In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jane Halonen and Dana Dunn offer advice on how to give written feedback to students without alienating them (September 10th online). The overall suggestions the authors provide are valuable, but the examples they employ could be more pointed. As a service to our readers, and with gratitude to Halonen and Dunn, University Life will now use the authors’ headings to illustrate their principles with a bit more punch.
Explain your feedback style: Let’s say that you’re one of those professors who prefer their students’ writing to be factually accurate. In the current climate, where “my truth” is a phrase that many students view as a blank check, it’s important for them to know that such truth can represent the on-ramp to an assertion that is profoundly stupid. It’s your responsibility to inform them that you will correct these assertions. (“I hate to tell you this, Skippy, but Belgium was not one of the Thirteen Colonies.”)
Identify your quirks: If you often use the term “dipwad” in your written feedback (“Hey, dipwad, a run-on sentence of 250 words is not OK.”), it’s a good idea to let students know this ahead of time. Tell them not to take it personally.
Emphasize WHY you’re giving students the feedback you’re giving them: “Skippy, the reason I called you out for mistaking Belgium as one of the Thirteen Colonies is that you are a dipwad.”
Highlight what students have done well: This is terrific advice. Example: “Tabitha, you looked really attractive in class today. In fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you as I grade papers tonight, all alone in my king-size bed. Thanks for being you.”
Limit corrections to the most important ones: “Clyde, the assignment asked you to analyze the economic causes of the Franco-Prussian War. You submitted a paper that discusses the process by which you assemble your NFL Fantasy Football team. I’m confused.”
Ask students which kinds of critique will be most useful to them: “Autumn, if I notice that you’ve engaged in wholesale plagiarism in your paper, do you want me to point that out, or would doing so make you feel uncomfortable?”
Give students an opportunity to revise to recapture credit: Once again, a great idea. “Tabitha, now that I’ve finished reading your paper this evening, I must say it’s not very good. Should we meet at Olive Garden for dinner tomorrow night to discuss what we can do about this? My treat.”
Resist the urge to adopt current slang in your feedback: Instead, use slang that you’re more familiar and comfortable with. (“Hate to bug ya, daddy-o, but some of the grammar in your essay is less than groovy. C’mon, hep cat. Remove those cool shades and eyeball that prose one more time.”)
I can dig it, man. Slip me five on the down side.