Learning to write is like learning to play tennis: written feedback is not always useful

Sometimes giving feedback on student writing is straightforward. They have missed something important, so we tell them what they didn’t know, or we tell them to do what they missed: for example, “criterion is singular and criteria plural”, or “You need to put the reference in brackets.”

But written feedback telling our students how to write is not always so useful. Sometimes our students need to learn things that cannot be conveyed by written feedback. Leaning to write involves developing very complex skills – for instance, knowing how to make a clear point, or how to link one idea to the next – and these skills are learnt in the same way we learn to play tennis. Giving written feedback on these writing skills is like reading a book to learn how to swing a racquet. Instead, the skills can only be learned by isolating them and then practicing, using regular feedback from an expert coach to improve our performance.

The process of learning is something like this:

  1. Teacher gives instruction about what the aim is and how to achieve this
  2. Student attempts it
  3. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  4. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim and tries again
  5. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  6. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim, and tries again
  7. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  8. Keep repeating until student has met the aim, and is at the adequate level of performance

 

An example of this process for writing might be something like this:

  1. Teacher explains that a paragraph should only make one main point, and gives an example
  2. Student writes one paragraph, attempting to only make one main point
  3. Feedback from the teacher: “I can’t tell what main point you were making. What is the main point? Tell me out-loud and then write this down.”
  4. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to make it about the main point they said out-loud
  5. Feedback from the teacher: “I can see that you have included this main point in the paragraph, but you have also included this point and this point. Can you see that they are three different points, where each is about a different topic? You need to break this into three paragraphs, one for each point.”
  6. Student re-writes one paragraph, attempting to isolate only the first main point
  7. Feedback from teacher: “Great, it looks like you are only writing about the one main point. However if I didn’t know your topic, I couldn’t tell what the main point is in your paragraph because you have hidden it as the third or fourth sentence in the paragraph. Re-write the paragraph so the first sentence is the main point, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates this main point.”
  8. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to put the main point in the first sentence.
  9. Feedback: “Great, you got it! Now try this again on a different paragraph, and I’ll give you some feedback.”

This process is effective for several reasons. First, it isolates a specific skill needed for academic writing which the student can concentrate on, rather than swamping them with vast amounts of feedback on multiple different skills. Second, it is quick and easy to do for a student. The student only has to complete a small task which takes very little time (much less than writing a whole chapter), and so they can quickly repeat multiple iterations (sometimes during a supervisory meeting), improving each time. Third, it is quick and easy for the teacher. Rather than having to struggle through an entire chapter where there are problems in every paragraph, the teacher is able to give quick feedback just when the student needs it to improve. Lastly, it allows the student to adjust their performance of the writing skill. It is never enough to tell them how to write a good paragraph – they can say “I get it” but their performance indicates they do not. Students need to try it, find out where they are going wrong, then adjust and try again, find out how to get better and then adjust, etc.

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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