Responding Smarter, Not Harder, to Student Writing

Four years ago I did a math problem that changed my life. I was looking at the stacks of paper lording over my desk, and I began to wonder how much time I spent hunched over stacks like those with a pen in hand. To find the answer, I tracked my grading time for a month and came to an average of 10 hours per week, which falls nicely in the middle of the range given in the only modern study I know on the subject: an NCTE study from a decade ago that found most English teachers spend between 9-12 hours per week responding to student writing. I then multiplied my 10 hours by 36 weeks of school and then multiplied that by 35 years of teaching (the average length of a career), and the result was that over my career I was looking at approximately 12,600 hours of responding to student writing, which is the equivalent of working full time, 52 weeks a year, for six years.  

Like many English teachers, the amount of time I need to grade these papers goes well beyond my planning time, and so the way I’d borne this extra load was something that I call the Jacob Marley (from A Christmas Carol; see belowMethod.


Similar to Marley, my person was always chained to my papers. I carted them everywhere I went in the hope that I would find a few spare moments here and there to knock out a little grading. Further, every few weeks I usually had to take an intensive grading weekend/evening in an effort to get caught up and at least two or three times a year my stack grew so high that I used a “sick” day at a coffee shop to chop my paper stacks down to a manageable size.

It was the Marley-esque lifestyle, and a particularly grueling stretch of papers, that led me to the math problem mentioned above. And after finding the answer, I realized that I needed to know more about the process of commenting and grading. I wanted to know how much my students learned from my feedback in the margins. I wanted to know if there was a way to be more efficient. I also wanted to know that the six years that I was on the path to investing in margin comments was worth it. So I began digging, and what I found rocked the very core of my practice. 

Over the next few months, I will be posting every Friday on the topic of margin comments, feedback, and grading, as I think this issue has such huge implications for teacher quality of life, English teacher burn-out, and the rate of student growth as writers. I will also be speaking on these topics at the NCTE Annual Convention during the Ignite Session, where I will discuss how small changes in feedback can make a major change in a teacher’s quality of life and instruction.

Part I: Timing is Everything

As a student, I encountered teachers with really diverse styles of providing feedback. Some had complex rubrics, some had shorthand systems, some wrote long notes on the last page, and many just snaked comments and corrections throughout every inch of blank space. But what they all shared in common is that the bulk of this feedback came on final drafts.

The idea that serious feedback goes on final drafts was so universal in my education that I didn’t even think about alternatives until years into my career. And even once I did hear about giving significant formative feedback, I fought the idea hard. I didn’t want to entertain that my teacher mentors hadn’t been right on this point, and I really didn’t want to entertain that I could have done better by the students whose final drafts I loaded with ink. So I wrote off formative feedback as another suggestion from the experts that looks good on paper but is simply too much work in actual practice.

Eventually, the idea of formative feedback popped up so much in reading and conversation that I knew I would need to face it, and once I did, I found a near academic consensus that formative feedback is indeed far more effective than summative feedback for the following reasons:

  • The very presence of a grade makes written feedback a secondary concern because most students focus more on the grade than they do on the lessons they can glean from teacher comments.
  • Once a draft becomes final, student motivation to learn tends to decrease precipitously because they feel that the paper is done. They’ve already received the points they were going to get and lost the points they were going to lose, and so many move on, unaware or uncaring that an error that isn’t dealt with will likely appear again on the next paper.
  • Students are often so embarrassed by their errors that they resist seriously revisiting them.
  • There is far less time for students to process lessons on a final draft than they would have if they got the feedback earlier, and we generally need a lot of time to learn lessons right.

Of course, even after hearing these arguments, I wasn’t fully persuaded, as there is a reason why summative feedback has long been the dominant practice in many classrooms. Formative feedback has its issues too, with the three biggest being that…

  1. summative feedback allows the teacher to justify the grade given. Students and parents often have strong emotional responses to grades, so it is understandable that teachers would want to craft a message to go along with the grade.
  2. a final draft is supposed to be the best effort of a student, making it the natural place for the teacher to step in. If teachers correct papers in a more rough state, they will likely waste a lot of time marking issues that students are aware of but haven’t fixed yet.
  3. formative comments require teachers to read student work an extra time, and most writing teachers don’t have enough time as it is.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that these issues, while legitimate, are not insurmountable. So I gave formative feedback a shot, and I haven’t looked back since. My formative system isn’t always perfect, but I have found it to be so much more effective than my previous summative one. Student performance is way up and there has been no noticeable increase in questions concerning grading or the time I spend providing feedback. Instead, the work and communication are just reallocated from the end to different parts of the writing process.

Here are the core elements of my current system:

  • The students and I design the rubrics together. I got this idea from Kelly Gallagher, and I have found it to be a game-changer in terms of helping students to understand the grades they receive in the end.
  • I give the bulk of my feedback once students take papers “as far as they can” without my input. This means that they do rounds of peer and self review before I give them my feedback, and then they are expected to use my feedback on the final draft.
  • I do not put comments on the final draft. Instead, students get a graded rubric and a one to two sentence note from me. I do this because if I cut comments completely out of the final read, I can read and assess in a fraction of the time it used to take me to comment and grade simultaneously. This is necessary because more work is required in the earlier stages. Doing this can be tricky at first because students, parents, and administrators usually expect final drafts stuffed with comments. The way I deal with that expectation is I simply lay out the situation. I say that I would love to give extensive comments twice, but the reality of having over 150 students is that I only have the ability to comment in-depth once, and the most effective time to do that is earlier rather than later for all of the reasons discussed above. Once that is explained, I find all parties are usually sold, and I haven’t heard a complaint yet about how pristine my final drafts look when they come back.

Like most teachers, I am constantly changing things in my practice, but few changes have had a more noticeable impact than simply shifting when I provide students feedback. One of the largest meta-analysises on the subject of when to provide feedback argues that formative feedback is often twice as effective as summative, and while that seems like an absurd stat, as nothing in schools doubles the speed of learning, what I’ve observed in my classes has absolutely backed that up.

Thank you as always for reading, and look forward to next Friday, when we will be talking about how much feedback is too much.

Yours in Teaching,

MattScreen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.21.22 PM




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