• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

New Feedback Tools for Your Writing Toolbox

If you’ve been lucky in your life, you’ve gotten feedback for everything you’ve done. No doubt that feedback came in many different shapes and sizes.


A few months ago, I got several pages of feedback for a paper I had to write for a teaching qualification required of university teachers in the Netherlands. My paper was over 100 pages long and included several chapters as well as quite a long appendix. You could almost call it a thesis, but it was called a portfolio because it focused on separate aspects of teaching from the course design to the testing, etc. and also because it wasn’t for an actual degree but rather a certificate.


Although I imagine some might dread the idea of fulfilling this requirement, I relished it. I was keen to dive into the teaching scholarship, and I have a basic love for writing and research. My enthusiasm was so great that I was the first of my colleagues to finish a draft and submit it. As a result, someone on the education team remarked, “Are you bored?” suggesting that could be the only reason I would be so interested in the requirement.


I did my best to navigate through the instructions, but my PhD was in English Language and Literature and not education so having a coach was very handy. The feedback I got from the examining professor was that I had to work more on constructive alignment. Her criticism was not one statement, nor did it come in the form of the sandwich method. She provided feedback in a rubric of several pages moving from one criterion to the next, which might seem overwhelming to some, but to me it was very much welcome.


Her instruction was so clear that I got a grasp of what was needed for the revision from the bigger picture to the minute details. When I sat down to make the changes, I even had a mental picture of what the paper should look like in its entirety. The result was the rewarding of the certificate and the feeling of satisfaction in meeting perhaps even exceeding the requirements.


The above was an excellent example of written feedback given and taken by me to improve in a revision for positive results. The method of written feedback can vary from university to university, teacher to teacher and assignment to assignment. I’ve had several jobs over the years in different countries as an English professor, and one aspect of the jobs was the different guidelines for giving written feedback. Some universities left it up to me and my own approach for giving written feedback, and some were more particular about my following their approach. The upshot is that I’ve learned several approaches and have been able to use them when most effective. Here are a few of those approaches.


I learned the sandwich method for written feedback in the 90s in the United States and some associate it with the American style because it is more positive than negative. Although the method is quite effective, it feeds the foreign opinion that Americans grade too high. The sandwich method has three sections to it. The first section is an opening positive comment about the student work. This is followed by more constructive criticism, which some might consider negative. Finally, in the third and final section, there is a return to a positive comment.





On the other hand, there is the written feedback method in which you provide a justification for your assessment as a narrative, a defensive posture as if you are anticipating complaints by the recipient or student. This feedback is more like pointing out all the mistakes to hammer in that the grade shouldn’t be higher than what you’ve tabulated. This might be useful or appropriate in certain contexts, such as for an exam.


Finally, there are the written comments that you can give in rubrics. Although there are many types, I’m going to focus on the holistic scoring rubric, the analytic rubric and the single point rubric.


The holistic rubric describes the general criterion for each point on the grading scale of the rubric but does not provide targeted criteria or feedback. See here for an example. The teacher would grade the writing as a whole. So for instance, the holistic rubric might have the assessment of all the criteria in the highest point awarded, such as giving a 5 out of 5 for “the essay is well-structured, with well-developed paragraphs and sentences with few grammar, spelling and punctuation errors” and then regress to a 4 out of 5 with “the essay structure, paragraph and sentence development are adequate with some grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.” It is easier for the teacher to grade but might be more cryptic for the student to figure out where things went wrong. Holistic rubrics are more common when time is of the essence such as with SAT grading.


The analytic rubric provides targeted feedback for different criteria by assigning points to each aspect of the requirements. See here for an example. The analytic rubric would have separate points for the essay structure, paragraphs, sentences, grammar etc., and each criterion would have a description more in depth. The points on the individual criterion would then add up to the final score. Jennifer Gonzalez notes, “This is where we see the main advantage of the analytic rubric: It gives students a clearer picture of why they got the score they got. It is also good for the teacher, because it gives her the ability to justify a score on paper, without having to explain everything in a later conversation.”


The problem is that this rubric is a lot more time-consuming for the teacher to make and to use. Also, the students might not take the time to look through it and might just grab the score off the paper. What I find useful myself is to give the students this type of rubric prior to completing the task so that the great detail in it can be used by them in order to plan and carry out it out.


Finally, a single point rubrics is similar to the analytic rubric in that it includes separate criteria. See here for a template.In my example the separate criteria would be structure, then paragraphs and then sentences for instance. Rather then have points assigned to them, the points are listed with a description of the proficiency level in a central column. On the left to the central column you would put written comments on what needs work and then the right of the central column you would put how to improve. A modification of this can be used where you assign points.


There are pros and cons to the single point rubric. First, it is not nearly as wordy as the holistic and analytic rubrics. Students are much keener to read the teacher feedback than what’s typed in a template. Also, less text means less work for the teachers. Furthermore, the comments are open rather than confined to the rubric so teachers can be more precise. The main drawback is that the teacher might have to do a lot more writing because it is an open approach to comments.


There are more ways to give feedback of course, and one thing holds true in my mind and that is whatever your method to not lose sight of the potential and vision of the person who did the writing, whether it is you or someone else like a student. Rubrics are intended to illuminate the learning process and the progress of the subject, or writer in this case. Why not try to create your own rubric for an exercise in self-assessment for an essay, book or blog article? You can then use the rubric, especially made for each genre, as a tool, one of the many in your writing toolbox.


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