Improving student writing through comments

hand with pen, writing in colored ink on typed paper

By Julia Bleakney, PhD, Sohui Lee, PhD, and Sarah Pittock, PhD

Using comments to evaluate student writing and to teach writing

“[F]eedback plays a leading role in undergraduate writing development when, but only when, students and teachers create a partnership through feedback—a transaction in which teachers engage with their students by treating them as apprentice scholars, offering honest critique paired with instruction.”

–Nancy Sommers, “Across the Drafts” (2006)

The comments we give to students on their writing represent a significant teaching opportunity. In the margins of students’ papers, we can demystify academic writing conventions and push novice writers to think more deeply and communicate more precisely. We can do so relatively efficiently, too, if we keep the goals of commenting in mind and regularly reflect on our commenting practices.

Typically, we offer comments on student writing for two reasons: to build student skills and to justify a grade. Comments that emphasize how students can improve their writing and that encourage an on-going learning process are formative, whereas comments that evaluate how students did in their writing assignment and summarize learning or writing performance are summative.

Why Give Formative Comments?

Research suggests that formative comments are more effective than summative comments because they

  • give explanation and instruction that help students understand concepts, identify error, or see what they are doing well
  • provide concrete examples or suggestions for what a revised or improved sentence or passage might look like
  • motivate students to listen to and be more inclined to incorporate feedback on future assignments
  • reinvigorate students’ sense of discovery in their projects.

Even if students will not have an opportunity to revise an assignment for an improved grade, consider providing them with some formative comments.  They will likely carry these lessons into their next writing projects, whether these are pursued within or outside of the academy.    

Strategies for Formative Commenting

Limiting and Prioritizing Your Feedback

Facing a stack of drafts can be daunting, but a strategic commenting approach can help you respond consistently, fairly, and efficiently. Research (by Nancy Sommers, for example) shows that students are able to process and respond to a limited number of comments.

As respondents, we might be inclined to provide students with as much feedback as possible, but this approach is counterproductive—students feel overwhelmed or demotivated and don’t know how to prioritize or approach the revision process. Therefore, it is helpful to focus on three or four key writing or learning goals for the assignment and to address your comments to those goals.

Before you begin commenting, review the grading rubric that has already been shared and discussed with the students. As you consider what to highlight in your comments, keep your grading criteria in mind and prioritize higher-order writing issues.  John Bean’s hierarchy of questions from Engaging Ideas provides a useful framework:

  • Does the draft follow the assignment?
  • Does the draft address a problem or question and does it have a thesis?
  • What is the overall quality of the writer’s ideas and argument?
  • Is the draft effectively organized?
  • Then, finally, does the writer need to work on grammar, punctuation, or spelling?

(Bean 322-332)

Different Types of Comments

In the text: Limit correction within the text. Students often receive these corrections as specific directions for word, phrase, or sentence changes, but do not consider applying those corrections to other parts of the writing or to future assignments.

An effective alternative approach would be to note a pattern of error in one or two instances. Then, in summary comments at the end of the essay, highlight the issue and identify the page number as an example. In addition, you can suggest how to improve or correct this issue through the essay and in future essays, perhaps by recommending a specific section of a handbook. Finally, emphasize to the group that their final grade will reflect correctness. Students can be motivated to be their own best line editors.

Margin comments may be used for questions, to identify specific areas for praise, or to highlight areas for more careful review. Some instructors write numbers on the side in order to avoid writing extensively in the essay and then follow up at the end, like endnotes, with more extensive comments.

End comments identify global trends in the students’ writing and assess the general quality of the content. In order to motivate students, begin with a summary of the argument (to show that you’ve understood the ideas in the paper) before presenting some words of encouragement and identifying specific areas that were key or well written. Then diagnose a weakness or two and present some suggestions for how the student can improve the content and writing.

In summary, effective formative commenting

  • is connected to the grading rubric
  • is limited to three or four key points
  • is clearly prioritized into higher and lower order concerns
  • is forward looking – making suggestions for future action
  • takes the student seriously as a thinker and writer.

Strategies for Summative Commenting

Summative comments can be much briefer than formative comments. You can summarize your reaction to the paper, describing improvements in the thinking and writing and justifying the grade. Students often become frustrated if you point out problems you have not previously discussed in drafts or in conferences, but you might frame the problems as areas to work on in future writing projects.

A challenge instructors can face is aligning the comments they give on drafts with the comments they give on final papers. As you write comments on drafts and final papers, consider how the evaluation criteria reflect specific learning goals for the course. All feedback, from initial formative to final summative, helps the students meet the criteria for success as outlined in the grading rubric.

What Students Prefer

In a long-term study of several hundred student writers at Harvard University, the researchers found that students recognize the importance of feedback to their development as writers; in other words, students deeply value thoughtful comments that acknowledge their work and engage their ideas.

The most useful comments to students, according to Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj, are

  • brief summaries of what the reader got out of the paper
  • descriptions of difficulties the reader encountered
  • questions that stimulate further thought, and  
  • highly critical feedback as long as it is constructive and respectful.  

(Gottschalk and Hjortshoj 53)

Managing the Paper Load

Your students’ writing need not bury you. Early process writing—brainstorms, outlines, very rough drafts—can be read quickly or not at all by you. In peer reviews and Hume Center appointments, students usually gain important initial feedback on everything from the viability of their claim to the logic of their organization.

Indeed, working from your rubric, students might give each other an initial grade; they can be accurate judges of each other’s work when well directed. Finally, as you work through a stack of drafts, keep track of common problems. Address these in class in a just-in-time lesson to the group, rather than to each individual.

Specific, constructive feedback models an engagement with ideas and an attention to the sentence and paragraph that many novice writers have never experienced before. A reader’s attention can inspire students to devote the same level of focus to their revisions. More coherent, complete, and elegant student writing rewards the time and effort required to craft evaluative comments.

See Also

Staring at a Blank Screen: How to “Write Before You’re Ready”


Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortsjoj. “What You Can Do With Student Writing.” The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s Professional Resources, 2004. 47-61.

Lees, Elaine O. “Evaluating Student Writing.”  College Composition and Communication 30 (1979): 370-374.

Sommers, Nancy. “Across the Drafts.” College Composition and Communication 58:2 (2006): 248-257.

---. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33.2 (1982): 148-156.

WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Clearinghouse. “How to Avoid the Paper Trap: Managing the Paper Load.”