Friday, March 11, 2016

Writing Feedback and the Art of Wonder

by Ron Samul 
The power of information, understanding, and thinking is one of the most important skills I want students to understand in academics. Sure, they will have to write papers and do some grunt work for me, but in the end, I want diverse thinking based on thoughtful research. 

When I saw this article that suggests that feedback shouldn't be a directive, but an exploration, I realized that I wasn't fostering diverse thinking if I was telling them what I wanted them to change (make the teacher happy = good grade). But I realize now that perhaps this is not helping. Bill Ferriter posted this idea by Dylan Wiliam and it struck me that perhaps I needed to change the way I spoke to them between the lines. 

"It turns out that it isn't the giving of the feedback that causes learning gains, it is the acting on feedback that determines how much students learn"(1)

If feedback is given to college writers in terms of questions, places to look, or just leads... then students are given permission to explore and find their own learning moments. In the world of creative writing, I think there is more of an exploration of ideas rather than concrete direction and focus. 

The difference is the creative element. The choices writers make with creative writing is based on experience, not form or rhetoric. That being said, feedback does come in the way of questions and connections. Drawing in connections allows the writer to go back and consider relationships, allows them to see another writer moving around the same ideas. It is theirs to comprehend. My point is, when you look to a method of investigative feedback, we should look into the creative writing models and see how feedback is delivered. The biggest insult to a creative writer would be to tell them that their creative expression is wrong. But we do it constantly in academic writing because we are looking for specific benchmarks and rubric goals. In novel writing, sometimes we don't even realize what is happening in the novel to evaluate right and wrong. Recently, I've asked students to pre-read their novel before I commit to working with them on it. Not because they are not good writers, but perhaps I am not the writer to help you with the type of book you want to write? It is a big endeavor and not one to be taken lightly. 

Academic writing could take a few lessons from understanding the value of open-ended feedback. If the grade was secondary to the goal of better writing, we could change the thinking, the writing, and the vision of the paper. Maybe the equation is "challenge teacher = good grade" or "find a sense of voice = good grade" rather than the idea doing what the student is told. 

The last few semesters, I have taken the high-stakes research project for freshman and positioned it in the middle of the semester. The reason behind it was to spend time after the initial writing to explore, deconstruct, and revalue what they added to their paper. Most of the papers that come in are cleaned up rough drafts, and I think spending some time thinking about their paper is valuable. 

The next step is to make them feel like they know something they didn't know before. I want to them to feel like they are knowledgeable about the content of their research. If they are not, then what did they gain? It isn't enough to read the research paper back to me, it must be something you understand. That is what makes good writing. A good creative writer understands what they are writing and knows the depth of their words. So should academics, and be leading them by way of discoverable feedback, the depth of their thinking increases. 

Ron Samul is a writer and educator. For more information or to contact him, go to 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Post a Comment