Want to Significantly Improve Your Feedback to Students? Stop Giving It in Isolation

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The lecture long dominated the classroom. The concept behind it was simple. Teachers have information and students don’t. So the teachers give information to the students, who have the choice to absorb the information or not.

These days we understand that there are often better approaches than to just throw information at students. We know that students usually learn best when a class revisits key ideas, skills, and content multiple times in multiple different ways.

The one common glaring exception to this trend away from here-is-the-information-do-what-you-want pedagogy and towards deeper, more recursive practice in our classes? The feedback we give.

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Why We Should Separate Grades and Feedback

Grading and feedback are often conflated. For nearly a decade I used the term “grading” as a synonym for nearly any type of response to writing without so much as flinching, but I know now that they are actually very different and in some ways opposing activities.

Grades are where we rank students by placing them into boxes. At its core, the goal of grades is essentially to divide the “winners” from the “losers.”

Feedback, on the other hand, is the information we give to writers to help them rise to the next level. At its core, the goal of feedback is make everyone a winner.

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Why We Should Let Students In On Our Pedagogy

This last semester I unwittingly began what has turned out to be a rather surprising pedagogical experiment. In short, over my career I have generally tried to keep my teaching and my writing about teaching lives separate. The reasoning behind this was pretty simple. I assumed that my students would have little interest in learning how the sausage that turns into a class is made, and if I’m being honest, I was a bit self-conscious about students seeing my written work, lest they judge me.

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Why Our Students Forget and What It Means for How We Teach Writing

Let’s start with a test:

  1. What is something you read in the last 24 hours? Anything at all. A book, an article, a poem. Now, try to remember it in as much detail as possible.
  2. Next, think about something you read last week. What do you remember of that?
  3. Lastly, think about something you read last month. What do you remember of that? Can you even remember what you read last month?
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Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It

When I was an education school student, I feel quickly and deeply in love with Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle thanks to quotes like this:

We laid down the old, stodgy burdens of the profession—the Warriner’s Handbooks, the forty- five minute lectures and canned assignments—and embraced new roles . . . These were heady times, as many English teachers abandoned the old orthodoxies and cleared the way for our kids’ voices.

The idea of laying aside the orthodoxies that I hated as a student–the endless worksheets and 45 min. lectures on parts of speech–and putting more emphasis on students talking with each other about their reading and writing was for me, like it was for Atwell, intoxicating. Continue reading “Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It”

A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar Outside of Worksheets

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 5.03.06 PMIn 1963, Richard Braddock, Richard Lowell-Jones, and Lowell Schoer set out to answer the big questions concerning how to best teach writing. They collaborated with NCTE and poured over every study and paper possible concerning the subject, and the result was Research in Written Composition, which among other breakthroughs made a startling claim: direct teaching of grammar to students generally does not improve writing and in many cases it may actually do active harm.

This result shocked the writing teaching world. It frankly seems nonsensical, and yet it has been confirmed time and again since then–in well over 250 studies–leading to one of the strangest questions in all of teaching: How is it that directly teaching grammar via worksheets, diagraming, and learning of grammatical terms often has a negligible or even negative impact on writing? Continue reading “A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar Outside of Worksheets”

What We Need More Of: Teaching, Not Editing, in the Margins of Student Papers

This is the second of a mini-series that I am doing on things we need a lot more of in the writing classroom. The first was on needing more low-stakes writing and use of writing as a teaching tool, as opposed to solely as a vehicle for expressing one’s thoughts. This week’s is on how we need to do more teaching and less copyediting in the margins of student papers and why doing that is so hard.


Over the last forty years, a compelling and comprehensive case has been made that teachers should not act as editors and mark every little error on every student paper. I’ve written on this before, as have Carol Jago, Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Nancy Sommers, and [Fill in name of well-known writing teacher here]. Continue reading “What We Need More Of: Teaching, Not Editing, in the Margins of Student Papers”