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Making Feedback Meaningful: UDL-Based Solutions for Responding to Student Writing

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Making Feedback Meaningful: UDL-Based Solutions for Responding to Student Writing

Compositionists universally acknowledge revision to be an essential stage of any writing process. Instructors who emphasize written assignments in their classes are likely to encourage greater student achievement when they build revision opportunities into the course. Beyond simple editorial corrections, a meaningful revision process can encourage students “to engage with their own texts in a more advanced way” (Garner & Shank, 2018).

Instructor feedback on student writing is a critical component of the revision process. The instructor’s comments on a student’s draft typically establish the goals for the revised paper, and so the nature of the instructor’s commentary plays a decisive role. In fact, the meaningfulness of a student’s revision process is unlikely to exceed the meaningfulness of the feedback they get from their instructor on their draft. In the best of cases, responding to a student draft can be an opportunity for an instructor to challenge students to build on their own best ideas. Instructor feedback, however, can also be unproductive or even counterproductive to the learning process. Ryan and Henderson (2018) observe, “Unfortunately, when students experience adverse emotional reactions as a result of the feedback process, their receptiveness may be limited,” adding that “it is unsurprising that critical comments from educators can reduce students’ self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy” (p. 881).


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Compositionists universally acknowledge revision to be an essential stage of any writing process. Instructors who emphasize written assignments in their classes are likely to encourage greater student achievement when they build revision opportunities into the course. Beyond simple editorial corrections, a meaningful revision process can encourage students “to engage with their own texts in a more advanced way” (Garner & Shank, 2018).

Instructor feedback on student writing is a critical component of the revision process. The instructor’s comments on a student’s draft typically establish the goals for the revised paper, and so the nature of the instructor’s commentary plays a decisive role. In fact, the meaningfulness of a student’s revision process is unlikely to exceed the meaningfulness of the feedback they get from their instructor on their draft. In the best of cases, responding to a student draft can be an opportunity for an instructor to challenge students to build on their own best ideas. Instructor feedback, however, can also be unproductive or even counterproductive to the learning process. Ryan and Henderson (2018) observe, “Unfortunately, when students experience adverse emotional reactions as a result of the feedback process, their receptiveness may be limited,” adding that “it is unsurprising that critical comments from educators can reduce students’ self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy” (p. 881).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a model of instructional design that analyzes educational encounters in terms of three elements: engagement, representation, and action and expression (CAST, 2011). The UDL model maps neatly onto the challenges involved in providing feedback to students for revising written assignments. For instructor feedback to become a part of a meaningful revision process, the student must have some personal sense of investment in the process (engagement), the feedback itself must be presented in an accessible way (representation), and the feedback must be tied to an authentic opportunity for the student to do something with it (action and expression). UDL-based pedagogy invites instructors to consider the kinds of obstacles students might encounter in each of these three areas and to design instructional environments that provide paths around such obstacles. In the case of instructor feedback, UDL can help illuminate some basic principles for supporting a meaningful, culturally sensitive, and empowering revision process.

Engagement

A common challenge for instructors working with student writers, especially first-year student writers, is developing ways to engage students so that they are more invested in their own writing and the writing process. The UDL emphasis on engagement invites instructors to reshape the learning environment and eliminate potential barriers that may stifle student motivation and interest in revising their work. Instructors can begin to engage students more deeply in the writing process by reimagining the role of instructor feedback.

Most importantly, feedback can be a method to improve student-instructor relationships. In its most effective form, writing feedback is a dialogue between the student and the instructor about the student’s ideas, the communication of those ideas, and the process of refining the method by which those ideas are expressed. When a student feels comfortable and supported by their instructor, they can begin to experience writing feedback as a conversation about writing as a form of expression instead of experiencing feedback as criticism or judgment of their abilities. As Rowe (2019) suggests, “Supportive student–teacher relationships are fundamental to the establishment of dialogue which is central to feedback, and feedback is reciprocal in the sense that it involves both giving and receiving” (p. 161). During that dialogue, a strong student-instructor relationship can emerge. Furthermore, students who feel supported as writers are more responsive to the feedback instructors offer. According to Henderson et al. (2019), “For feedback to have an impact, it is critical that learners are receptive to the information educators provide” (p. 1244).

Best practices for engaging students meaningfully in the revision process may include

  • focusing conversation about revision on the students own goals for the writing project;
  • centering the conversation on the student’s own evaluation of what is successful about a particular draft and what they might want to improve in a revised version; and
  • respecting the student’s voice and ensuring that the revision process is committed to refining and empowering the student’s personal writing style rather than eliminating it.

Representation

It is also critical that students receive this feedback in a way that is accessible and intelligible to them. In UDL practice, representing information to students through multiple channels and media increases students’ ability to interpret and process this information. The default process of marking up a student’s essay may constitute one means of providing editorial feedback to students, but students may not understand the reasons for the markup, even if they make the recommended corrections. Instructors’ written marginalia can also be baffling and sometimes even illegible to students, and even sensitive, detailed, and holistic responses to student essays can’t help communicating the idea of a top-down hierarchy where the students’ words are at the mercy of the instructor’s expectations.

