When it comes to written assignments, feedback is heavily based on summative assessment, that is, getting a grade or a percentage assigned to an essay along with some general comments. This feedback is typically received after the final version of the assignment was handed in and students are now focused on learning the next topic. In this case, students do not get the opportunity to re-think or re-write the work, and as a result do not see improvements on their next writing assignment. Therefore, as instructors, we need to increase the amount of formative feedback through the use of drafting and immediate feedback, allowing for the development and improvement of student writing skills.
One way to implement formative feedback in written assignments is the use of drafting, i.e., students work on the assignment and the instructor provides them with feedback well before it is due (students work in tiers and make adjustments along the way). Here, the purpose of the feedback is to help students revise their draft and not to justify a grade. Drafting allows students the opportunity to make errors, and receive clear and constructive feedback on what they can do to correct these errors.
You might be wondering…
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One solution is to have students submit a portion of the assignment, such as a proposal, thesis statement, outline, or even an introductory paragraph, at least a few weeks before the assignment is due. No marks are assigned; however, it allows you to provide quick feedback on a small piece of their work while the students still have an opportunity to incorporate it. This also allows you to see where students are struggling in terms of content and to adjust your instruction to help clear up any misunderstandings.
The process of sequencing writing assignments allows students to start on the assignment early, to work consistently rather than at the last minute, and to develop their ideas and revise their work. This type of sequenced assignment, which incorporate revision-oriented feedback provided by the instructor or peers, is called multi-stage (or laddered) assignments. The visuals below illustrate possible ways to turn a longer writing project into a multi-staged assignment with feedback.
Figure 4. Sample multi-stage/laddered writing assignment
Describe the topic and known facts / information.
List questions based on known information.
Summarize individual sources and texts
Lists similarities / differences between two or more authors’ views.
Categorize information or authors’ positions.
Write briefings or research summaries synthesizing several sources.
Developing an Argument
Write a paragraph posing the question to be answered or problem to be solved and explaining why this is an important question or problem.
List reasons supporting a claim / lists of evidence supporting a reason.
Draft research paper.
Figure 5. Example of a multi-staged research paper by D’Errico and Griffin, 2001
Another possibility is to decrease the overall length of writing assignments. Rather than asking for a 10-page summative assignment at the end of the term, ask students to write two shorter (3-4 page) assignments, thus providing more opportunities for students to receive feedback on drafts and increasing the chance of improvements. If providing instructor feedback on student drafts is not possible, you can also devote class time to peer-feedback or self-assessment of their drafts.
You might also want to use new technologies for providing verbal feedback on student assignments. For example, the latest (free) version of Adobe Acrobat makes it easy to add audio comments to specific parts of a document. Narrating your comments might be easier than typing them, and you can also be more nuanced with verbal comments than with written comments.