Writing - Feedback - Revision

My anecdotal impression is that students do very little revision in their other classes and, even when they do revise, they have very limited feedback to go on. If we want student writing to improve, we have to offer offer multiple revision opportunities with abundant, detailed feedback.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. In addition to their weekly blog posts, students complete a formal, semester-long writing project, and revision is a key component of that process. You can see the overall writing and revising schedule here: Storybook and Portfolio Schedules. For each assignment that they turn in as part of the project, the students receive detailed feedback from me which they then use in the revision process, and they also receive feedback from other students.

DETAILS. In other posts, I've written about these semester-long Storybook projects and Portfolio projects (students choose one or the other). In this post, I will focus on the role of feedback and revision in those projects.

Student writing workflow. The basic workflow is as follows:

* new story: students publish a new story and get detailed feedback from me, with ongoing feedback from other students
* revised story: students published the revised story, and they again get detailed feedback from me, with ongoing feedback from other students
* final revisions + new story: students revise the story one more time and also publish a new story, on which they get detailed feedback from me, etc.

As a result, each story in the project is revised at least twice, once substantially and once more for light editing. If needed, it's easy to add in an extra week of revision; the semester-long schedule is very flexible that way. As I've explained elsewhere, there is no grading component here, so students are not penalized in any way for needing an extra week of revision. There are no grades given on any of these writing assignments. No grading: instead, it's all about the feedback.

My comment workflow. Here is my comment workflow:

* Students alert me that their story is ready to read via an email that contains a completion checklist.
* I copy the text of their published story from the website into a plain text editor.
* I insert running comments into the student's writing, sentence by sentence and/or paragraph by paragraph.
* I write a paragraph or two of general comments at the top when I am done.
* I paste the result into an email replying to the student's checklist email.

Using plain text this way means that I do not have to worry about specific software choices: plain text email works well with any program on any device the student prefers to use. It is fast, convenient, and highly reliable.

Feedback contents. When the students turn in the stories for their projects, the first round of feedback they receive from me is extremely detailed, often sentence by sentence or even phrase by phrase. My aim is to share with them my experience as I read their writing, responding to it on a variety of levels such as:

* remarks about the story's overall development (character, plot, etc.)
* comments about composition at the word, phrase, and sentence level
* detailed identification of writing errors of all kinds
* questions about gaps, bumps, and other composition problems
* suggestions for further research and reading (links to online resources, other students' writing, etc.)

Here is a screenshot of a typical chunk of running comments inserted into a piece of student writing. My comments are marked with ==>

Canned comments. For comments related to writing mechanics (which is a huge problem for many students), I rely on an ever-evolving document (appx. 30 pages long now) which contains canned comments and links to online help. The comments have "xxx" in them where I can paste in the specific word or phrase or sentence from the student's actual story so that they can see what needs fixing, along with a link to an explanatory help page. You can see there the kinds of problems the students struggle most with at my writing support website: The Writing Laboratory.

Revision comments. When a student turns in a revision assignment, they get more limited feedback from me, focused strictly on remaining items that still need their attention. These are almost always just canned comments about writing mechanics, although if a student has substantially rewritten the story rather than just revising it, I'll treat that as an original writing assignment and provide sentence-by-sentence commentary a second time, which may or may not lead to a second week of extensive revision.

Time required. As you can guess, the time required to provide this type of feedback is considerable. I have designed my classes so that I am able to spend almost all my time each week providing this feedback to the students. I have 80-90 students each semester (three sections, 25-30 students per section), and the stories are typically 800-1200 words in length. On average it takes me appx. 20-30 minutes to comment on a new piece of writing, while a revision assignment goes much more quickly, usually taking just 10-15 minutes. My weeks alternate between original and revision weeks and, luckily for me, the students are also on slightly different schedules (the Portfolio option has also helped with that), so that in an original writing week I might have 50-60 new stories and 20-30 revision items, while in a revision week I'll have 50-60 revision items and just 20-30 new stories. Either way, it's real work: in an original writing week, I'll spend easily 30 hours writing up comments, but then I get a break in the revision weeks, when the load is more like 20-25 hours.

Feedback nirvana. Yep, you read that right: 30 hours. 20-25 hours. I am a full-time online instructor, and providing feedback to students is the single most important part of my job. Luckily, I also enjoy it enormously! When the day comes that I am not excited to get to work every morning, then I will redesign my courses from scratch to re-ignite myself. So far though — and I've been doing this for twelve years now — I find myself liking the job more and more, largely I suspect because I am getting better at it, which means the students are having a better experience too. That's a positive feedback loop for all of us!

In addition, the piecemeal nature of the commenting process means that I can take frequent short breaks, allowing me to attend to other class-related tasks (writing class announcements, responding to other student email, setting up the weekly comment groups, etc.), as well as spending time interacting with other teachers online. My use of social networks like Google+ and Twitter fits in very nicely with this intensive but piecemeal workload, so that I can take "social media breaks" all day long, often sharing what I am learning from my students as I work through the stack of assignments.

