By Rolf Norgaard and Stephanie Foster 

Does thinking about spending hours grading student writing fill you with dread? It doesn’t have to! Writing is an essential activity for developing higher order thinking ability such as critical thinking, inquiry, and metacognition. Research has shown that students respond well to feedback that is timely, clear, focused, and consistent with instruction and course goals. Students can grow as writers and thinkers when they have multiple opportunities to receive feedback and revise their writing.

Common misconceptions about responding to and grading writing can get in the way of using writing as an effective pedagogical strategy. Here, we attempt to dispel some of these misconceptions and provide recommendations for effective teaching practice.

Misconception #1: Responding to student writing takes too much time

If you are daunted by the stack of final papers to be graded, or the seemingly endless files on Canvas Speedgrader, you may be misplacing your efforts and time. Feedback on student writing need not be a time sink if you factor in feedback strategies in your assignment and course design. Use your time wisely with these approaches:

Design good assignments. Be clear about expectations in the written assignment instructions as well as how the students’ work will be evaluated. Plan for how you will provide feedback from the outset; what will the process be for submitting drafts and revisions? What knowledge or skills will students need to learn to be able to do what you are asking? As a companion to good assignment instructions, rubrics are a good way to help students understand what is expected as well as clarify the grading criteria.

Require a short draft of writing early in the process for a major paper or project. Use that draft to work with students in individual or small group writing conferences outside of class. Conferences are a great way to help students develop their ideas, and provide an opportunity for students to talk about their writing as it progresses.

Take time to help students develop rhetorical invention. This is a space for generation of ideas, the process of discovery, or the brainstorming phase. Facilitate a freewriting exercise, a game-based peer activity, or a visual thinking exercise such as concept mapping. Even one class period devoted to prewriting can improve papers tremendously and reduce time spent on the feedback process. 

Peer review is an effective way to help students develop ideas and learn about the concept of audience. By serving as a peer reviewer, students learn how to make judgments about their own work as well as how to support another student to improve their work. In the right environment, peers can provide useful feedback at all stages of the writing process.

Misconception #2: Students disregard comments

Do you often lament that students merely scan all your thoughtful comments on their papers, and go straight to the grade? The problem may lie less with the students’ responses and more in the timing and nature of the comments themselves. Feedback is most effective – and used – when it is given at a formative time, when students can make changes. 

Wiggins (2012) identified seven characteristics of effective formative feedback. He argued that frequent information about their learning improves students’ understanding and performance in significant ways. In his model, feedback should be: 

  1. Goal-referenced: Help students identify their goals and determine whether they are on track.
  2. Timely: Information should be shared at key moments when students are ready to use it before they move on to the next thing.
  3. Consistent: Use consistent definitions of quality over time and help students learn what high quality work looks like.
  4. Actionable: Make careful observations and be specific about what students can do to improve their performance. 
  5. User-friendly: Use language that is appropriate to the student’s level of comprehension. Focus on a few key points rather than pointing out everything that needs fixing. 
  6. Clear: Be specific about what the paper does successfully as well as what needs to be improved. Focus on issues such as the quality or development of ideas, arguments, analysis, and use and synthesis of evidence.
  7. Ongoing: Don’t wait until grading periods to provide feedback; make sure students have plenty of opportunities to learn and revise their work.

Even when you use all of these strategies, students still struggle with the concept of formative feedback and what to do with it. In addition to the strategies listed above, use the resources of the Writing Center to help students get a different perspective on their writing.

Misconception #3: Attention to writing detracts from course content

How can I attend to writing if I am to attend to course content? This is not a writing class, and I am not a writing instructor!

As professionals who have worked with faculty across the disciplines, we have heard these statements many times! Writing is an important component of everything we do, whether it be in the classroom or in the lab. If you relegate it to “writing up” the fruits of inquiry and research, you are not harnessing writing’s true power. Writing can provide both a place to reflect and to build understanding. In our view, every instructor is a writing instructor

Writing is not only something people “do” to communicate what they have learned, writing can be used as a means of learning. Writing-to-learn is a set of strategies that can engage students in the course content in ways that help build content mastery.

Writing-to-learn involves mostly informal, often ungraded writing opportunities that can help students understand course content. Activities may include brief writing assignments, journaling, response papers, freewriting exercises, and collaborative writing. Being able to explain or express concepts in a student’s own words connects writing to course content and deepens understanding.

You do not need formal training in writing instruction to use these strategies! Writing-to-learn approaches can be used in any kind of course in any discipline. These low stakes activities help students to engage more fully in your course content and can be used as a means of formative assessment to help you understand how well students are learning. 

