According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was forced to ceaselessly roll a big stone up a hill. If we, English teachers, get feedback wrong, grading student essays can feel like a Sisyphean punishment, not to mention demoralizing for our students.
To sidestep this frustration, when responding to student writing, we need to be clear on what the learning goals of the assignment are and what skills and knowledge we want students to master. We need to structure courses so that the assignments’ learning goals reflect the larger learning goals of the class.
You see, feedback begins long before an essay is graded and even assigned. It begins with class discussion. Our role in class discussion already discloses to students how we will interact with their essays. As teachers, if we can partner with students to structure class discussions so they are truly exploring their thinking, speaking to one another and not only to us, then students are on their journey to finding their voices without ours dominating the discussion. We must practice restraint, so students do the work to keep the conversation going. Students finding their voices is really the purpose of effective feedback. Students need to have confidence in their thinking and know their insights are worthy of a respectful engagement. If a student can have that experience in class discussions, then a student can write like that in her essay. We, the teachers, will have to follow through on that implied promise in our feedback.
Approaching feedback like this is not without its challenges. There are moments when I want to say: you are wrong and you didn’t read the text closely enough. But I can’t. I don’t. Instead, I pause to quickly reflect and use the language of plausibility to redirect myself and students to the text. In this reflective pause, I ask myself if I am privileging my interpretation. I explain to students that the text must always be the center of a class discussion, and an interpretation is plausible or implausible based on what is portrayed in the text. A plausible interpretation has to be true across the entire text. The neat trick about plausibility is that it demands students’ full attention in textual analysis because there is only a limited range of what is plausible based on what is portrayed. Implausible interpretations, in contrast, are unlimited because they are not fettered to the text. When a student offers an interpretation that seems implausible, asking them ‘how’ questions and opening up evidence-based responses to the class forces the student to explain their thinking and brings everyone into a conversation over someone’s interpretation.
Long before an essay is written, therefore, we can shift students away from ‘it’s whatever I feel’ to a deep and thoughtful evidence-full engagement with the text. Ultimately, logic and evidence don’t only belong in math and science classes. They live in English classes too! One reason why so many students have trouble with the traditional English essay is that it is a logical text-based argument. Class discussion, therefore, is an opportunity to practice the type of strategies, like using evidence, making connections, explaining one’s thinking, and responding to other interpretations, that students will use in the essay.
For the teacher, modeling openness means that a student can challenge one’s interpretation. This can be a humbling experience. But it is the foundation of a real conversation. For instance, in a 10th-grade short story class earlier this year, I taught “Swandive” by Bishakh Som. Both main characters are trans. One uses they/them/theirs and the other uses she/her/hers pronouns. One of the trans students asserted that we, the class, were using the wrong pronouns for the second main character. The whole class stopped and looked at me. I could have heard the proverbial pin drop at that moment. I paused and understood that there was more at stake than just getting the pronouns of a literary character right. I had to model how to approach a potentially combustible issue so the three trans students in my class felt safe while ensuring that we were grounded in English skills. So I calmly explained using evidence why I thought the character self-identifies as female. I also offered that we all should re-read the story that night, paying particular attention to how the characters self-identify. That night, after re-reading, I researched the story to ensure that my understanding of the character’s pronouns was consistent with how she is portrayed. The next morning, I asked students where they landed and why. After listening to their responses, I shared what I think and why as well as explained my process. I also addressed my identity because, as I explained to students, I didn’t want to bring a cis-gendered heterosexist bias to the text. The important points here are that I was transparent about my process and how my identity categories could impact my interpretation, and I didn’t expect some special treatment in the discussion. I modeled for students how to take one another seriously while still being tethered to the text.
This shows students that they matter. When you show one student that they matter, other students get the message that they matter too. You have given students effective feedback for full participation.
When it comes to the essay or any assignment for that matter, effective feedback should always include a grading rubric that one reviews with students. And if it is possible, an example that earned an A or A- should be discussed also. Grading rubrics demand that the teacher articulate the standards clearly. Students can use these explicit standards when completing the assignment. Grading rubrics also focus students on their writing and not spending time second-guessing what the teacher wants, which is a misdirection of student time and energy.
Using the rubric to provide specific feedback based on the rubric’s elements also disciplines teachers to not overwhelm students with comments and provides similar kinds and amounts of feedback across all assignments. So there is clarity and consistency in responding to students. Grading rubrics work best if they are adopted by the entire department. One of the realizations I’ve had as a department chair is that teachers are team players — a department is a team. There are no lone wolves in teaching. Departments need to be cohesive and transparent because we share students. If we aren’t, students, and parents, spend much energy trying to decode who is the best, easiest, ‘insert superlative here’ teacher. Instead, if the department is consistent, then students, and parents, know they will have an equally good experience regardless of the teacher. Department-developed grading rubrics that everyone uses go a long way towards creating a unified and coherent student experience.
However, grading rubrics don’t take away from the judicious use of marginal comments. Marginal comments still serve a purpose: they can point as evidence of something particularly well done, a repetitive mistake, or a moment that is confusing. To get students to think about their choices, the marginal comments should be framed as ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions if the student is to re-engage with the assignment. For example: ‘How can you clarify this phrasing? I am not following you here.’
A few years ago, my department developed a universal grading rubric using the following seven elements: purpose, audience, voice, support, structure, grammar, and format. If you consider it, all assignments have a purpose, imagine an audience, demand a voice, include evidence, need a structure, must be clear in expression, and possess a specific format. One of my observations is that students’ displeasure with their grades has plummeted. Using the rubric has brought understanding where there used to be tension. For students, a grade can feel mystifying. Grading rubrics point the way forward with clarity and break down the component parts of an assignment. If the point of the feedback is to support student learning, then grading rubrics allow a deliberate re-entry for students. It is only in re-entering the assignment, then the student actually learns what to do with the feedback. This is the moment that tests whether the feedback is effective.
Grading rubrics pair very nicely with different types of formative assessments like individual conferences. As students work, circulate to ask: where are you in the process, how can I help, what questions do you have, and how will you meet the deadline. Conferring with students begins discussions on their work without the stakes of grades. It allows us, the teachers, to hear their concerns, bolster their confidence, and proactively strategize for any potential issues. Once feedback is returned, circulate again to ask: did you read the feedback and what are your questions. This follow-up conference again shifts students’ attention away from the grade and towards the narrative comment — the actual useful part of the feedback.
The other type of formative assessment that is equally important is student responses to metacognitive questions. Including metacognitive questions — such as: what you did well and why, what still needs work and why, and what feedback you incorporated and why — on the due date pivots students to think reflectively and critically on their work before the noise of grades. I typically read these responses before I read their essays because their answers tell me how to read their work. And for full transparency, I disclose this order to them. I let them know that these responses shape my reading experience of their work. In this way, we are now partners in the evaluation of their work.
In all these ways, grading and feedback can transform from sites of anxiety into spaces of empowerment where students can make deliberate choices on how low or high they fly.