Tag Archives: feedback

How to give feedback on writing that says nothing

For me, giving feedback to a student who has something to say, no matter how bad the mechanics are, is much easier than giving feedback to a student who has nothing whatsoever to say but spells it correctly.

My strategy is to dodge the issue of providing feedback on the writing until I can determine why the student writes empty essays — which is my semi-polite term for writing that sounds like it was written by a moron having a really bad day.

In most cases, establishing a relationship with the student provides all the information I need to provide feedback on the student’s writing tactfully and supportively.

Empty essay example

Here’s a sample of the kind of shallow writing I mean:

There are a lot of places where I can go to be alone and relax. I personally like to go to my room. I like to listen to music to relax. I also like to go on my computer to be alone and relax. These are some places and some things I like to be to be alone and relax.

I mostly like to do to my room. I mostly like to do to my room because; in my room I can be alone and think quietly. I also like my room because it’s a place where I can always go to think about things. I also like going to my room because it’s one of the only places I feel most comfortable in. This is why I mostly like going to my room.

Another thing that I do is, listening to music. I like listening to music because certain music makes me feel good, and makes me feel like I’m relaxing in a way. I also like listening to music because of their lyrics. The lyrics relate to my everyday life, which in a way makes me remember some good memories.

Although this essay has some writing mechanics errors, they are relatively minor. The real problem is that author began writing before he/she had anything definite to say.

A glimpse of empty essay authors

Giving feedback to the authors of empty essays requires a gentle touch. Often the students who produce empty essays are timid and unsure of their abilities. They take refuge in safe ideas that they think cannot draw negative attention to themselves.

Empty essay writers may be students whose reading is so limited they don’t recognize a platitude when they pen it. They may actually think they invented a phrase they’ve heard but never seen in print.

Other times they are bright, savvy kids who have figured out how to milk the system, putting down words they know the teacher won’t bother to read past the second sentence.

And sometimes the students who write empty essays really are just plain dumb.

From a writing sample, you won’t be able to tell to which category the writer belongs. And it is possible that a student might fit into more than one category.

What empty essay writers need

A student who writes empty essays needs writing prompts that allow him to write about what he/she knows, preferably without saying to the student, “You’re a loser who knows nothing.”

The best way to provide students with writing prompts that allow them to use information they have is to have them write about class topics or on writing prompts that are related to topics discussed in class.

Once you start looking for ELA-related writing prompts, you will often find students have experience outside of class with issues centering on language, writing, reading, and media. Such topics allow students to merge their classroom learning and their outside experience, giving security to the timid and ideas to students with limited reading experience.

Besides authentic writing prompts, empty essay writers need strategies for planning and developing content. They often do not know how to go about getting started writing something that’s meaningful.

In my experience, most students who write empty essays are delighted to be given templates and strategies that allow them to do real writing providing those templates and strategies are not a great deal more work than they are used to.

Giving feedback to an empty essayist

You need to be careful giving feedback before you have a chance to sound out the empty essay writer. A thoughtless comment could hurt a student emotionally and quench any willingness he or she might have had to stay in school.

Giving feedback in ways that won’t damage a genuinely timid student’s ego is a challenge, but it’s a small challenge compared to responding to a student who has been getting A’s based on her (it’s almost always a female) legible handwriting and good spelling and has no clue she is churning out garbage.

As you are giving feedback on the early papers you are using to establish baseline performance, I suggest you keep your written content comments to a minimum. Write just enough to show that you are attentively reading the material.

You can, however, ask questions that indicate indirectly the type of content you’d like to see.

For example, instead of noting that the student wrote the same idea in three different sentences, the second time it appears you might write in the margin, “Could you give me a specific example?”

Have a conference with the student

A private conference is usually the best way to get a sense of why students are writing drivel. My initial conference with any student is not so much to discuss the student’s writing, as to find out how to support that student’s attempts to write better.

When the student writes empty essays, at the initial conference I try to get a sense of why a student writes drivel and whether the student realizes the essays are awful.

You can often get useful information by asking open ended questions such as:

Would you share with me how you go about writing an essay like this?
or
What do you think is the most important thing for a writer to be able to do well?

It could be that your student has the impression that grammar is the most important part of writing and content is just the platter it’s served on.

Or perhaps your student is doing what worked in Ms. Inky Finger’s class but would rather do something more interesting.

Disagree if you must, but don’t criticize.

Confer, don’t confront. Even if you think you’ve psyched the kid out just by watching her in class for two weeks, let her tell you about her writing experience.

And listen — really listen — when she tells you.

Rather than criticize the student’s work or the methods of other teachers, I prefer to say things such as, “I know that works for many people, but I’ve never had good luck with it,” or “Most of my students find there’s another way that’s less trouble and seems to work just as well.”

Share your plan to help the student succeed

I usually end a conference by giving students some information about what I plan to do to support them in their writing. Usually I phrase that information in terms of psychological factors.

The kids trying to milk the system are usually risk takers. I tell them I’m going to give them some work that will challenge them.

