Providing effective feedback on student papers is one of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of teaching. In general, I’ve found that my students appreciate substantive feedback and nearly always incorporate it into subsequent papers. Watching students grow more confident in their writing voices over the course of the semester is immensely satisfying.

Yet offering helpful feedback is also a definite challenge. How can you phrase criticism clearly and constructively? What elements of paper writing should you emphasize? How can you be sure your students will even read your feedback?!

Well, you have no control over that last one, but assuming that (most of) your students read your comments, there are several strategies you can use to make those comments as helpful as possible.

Have a clear focus

It’s tempting to address every single writing issue all at once. You receive a paper with a weak argument, poor structure, fantastical leaps of logic, sloppy citations, and awkward phrasing, and naturally you want to mop up all these issues. So you fill every page with red ink until it’s almost unreadable.

The problem? This kind of super extensive feedback will almost certainly overwhelm the student. Instead, it’s better to focus on one or two major areas for improvement.

Perhaps for the first paper of the semester, you focus on argument, a fundamental component of most college papers. Is the student’s argument specific, debatable, and evidence-based? Then for the second paper, you focus on organization: Are paragraphs laid out in a sensible order? Does each paragraph have a topic sentence and one main point? The third paper might be all about working with sources and evidence: How well has the student analyzed primary sources? How well incorporated are secondary sources? Is everything cited properly? And then the final paper might bring all these different elements—argument, organization, sources—together.

Tell students upfront what you will be looking for in their papers. Then keep this focus in mind when formulating comments on each paper. If you’re concentrating on argument, provide direct feedback on each student’s argument.

For example: “Your argument is strong, clearly stated, and supported by ample evidence.”

Or: “Your argument needs further refinement. As of now, it is more of an observation or statement of fact than a debatable argument.”

Or: “You’re on the right track, but try narrowing down the scope of your argument.”

Add further details based on the specifics of the assignment and the papers you receive.

Consider providing a rubric

Again, it’s a good idea to tell students what you want from them, and a rubric is a clear way of doing this. A rubric outlines the major components of the paper and your expectations. You can make your own or adapt one your find online. You can find some sample rubrics here:

One major advantage of rubrics is that they encourage consistency and transparency. They help you, as the instructor, grade efficiently. And they also help students learn how to evaluate their own work and self-correct issues as they arise.

Provide specific suggestions in the margins

I generally avoid writing in marginal and in-text comments during a first read-through (with the possible exception of correcting grammatical errors). I like to get a sense of the paper first, then go back and add comments where appropriate.

Point out sentences or areas that are confusing to you as a reader. Does the student need to add a transition, clarify a confusing passage, or respond better to a counterargument? Similarly, point out specific areas that are well-executed. If a student deploys an effective transition, defines terms clearly, or offers a strong rebuttal, say so!

You can also ask questions to prompt your students to think more deeply about their arguments. Is a paragraph really vague or confusing? Ask a question to encourage the student to clarify things. Does the argument fail to take a relevant primary source into account? Ask why this source was excluded or how its inclusion might alter the overall argument.

Distinguish between global and local areas of improvement

In general, you’ll want to emphasize global concerns (or “higher-order” issues), which encompass the paper as a whole. Does the paper fulfill assignment requirements? Does it have a solid argument? Is the argument supported by sufficient evidence that is arranged in a logical order?

When writing your feedback, reflect on the key global takeaway for the paper. What (if anything) is the biggest area to improve? Or conversely, what does the paper do especially well?

Local concerns (or “lower-order” issues), on the other hand, have more to do with sentence-level issues. Is the paper grammatically sound and stylistically pleasing? Are the citations correctly formatted? Your feedback will likely also include suggestions for improvement on these fronts. If a paper has numerous local issues, try to concentrate on just a few at a time.

Write a final, holistic comment

Your final remarks should take a broad, global view of the paper and give a balanced assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Avoid overly judgmental comments (e.g.: “You clearly did not spend enough time on this paper”) and stick to the paper at hand. Broadly speaking, what does the paper do well? What could it do better?

Try to keep your final remarks focused by resisting the temptation to cover everything. Stick to just a few main suggestions. For example, you might evaluate the student’s overall argument and structure (global issues), then note a recurring issue with citation format (local issue).

If possible, assign multiple papers or drafts

Ideally, your class design will allow for either multiple papers or multiple drafts of one longer paper. This will give your students the chance to apply your feedback, and you’ll be better able to track their progress over the course of the semester. Students are more likely to take feedback seriously if they are given opportunities for revision.

References and further reading:

Brad Hughes, “Questioning Assumptions: What Makes for Effective Feedback on Student Writing?” University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Commenting on Student Writing,” Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis.

Giving Feedback on Student Writing,” Sweetland Center for Writing, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan.