignment (the introduction, the background, etc.). After each section, I ask students to identify what makes this a superior example of writing. Sometimes, I also have them share how this could be improved.

The student examples are always shown anonymously and I sometimes show them writing from a student in another class. Or I give the student whose work I’m showing a heads up. I’ve never had a student say “no” to showing their work.

After we debrief each section, students reflect on their own writing: What did I do well? What could be better?

Here’s a recent example of our debrief with the writing assignment I described above. Below each section  are the reflection notes from our class discussion.


What makes a profile introduction good, according to students

What makes a profile introduction good, according to students





Volta / Closing

5. Students revise one section of their writing assignment based on the reflection

After the debrief, I give students the opportunity (in class or on their own) to revise one section–just one. If it’s perfect, then they work on something else or don’t have homework.

This is how students grow as writers; this is how I prevent myself from grading for endless hours.

I’ve also seen students’ skepticism and frustration about their own grades fade when they see an example of successful work. This way, I don’t have explain to 120 students individually why they got the grades they got.

Through this approach, students do the thinking; therefore, students do the learning.

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