Misconception #4: I need to correct all of the mistakes

Do you feel disheartened by surface errors that litter a paper, making it hard to read even one paragraph without mental interruption? Imperfect grammar and syntax can urge us to focus on those errors instead of understanding what students are trying to say. Fight those urges! Students will learn better if you handle surface errors in a more productive way.

Resist the temptation to become your students’ copy editor! Here are some tips for handling surface errors and ungainly prose:

  • Look for patterns of error. Students learning to write often show repeated issues. Provide detailed comments for one paragraph, and ask the student to learn from those comments to edit and revise the rest of the paper.
  • Put an ‘X’ in the margin where there is a surface error, and direct the student to look for and correct the error there and throughout the rest of the paper.
  • After you have identified a certain number of errors, return the paper or draft to the student as not being ready for feedback. Ask the student to revise and resubmit the paper. This may be a good time for students to use the resources of the Writing Center
  • Encourage the student to read the paper out loud—the human voice can help us recognize ungainly prose. One of us has suggested that students read the paper to a younger sibling to help them explain the concepts in a simpler way. Peer review can also be a good strategy at this point.

It may not be as bad as it looks! Are the errors lower order concerns such as grammar or style? Or are the errors higher order concerns such as structure and sensemaking? Try to see past the surface errors and focus on what skills students are using and how they can be mentored to make their writing work. 

Many of the strategies in this post are effective for all students, but there are some additional considerations when working with multilingual students. You may see specific types of errors with students learning written English, or when students are learning English for academic purposes. Using certain strategies can ease your concerns and support these students to be more successful in your classroom.

Misconception #5: Good writing is error-free prose 

Were your student papers to be free of both lower- and higher-order errors, would you be fully pleased with them? Sometimes you get a beautiful paper that has nothing at all to say. Then what; has your student been successful? 

Appropriate feedback strategies can help you focus attention on broad rhetorical issues such as audience, genre, clarity of purpose, lines of reasoning, and use of evidence. Feedback can play a central role in demystifying for your students the tacit rhetorical conventions in your discipline.

Strategies for helping students shape their analysis or argument:

  • Scaffold short written assignments to help prepare students for a major paper. Building a sequence of assignments that build on each other can help students practice skills in smaller chunks. Start with simple tasks and focus feedback on skill-building. Students should be allowed to revise their work as they learn more and incorporate their new skills into the revisions.
  • A prospectus, cover letter, or similar short piece of writing can help students clarify the audience, the motivating question at issue, lines of reasoning, potential counter-arguments, and key sources of evidence.
  • Offer models that can help students gain the disciplinary genre knowledge for shaping a larger paper appropriately. Bean (2011) writes about developing students’ subskills through research writing in their discipline. Subskills include learning how to ask discipline-appropriate questions, finding and integrating appropriate sources, and how to identify and understand the appropriate audience, genre, and purpose for writing in the discipline. 

The GRAND Misconception: I need to grade the writing

The recommendations in this post are meant to support instructors in using writing as an instructional strategy to help students learn the course content, and develop critical and reflective thinking skills. Teaching with writing can be a valuable and rewarding experience if you approach it with the right goals in mind. Instead of approaching student writing for grading, think of yourself as coaching writers. A good coach invests in their students’ intellectual and skill development, using feedback as a way to build skills rather than justify the grade.


Technology Options for Giving Feedback

 Canvas Speedgrader

 Track Changes in Microsoft Word

 Add Comments in Google Docs

 Video Feedback for Engaging Students with their Writing

Resources for Faculty

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (second edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., & Fitzgerald, W. T. (2016). The craft of research (fourth edition). University of Chicago.

 Feldman, A. Supporting Multilingual International Students in the Classroom – CU Boulder Center for Teaching & Learning 

 Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2017). They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing (third edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 

 Harris, M. (2015). Teaching one-to-one: The writing conference. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies. The WAC Clearinghouse.  (Originally published in 1986 by National Council of Teachers of English)

 Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedbackFeedback for Learning, 70(1), 10-16.

 Creating and Using Rubrics – CU Boulder Center for Teaching & Learning 

 How to Give Your Students Better Feedback With Technology: Advice Guide (Chronicle of Higher Education) 

 Providing Feedback and Grades to Second Language Students – University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing

Resources for Students

 CU Boulder Writing Center

 Purdue Online Writing Lab

 Organization & the CARS model (Purdue Online Writing Lab)

Dr. Rolf Norgaard is a Teaching Professor and Associate Director of the Program for Writing and Rhetoric.