The Power of Positivity in a Writing Class

unnamed-3Five years ago I was lucky enough to do the Oregon Writing Project with the incredible Linda Christensen, and during one of our sessions, a fellow teacher mentioned something about having a 50/50 blend of praise and constructive criticism when responding to student papers. The offhanded nature of the remark made it clear that for her doing this was a given, but I had never thought about how many of my comments criticized negatives and how many praised positives. In fact, up to that point, I’d never really differentiated between the two, as all of my comments had the same goal of helping students grow. But something about her comment stuck, so that night I pulled a stack of exemplars I’d kept from the previous year to see what my ratio of praise to criticism was, and it didn’t take long to see that despite these being model pieces, well over 90% of my comments were either corrections or criticism and some didn’t even have any praise at all. 

That night I decided that I needed to know who was correct. Was I doing a disservice to my students by focusing so heavily on criticism and corrections or was her 50/50 rule an arbitrary measure that felt good but would take extra time and/or decrease the focus on student growth areas? I started my search by digging into the research, but I found the offerings pretty scant. There was plenty of prognostication, but I only came across two specific studies, both referenced in Richard Straub’s 1999 A Sourcebook for Responding to Student Writing.  One looked at 40 randomly selected essays from Texas A&M and found 94% of the 864 comments given by instructors to be criticism and the other, which looked at 25 secondary and post-secondary teachers, found only 1 in 9 comments to be praise, with 15 of the 25 instructors giving no praise at all in a single paper.

These studies offered little about the impact that having mostly criticism has on student learning, but they did confirm for me that I was likely near the norm in my overwhelming levels of criticism. Still, by this point I had even more questions and few concrete answers, so I decided to put on my research hat and seek my own answers by setting a goal that the next year I would strive to give my students a 50/50 blend of praise and constructive criticism in my feedback to their writing. 

Before continuing on, I should remark that this sort of small scale teacher research often yields subtle and slow results that only become apparent after thoughtful reflection. This, however, was not one of those times. From my very first round of essays, the students were noticeably more receptive to my feedback and positive about their writing, and these trends only accelerated as I became as serious about my praise as I had always been about my constructive criticism.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve learned a lot more about why praise–or as I prefer to refer to it, positivity–works and how to wield it. It turns out that a central reason positive feedback is so important is that (as the University of Michigan Sweetland Writing Center puts it) “Students often have deep psychological investments in their written work even when we as instructors perceive them to have put little effort into producing it.” Even a poor paper combines a student’s voice, knowledge, and viewpoints and likely took hours to produce, so it is no surprise that students often get invested in even the most (from our perspective) subpar work. That investment then often turns into disappointment or anger for many students when they see a sea of criticism staring back at them, even if it is in blue (not red!) ink. Further, recent studies clearly show that when students encounter mainly negative feedback, they tend to view the feedback as a whole as less effective and grow considerably less motivated for future papers.  

With this in mind, I now strive to incorporate positivity into my feedback in two ways. The first is that I do aim to have somewhat equal amounts of specific criticism and praise. I’m not rigid on having an exact 50/50 ratio, as different papers require different responses, but I always strive for balance. Further, I make sure that both praise and criticism get similar levels of specificity and depth. Having vague monosyllabic positive comments like “Good” or “Nice!” and multiple specific sentences for criticism is not balanced either and can make the positive comments feel disingenuous.

The second way I incorporate positivity is by striving to approach my feedback as an interested reader, not a critical authority figure. The difference between an interested reader and authority figure is a somewhat subtle one. They both point respond to student writing by pointing out problem areas, offering suggestions, and giving praise. The difference is that an authority figure comes across as the all-knowing authority who passes along the correct way while an interested reader comes across as someone who is curious about what the reader has to say and earnest using his/her/their knowledge and understanding to help the reader say it better. While the difference between the two in practice is often subtle, I have found the student response to be anything but. Suggestions that come from an authority figure are often met with indifference, suspicion, or even hostility from students, but the second they feel that you are an interested reader, students will often become so open to your feedback, that they will wait anxiously for your reply. 

Establishing yourself as an interested reader can be tricky, especially if one is used to being an authority figure, so I came up with the following guidelines to help me keep my responses in the interested reader category:

  • I try to have a face-to-face conversation with each student for each polished piece (more in the next post on how to do that when one has 170+ students).
  • I ask a lot of questions of the student both in person and on the paper. Questions are the mark of a partner; demands are the mark of an authority.
  • I offer suggestions, not mandates. Students need to know my thoughts, but all choices are ultimately up to the author.
  • I find a way to excited about whatever they show me (I got this from Colleen Cruz’s The Unstoppable Writing Teacher). If students feel that you have genuine excitement, they will likely grow a lot more excited and motivated themselves. 

So as you begin this year, think about ways to provide more positive responses to student writing this year. It’s not just that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down; the sugar itself is another equally important type of medicine. So often in school we care deeply about students, are interested in what they have to say, and marvel at their growth, yet when you ask students, they think we don’t care and haven’t noticed their ideas or growth. By making clear to students that we know that they have something to say, that we are listening and noticing their growth, that they already have many strengths and skills, and that we are here to serve in the pursuit of finding their voices, we can often build their confidence, motivation, and connection, and those are some of the most powerful drivers of student growth in a writing class. Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.21.22 PM

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