When instructors supplement textual commentary with other means of representing their feedback, the feedback process can become a way of developing strong and supportive relationships in the classroom. While face-to-face feedback is a common way to encourage dialogue and build student-instructor relationships, instructors could also try other feedback methods that provide choice for learners. Multimedia (video or audio) feedback often mimics face-to-face interactions and improves student-instructor relationships (Mahoney, et al., 2019); peer-to-peer dialogue about instructors’ feedback can create a sense of comfort for students while also increasing their understanding of instructor remarks (Schillings et al., 2020). Regardless of the feedback method, instructors who consider the role of emotions when providing any type of feedback can avoid disengaging students who may react negatively (Ryan & Henderson, 2018).

Best practices for representing feedback meaningfully may include

  • providing options for students regarding how they want to receive instructor feedback, whether through video, writing, or face-to face conferencing;
  • encouraging students to communicate with one another about the feedback they’ve received from the instructor and to give and receive feedback to one another; and
  • presenting feedback as editorial suggestions rather than as corrections.

Action and expression

The UDL model also places an emphasis on providing students with multiple options for acting on what they have learned and for expressing their evolving ideas. In the revision process, the form of “action” that the students are directed toward is obviously the updated, expanded, or pruned-down revision of their writing project, but this text-based output does not necessarily exhaust the possibilities of what students can learn from their revision process or how they can reflect on what they have learned. Opportunities to reflect on the revision process itself—whether in writing, in a video essay, or in conversation with their peers or instructor (or both)—can often be more educationally meaningful than the production of the revised draft itself. These reflection opportunities may take the form of revision memos (Berdine & Fulton, 2008), portfolio cover letters (Emmons, 2003), or self-reflection essays (Grayson, 2020). Rather than being ancillary to the writing process, such reflection opportunities sit at the heart of why we teach writing in the first place. After all, most student writing is not intended for publication. While writing has many different roles in education, one of its most salient pedagogical merits is its capacity to teach students metacognitive lessons about where ideas come from, how they can be put together, and what they can be used to do. Developing innovative, flexible, student-centered opportunities for students to reflect on, respond to, and implement editorial suggestions on their writing can help turn the draft-feedback-revision process from a one-way set of mechanical instructions and semi-insulting nitpicking into a more meaningful and collaborative educational experience.

Best practices for creating meaningful opportunities for students to translate feedback into forms of action and expression may include

  • making the revision of a particular piece of writing an opportunity to reflect more broadly on students’ identity as writers;
  • identifying the “finished” piece of writing as a jumping-off point for future writing projects; and
  • considering the possibility that certain qualities can be “lost” in revision and reflecting (in writing, in conversation, or in some other medium) on the relative merits of revised and unrevised writing.

Instructor feedback is a critical part of any learning process, and it plays a particularly salient role in the teaching of writing. Too often, however, critiquing and “correcting” the way a person expresses themselves can be a form of “white language supremacy” (Inoue, 2019). Mutualistic and bidirectional strategies for communicating with students about their writing can help to mitigate the power imbalance between teachers and students, fostering a richer dialogue about the dynamics of both writing and rewriting.

References

Bardine, B. A., & Fulton, A. (2008). Analyzing the benefits of revision memos during the writing and revision process. The Clearing House, 81(4), 149–154.

CAST. (2011). Universal Design for Learning guidelines version 2.0 [Graphic organizer]. Wakefield, MA.

Emmons, K. (2003). Rethinking genres of reflection: Student portfolio cover letters and the narrative of progress. Composition Studies, 31(1), 43–62.

Garner, B., & Shank, N. (2018). Student perceptions of a revise and resubmit policy for writing assignments. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 81(3), 351–367. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329490618784962

Grayson, M. L. (2020). The second essay that analyzes the first essay: Reflecting and revising in a writing classroom. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 47(4), 392–402.

Henderson, M., Ryan, T., & Phillips, M. (2019). The challenges of feedback in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(8), 1237–1252. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1599815

Inoue, A. B. (2019). 2019 CCC chair’s address: How do we language so people stop killing each other, or what do we do about white language supremacy? Conference on College Composition and Communication, 71(2), 352–369.

Mahoney, P., Macfarlane, S., & Ajjawi, R. (2019). A qualitative synthesis of video feedback in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(2), 157–179. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1471457

Rowe, A. D. (2017). Feelings about feedback: The role of emotions in assessment for learning. In C. M. Wyatt-Smith (Ed.), The enabling power of assessment: Vol. 5. Scaling up assessment for learning in higher education (pp. 159–172). Springer.

Ryan, T., & Henderson, M. (2018). Feeling feedback: students’ emotional responses to educator feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(6), 880–892. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1416456

Schillings, M., Roebertsen, H., Savelberg, H., Whittingham, J., & Dolmans, D. (2020). Peer-to-peer dialogue about teachers’ written feedback enhances students’ understanding on how to improve writing skills. Educational Studies, 46(6), 693–707. https://doi.org/10.1080/03055698.2019.1651692


Nicole Brewer, EdD, is an assistant professor of humanities and a literacy specialist at Anna Maria College.

Randy Laist, PhD, is a professor of English at Goodwin University and the University of Bridgeport.