If the student is timid, I stress that I’m going to give structure and strategies for writing so that they can be confident that they haven’t overlooked something important.

The dumb kid and the kid who doesn’t read get that same message. Timid kids, non-readers, and dumb kids find just getting to school is challenge enough. They each need assurance somebody is going to help them out once they arrive.

Having a personal conference with a student is a good way to connect with students so you see them as individuals, not just as essays to be graded. Then, when you are giving feedback, you are more likely to phrase negative comments in ways that are respectful and supportive rather than disrespectful and discouraging.


This content was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-02-06 and updated 2011-12-28 by Linda Aragoni.

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Let’s get strategic about writing strategies

Last week a publisher sent me an ad for a new book for teachers which is now on pre-order:

The Reading Strategies Book made the New York Times Best Seller List by making it simpler to match students’ needs to high-quality instruction. Now, in The Writing Strategies Book, Jen Serravallo does the same, collecting 300 of the most effective strategies to share with writers, and grouping them beneath 10 crucial writing goals.

In her introduction, Serravallo explains her purpose:

My aim in this book is to offer my favorite, most useful collection of strategies that span all aspects of the writing process, all genres and modes of writing, and that will work well with students in grades K–8.

advertisement for book 300 Writing Strategies

Appealing and practical

I just dipped into The Writing Strategies Book, but I found it pretty impressive.

I can see why the book would appeal to teachers.

Serravallo writes well: There are no long-winded, polysyllabic sentences. She has an authentic voice that sounds like person-to-person communication.

The book’s page layout makes it easy to find information and apply it quickly.

What Serravallo says is practical. She knows her audience and gives them what they need.

But 300 strategies is excessive

I have reservations, however, about needing 300 strategies.

My career blended writing nonfiction for adult readers with teaching nonfiction writing to post-secondary writers, which I realize is a far cry from teaching K-8.

However, I’ve found both as a writer and as a writing teacher, the fewer the strategies, the better the writing outcomes.

definition printed on photo of block wall: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals.

One of my gripes about K-12 English programs is that they are not strategic: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals. Does that sound like anything that happens in K-12 education?

Students come to first year college composition with no strategies for tackling routine writing situations. They treat every writing situation as if it were unique when, in fact, they, and most other people, regularly encounter perhaps a half dozen different writing situations.

10 strategies instead of 300

Instead of 300 writing strategies, I have just 10—and three of them are actually research strategies.

Ten are all I need to write nonfiction on a daily basis.

Ten are all I need to teach nonfiction writing.

Ten are all my students require to learn to write nonfiction competently.

To make the writing process efficient, I need to make sure each individual:

  • Understands the strategy.
  • Memorizes the strategy.
  • Uses the strategy repeatedly in disciplined practice.

Something that’s done once is not a strategy.

A strategy is only strategic after it’s an automatic response to a set of stimuli.

A real strategy enables the user to recognize almost at a glance when conditions require something other than the strategy — something innovative, something creative.

Real strategies scale.

Real strategies can be deployed in situations far different from that in which they were learned and on tasks far more complex than the tasks on which they were practiced.

I’d call them feedback

What Serravallo calls strategies, I’d call feedback.

In a writing class, feedback is talking to an individual student about what he’s doing, finding out what the student is having difficulty with, and and helping the student find ways to overcome the problem.

Strategies enable the writing student to get along without the teacher present.

Feedback shows the writing student how to understand and use the strategies.

I’ll continue to advocate for a few good strategies for writing teachers: I think my system beats Serravallo’s.

But regardless of what age your writing students are, if you’re looking for good suggestion on how to provide students with feedback on their writing while they’re writing (when it can do some good),  you ought to take a look at Serravallo’s Writing Strategies Book.

 

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Writers need rapid feedback from writing

controller in hands of gamerThe kid who hates to write may also be the kid who is enthralled by video games. The games are probably more complicated than writing, but they appeal to kids because, among other things, they give rapid feedback.

Anyone attempting to learn a skill wants immediate feedback. Would you learn to knit if you had to wait until the end of the grading period to know if you were correctly applying the directions for knit and purl? I don’t think so.

The strategies writing teachers teach their least experienced writers should provide feedback apart from any feedback the teachers provide. That maxim is particularly important in what English teachers with self-destructive tendencies call the “pre-writing stage,” practically guaranteeing that students will skip planning entirely.

For planning strategies to be effective for struggling students, the strategies must have a quick pay off. Struggling writers cannot wait three days or a week to learn whether their plan worked. They need to know NOW.

The popular writers’ workshop strategy that has students write and rewrite to find their thesis does not give positive reinforcement soon enough to be effective with struggling writers or with writers who have learning difficulties.

If the first sentence Josh writes is a sensible working thesis sentence, that initial success makes it more likely that he will go on to prepare a three-sentence ¹writing skeleton™.  Applying writing skeleton™ strategy reinforces Josh’s writing effort and makes it likely he will attempt another step in nonfiction process process.