Daily quota. To make sure I keep up with the work and finish every week by the end of the day on Friday, I have a daily quota, Monday through Friday. I use labels in Gmail to flag the incoming assignments and to determine my daily workload. I also share my progress through the writing stack with my students as I've explained here: The Stack. I do no work on the students' projects over the weekend, although I sometimes choose to do course-related development activities ... like writing this blog post on a lovely Saturday afternoon. :-)

Feedback from other students. The students also provide feedback on the Storybooks and Portfolios each week. Their comments tend to be more holistic, not the sentence-level detail that I provide. This feedback takes the form of comments at the "Comment Wall" at their blogs.  Helping students learn to provide specific, useful feedback is an important goal, and it is often something new to them. Here are some of the materials I use to help the students learn how to provide useful feedback: Giving Feedback: Details, Details, Details and Storybook Feedback.

You can get a sense of the kinds of comments students leave for one another by browsing through their blogs; you will see a "Comment Wall" link in the top navigation or sidebar for each student's blog, along with comments on individual blog posts: Blog Directory. The students' eagerness and willingness to help one another with their writing is one of my favorite things about these classes!


I was extremely naive when I first started teaching at the University of Oklahoma in 1999. I had no idea how much support my students needed in their writing, and I was also surprised at how uninterested they were in improving their writing for its own sake. When the students turned in their first papers in my first semester of teaching, I was simply overwhelmed. I realized that it would be impossible for me to comment on all the papers in a meaningful way while still returning them in a timely fashion, so I offered the class two options: get a grade on the paper but no comments, or rewrite their papers based on detailed comments from me, but not for a better grade. The comments and revision would simply be in order to improve their writing. Out of 50 students, exactly one took me up on the opportunity to rewrite his paper — Randy Hoyt, now a game developer and web programmer extraordinaire, and also a great writer.

So, that moment in Fall 1999 was my wake-up call. I realized that I was trapped in a meaningless, grade-driven writing nightmare, and I decided that I had to do something completely different. The next semester, I switched from traditional essay-writing to creative writing, helping the students to publish their writing as stories online, and so the Storybook was born. It was a great success: students loved writing the stories and they loved sharing them with their fellow students online. They were also extremely eager to learn how to create websites. Back in the year 2000, it was still quite an unusual skill to have. And even today, in 2014, the vast majority of my students have never published a website or even a blog.

So, solving the engagement problem was easy: the students were now eagerly writing stories that were truly a pleasure to read. In terms of writing mechanics, though, they still had serious problems, and it was harder for me to find a way to find a solution to that problem. In fact, it took another several years until I finally settled on the writing-feedback-revision routine that I now use. I simply did not realize at first that I had to make revision weeks a formal part of the process so that every other week students were doing revision, and nothing but revision, before they moved on to the next new story. I am very happy with this routine now, though, and it works well for students with a whole range of writing skills and motivation. Every student benefits from the opportunity to revise, and I try to adapt the feedback and revision expectations to the individual skill level and motivation of each student.

In the 2013-2014 school year, I embarked on a new dimension of the revision process, hoping to promote more autonomy in the revision process and encouraging the students to develop a personal repertoire of revision skills independent of the feedback they receive from me. This is still a very new project and, while I have seen some early successes, I still have a long way to go. It is proving to be a good challenge for me as a teacher, and I am learning a lot as I watch the students attempt to build up their independent revising skills. I have some new ideas I want to try in that regard next year; I'll write some more about all that in a separate post!

GOALS. Here are just a few of the goals I have in mind for this writing-feedback-revision process:

* to help students improve their writing
* to encourage students to feel a greater ownership of their writing
* to show students that writing is a process, not a one-time event
* to give students experience in commenting on other people's writing
* to separate evaluation of student writing from the grading process


I have to note here that this all happened by accident: I never set out to be a writing teacher. If during that first semester of teaching the students had turned in assignments that were more or less acceptable, I probably never would have felt compelled to turn my classes into writing classes. I am so glad things turned out the way they did, though, as I have ended up with a more exciting job as a teacher than I ever imagined. Every week of every semester is so stimulating, filled with wonderful reading experiences for me and also with great teaching challenges as I am continually reminded of how difficult it is to write in English, but also how worthwhile it is to rise to that challenge.

What I like best is being able to feel confident about every single student, even if they might not be feeling any confidence in themselves. After having done this for so many years, I know for sure that every student has stories to tell, and I also know that they can learn to tell those stories well, using the power of language to bring their stories to life. With abundant feedback and opportunities for revision, they will all learn to become better writers.

Sad to say, though, my class might be the only college class in which their writing really improves, and there are all kinds of reasons why the writing process is badly neglected in other college classes. Here are what I consider to be the top three reasons:

1. The teaching of content trumps the teaching of writing.
2. Writing, and the teaching of writing, both take a lot of time.
3. Almost no college instructors are trained as writing instructors.

These are not easy problems to fix, yet I do not see how we can continue to graduate students with poor writing skills and low confidence in their writing. I find it frustrating that we hear an endless chorus of praise for "critical thinking skills" yet almost nothing about the teaching of writing. The next time you read some high-minded defense of humanities education, take a look to see exactly what the authors say about the teaching of writing and what specific proposals they offer to fix the serious structural problems listed above. They might opine about the importance of writing, but such platitudes don't help to solve the actual problems we face.

If college students are going to learn to be confident, skilled writers, they require abundant feedback and revision opportunities, and I think it is time for us to have an honest conversation about how we can make that happen. If we are not going to have that conversation, then we need to be prepared for Kaplan and Pearson and the other purveyors of standardized education and standardized testing to take over higher education, with no one to blame but ourselves: they are only filling the educational vacuum that we have created.

We can and must do better!

The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. — Robert Cormier.

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