How does feedback work and how does it work well?

How does feedback work and how does it work well?

Feedback works when writers are able to engage critically with the feedback they receive and make choices that support their purposes for writing.

From whom do we solicit feedback?

Feedback works well when it comes from people authorized to give it. In school, this usually means our instructors. Sometimes writers give and receive feedback from peers. And sometimes they seek it out on their own. Sometimes we hesitate to seek feedback from our peers, but they can be the exact audience we’re targeting. Check out what Joy says about it:

Another student, Joy, positioned peer review in a similar way in her exit interview: ‘Honestly, my project wouldn’t have been as successful without the feedback, not only from [the instructor], but the other girls in the class. Because they were in my target market for the magazine that I was writing, so it was really nice to get firsthand feedback about what a reader would think about it. That’s been very valuable.’ Like Zach, Joy positioned her peers’ feedback as in some ways more authorized than her instructor’s feedback.


FOR INSTRUCTORS: equal opportunity to feedback

Not all students have equal access to people who can offer them authoritative feedback on their writing, as excerpts from Chapter 9 show.

NC data, as pictured below, offer a map of the various communities that represent the College Board’s description. Some of these NCs are more dense in one or two regions, while others are more broadly distributed across the nation. The majority of the students in this study are from neighborhoods described as ‘affluent.’ As an example of the kinds of information that NC data can provide, figure 9.1 represents NC 78, one of the common clusters for students in this study. The image above contains a description of this cluster: ‘This neighborhood is at the top of the economic heap with top salaries and home values. There is little diversity among the highly educated, professional residents, and both students and parents value education. Some students choose private and religious schools but all attend schools with good academic programs. They take advantage of AP and honors coursework and perform near the top on admissions tests. They submit a prolific number of applications to a variety of colleges, often private, across the country. Although some will apply, financial aid is not a priority.” The information portrayed in figure 9.1 offers several key insights, including the average educational attainment in the neighborhood, home values, and rates of homeownership (which in some states can offer a sense of how well-resourced the local public schools may be). This information can describe communities and local schools, and how those places have contributed to the writing experiences that students have before they arrive in college.


The NC information in figure 9.1 suggests that a student coming into first-year writing rom this NC is likely to have encountered many community members who have gone to college and who offer institutional knowledge and support. It is also likely that schools in communities as well-resourced as this one have more experienced teachers, who are given more resources and who have had more time to develop pedagogies that support writing development. As Sarah McCarthey describes, teachers in low-income schools face overwhelming pressure to raise test scores, and many experienced teachers choose to work in higher-income schools where there is more “insulation” from these pressure (47).


While we certainly cannot make assumptions about what individuals experience in any given NC, we can see that a high school in NC 78 would “prepare” students for the writing experiences they were likely to encounter at UM, in the sense that the adults around them had experienced similar writing tasks and situations. The students who enroll at UM from Cluster 78 communities would probably have been surrounded by many adults with college and postgraduate degrees, and, therefore, a large number of adults with extensive experience in academic discourses. Students in these communities have probably had more experience with these academic discourses, because the adults around them have personal experience with the value of academic writing.


Swofford’s Appendix 9 lists the characteristics of each Neighborhood Cluster to offer a sense of the students from each cluster.

FOR INSTRUCTORS: developing rapport with students

Developing rapport with students increases the likelihood that they will want to critically engage with the feedback they receive.

I think [instructor] did a really good job of creating a space where we could all talk about things like that. I think he did a good job structuring the peer editing sessions where they were constructive and they weren’t everyone was saying, “Oh, great job.” You got honest feedback, but it was a safe space where people were also telling you what they liked, and you felt okay bringing big ideas to the table. I wrote about struggling with depression, which I was just—that’s something that I don’t talk about with anyone, but I was impressed that [instructor] was able to make a space that I felt comfortable doing that with 20 strangers.


What type of feedback works? And what do students do with the feedback we offer?

Feedback has a higher likelihood of working when writers critically engage with it, asking questions about how the suggestions help to achieve purposes for writing.

FOR INSTRUCTORS: feedback as conversation

Making the process of giving feedback more of a conversation rather than directives can increase the likelihood that students critically engage with it. Check out what Joy explains her instructor did:

[For other students, accepting feedback while critically engaging with it involved using feedback as a springboard for reflection. Discussing her experience in the Capstone course, writing minor Joy described engaging in dialogic feedback with her instructor, Andy, as something that helped push her writing in new directions: ‘Every day, my instructor] would have a different topic that we would talk about. He would just ask questions. I can’t really remember particular examples. It’s just the questions he asked and follow-up questions that really make you think twice about things in general. If you thought you wanted to write something going in this direction, he might ask you questions. Then you’re, like, “Oh, wait. Actually, I could see it going in this direction.” It kind of just opened up the realm to experiment more than I typically would. It was just nice with having more options to experiment with writing through those conversations.’ Joy suggests that her instructor’s probing questions and discussion topics encouraged innovation and experimentation in her writing. Their conversations invited her not only to reflect productively on her writing, but to consider alternate choices and to experiment more with her writing than she typically would have on her own. Joy’s description of her instructor’s questions that caused her to “think twice about things in general” suggests that she was learning broader principles about writing that could be transferred across contexts. Feedback was not only about improving single drafts but about creating a wider space for learning about writing. Joy’s experience illustrates the critical attribute of using instructor feedback as a springboard for reflecting on her writing, and suggests that Andy’s feedback was a catalyst for Joy’s development as a writer.


Link to audio

FOR INSTRUCTORS: student engagement with feedback

How are students engaging with the feedback offered? Are they doing everything recommended, nothing at all, or something in between? Encourage students to critically analyze feedback the way they analyze other texts.

FOR INSTRUCTORS: peer review

Consider having students peer review each other’s work at different stages in the writing process. Ask them to write to each other about what’s working (and why) and what’s confusing (and why). Allow students to talk with each other about how their work is going.

A clear finding, then, is that when students report that the purpose of peer review is unclear to them, they are likely to fall back on dominant ideologies not only around grammatical correctness, but also, as I argue, around a transactional view of writing expertise that privileges instructor authority over student authority, undermining the stated goals of peer review.


Peer review is most effective when students know the purpose and have clear goals, like specific questions to respond to in their peer’s writing. Three questions that often elicit generative feedback are: What’s working for you in the writing? Why is it working? What are moments where you’re confused or have questions?

This lesson plan from Ben (chapter 2) can help teachers and students learn about and engage with peer review.

This lesson plan from Ben (chapter 2) provides directions for in-class face-to-face peer review.

Easing into peer review in your class:

If you sense that students don’t feel authorized to give each other feedback, have them play the “what if” game. After reading a classmate’s essay they ask what would happen if …? For example, what if you changed the title? What if you moved this sentence to the beginning of the paragraph instead of the end?

Another activity to help get students into peer review is the eliminate 100 game: ask students to eliminate 100 words from their own or a classmate’s writing.

To help students engage with the purpose of peer review, try this reading to explain a goal of writing workshop: Jeremiah Chamberlain’s “Workshop is not for you”

For more information about peer review and feedback, check out Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing.

When it doesn’t work and students don’t seek feedback:

Follow Dan, a student who started as uncritically resistant to feedback and who became critically engaged with it.

Feedback works when writers can critically engage with the feedback they receive, in conversation with those giving them feedback, and when they are allowed opportunities to make choices in their own writing.