How do you build feedback into the writing strategies you teach your beginning and struggling students?


¹ A writing skeleton™ is a list of main points of a piece of writing, each point formed by the working thesis statement plus the word because and a reason for believing the working thesis to be true. Such a skeleton keeps novice nonfiction writers from losing sight of their main point: As they plan they actually make their thesis statement part of their body paragraph topic sentences.

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When Learning Gets the Silent Treatment

Last week, a teacher I know slightly asked me what I’ve been up to. I said I’d just taken a wonderful course in Data-Driven Journalism that had opened my eyes to all all sorts of new (to-me) ideas and tools. I said the course was so exciting I wanted to take learn more on the topic.

The teacher said nothing.

Not one word.

Absolute silence.

I don’t think I could have been more shocked or more hurt if the teacher had kicked me. Her silence felt like a total rejection of the value of my learning, my values, and me.

If that’s a sample of how that teacher responds to students who are learning interesting things outside her classroom, I’m awfully glad I’m not her student.

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Confidence and illusion in education

An excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s forthcoming book Thinking, Fast and Slow was published today in the New York Times Magazine under the title “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence.” The article has applications to the current discussion about education.

Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University and a winner of the 2002 Noble Prize in Economics, tells about his personal experience evaluating the leadership potential of candidates for army officer training.

The evaluators’ rigorous methods consistently failed to select candidates that the commanders at the training school viewed officer material. Despite that regular negative feedback, Kahneman and his colleagues continued to hold confidently to a belief in the validity of their predictions.

He says their error in attempting to predict behavior from a short artificial situation is a common fallacy into which people slide when faced with a difficult situation. “We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is,” Kahneman says.

That’s why people who are gung-ho about using tests to predict students’ future behavior in totally different real life situations are willing to believe in the validity of those tests even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Before the anti-test folks start to crow, they might want to read the final paragraph of the piece. In it Kahneman talks about factors that lead to development of what we might call “gut-feeling expertise”: the ability to accurately intuit a judgment. That ability, Kahneman says, is developed from “prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.”

Two factors figure into such experience, he says.  First the environment needs to be regular so the observations are not merely anecdotal. Second is “the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes.”

Those two factors suggest reasons the confidently expressed observations of the educator can be as flawed as the scores of the standardized test. Classrooms are not noted for their regularity, and mistakes made by teachers may not show up for years, perhaps decades.

In general, Kahneman says:

you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

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Teaching writing without worksheets

Overwhelmed by all the material on teaching writing at You-Can-Teach-Writing.com, a man who described himself as “just a dad, concerned for his 8th grade son” asked me how to entice his son to start writing.

“Do you have simple worksheets from 1-10 (A to Z) that he can start, practice, and systematically go through to comprehend your writing topics?” he asked.

His question is one I get regularly in one form or another and not just from parents. Even those of us who teach writing have days when a simple worksheet sounds awfully appealing. But writing is not a task that can be learned from worksheets.

Writing is a complex skill like playing trombone or driving a car or swimming. You don’t expect a trombonist to develop skill and enthusiasm for music by doing worksheets about correct lip placement, do you?

Of course not.

Can you learn to drive by practicing turning the ignition key until you do it really well?

Of course not.

Can you teach swimming without getting in the water with students?

Of course not.

People learn complex skills by doing an entire process repeatedly and getting feedback as they go through the process. The feedback is not just some observer saying “good job” or “you better try that again.” Feedback is built-in to the task.

If the clarinet squeaks, that’s feedback.

If batter misses the ball, that’s feedback.

If the writer cannot add an assertion to a topic to create a sentence, that’s feedback.

Writing is not just about memorizing strategies or recalling processes, although strategies and processes are part of a writer’s toolkit. Writing is also about developing a feel for writing, an intuitive sense of what’s likely to work well. Those feelings and intuitions are learned from the feedback that occurs in the process of writing.

If my correspondent wants his son to learn to write, he will have to get him into the writing process, just as he would get him behind the wheel to learn to drive.

Photo credit: A Driver by Cylonka

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Failure should be an option for feedback

Whether children should be allowed to fail has been a subject of discussion in the Twittersphere this week.

I don’t believe children should be allowed to fail, if by that you mean allowing them to drown if they don’t master the butterfly stroke.

I do believe in allowing trial and error. The errors from such experiences are not failures but feedback.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi summarizes studies of how people feel when they are engaged in some enjoyable task. The first four of his eight observations of what makes an experience genuinely satisfying — the state he calls flow — have particular  relevance to a discussion of the role of failure in learning:

First, the experience [of flow] usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.

That list describes features that enable students to spend hours engrossed in video games. The list should also describe well-designed classroom learning projects. Moreover, even when for logistic reasons teachers cannot use learning projects, the list should also give clear criteria for alternative strategies, namely:

  • Potential for task completion
  • Ability to concentrate on the task
  • Clear goals for task
  • Immediate feedback

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