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More Than Rough and Final Drafts: Making Feedback Meaningful for Student Writers

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As an English teacher, nothing is more frustrating to me than students disregarding feedback because of an emotional response to a grade.

My colleagues and I hope that students will review past mistakes in order to prevent future mistakes, but high schoolers are busy. When work piles up before a due date, they're not likely to look at the feedback on their last paper, especially if they have misguided excuses justifying the grade they received on it. If I am honest about my high school experience, I can’t say I looked at a previous paper before starting the next one. I’m not even sure I did that as an undergrad.

As teachers, we make the same mistake. How often do we pull up the last paper a student wrote to see how much he or she has grown? Maybe sometimes, but I would argue it's rare.

For meaningful writing instruction, teachers should consider another paradigm.

Reimagining the Writing Process

This school year, our English department adopted a policy that focuses on feedback as a part of the writing process rather than the outcome. Students now have more opportunity to incorporate edits and grow as writers within each assignment, rather than teachers assuming they will demonstrate progress in the next assignment.

The small group of 10th to 12th grade teachers I worked with to develop this system agreed that we wanted all students to revise major written assignments as a response to teacher feedback. For this to work, feedback would need to be front-loaded, motivating attention to the teacher commentary itself. Students would then need at least a week to participate in the feedback cycle and revise the paper.

This plan wouldn't replace the essay planning that teachers already did in English classes, such as the prewriting process or the peer-edited rough draft. Instead, we added a new step: an “advanced” draft, turned in after the rough draft and before the final.

In the past, when teachers had assigned rough drafts, they were always a little too rough. “Advanced” draft felt aspirational and conveyed what we expected of our students under this new system—that they would turn in the best work that they could at that moment in time for teacher feedback.

Under this formula, the student no longer thinks in terms of the rough draft or outline minimum requirements—“How many quotes do I need in this paragraph/paper?”—for an acceptable grade. Instead, the student and the teacher can focus more on stylistic quality.

Ideally, the farther the student can take the advanced draft toward accomplishing the rubric goals, the higher the chances are that a student’s work will improve on the final draft. The advanced draft would receive the most feedback in the process and a placeholder grade in the gradebook.

Final draft teacher feedback would be minimal because the revision process would be finished. This system would create a longer grading process for writing assignments, but it would hopefully create more satisfying final drafts for teachers and students.

Motivating Revision

The advanced draft process is also a form of differentiated instruction, because students at any ability level can be coached through revision. Students determine how much work they put into the advanced draft. High-quality student work allows teachers to coach with more specific feedback, whereas weak drafts get less detailed, simplistic comments. The system also gives poor performance (for a host of legitimate reasons or excuses) a second chance. And if students choose not to turn in an advanced draft, they lose the opportunity for teacher feedback.

Because of the stakes in the revision, our group determined that teachers and students must agree to a reasonable and quick turnaround. We decided to return advanced drafts within one to two weeks—enough time to meet with a teacher in office hours or make an appointment with our school's writing center. If students wait until the night before the final draft is due, lack of planning can hurt student progress. Momentum propels draft to feedback to draft.

Of course, momentum is also maintained by the student’s belief in his or her progress, and the teacher’s ability to encourage that progress. Though a grade is an imperfect and reductive measure of student progress, it can also be a motivator. For this reason, we decided to allow the final draft grade to replace the advanced draft grade. Teachers have some freedom here if they want to count the advanced draft as a percentage of the final. But grade replacement allows certain students to take risks, and it can give poor planners a candid impression of where their advanced draft grade stands.

Before introducing the new policy to our department, we practiced in our own classrooms. Two teachers within our group who used the new system noted how much more teacher feedback caught the attention of their students. More students were coming to office hours with questions about writing craft, and teachers were enjoying the opportunity to have meaningful conversations. I personally felt more satisfaction grading those final drafts.

As our department has adopted the new system, some teachers have had to spend more time planning for the week they will grade and return advanced drafts. But teachers have also noted how much students appreciate the quick turnaround while the work is fresh in their minds. The process hasn’t inspired every reluctant writer: One colleague expressed some disappointment that students did not take as much advantage in the final as she might have hoped. But teachers agree that the advanced draft has allowed for more honest conversation at each stage of the drafting process. And teachers have expressed relief that the final draft requires less feedback.

The number of student visits to the writing center increased this fall, and tutors have learned to use a common departmental language as students bring in their advanced drafts to have conversations about improving through revision. As a department, we hope advanced drafts have brought us a step closer to a culture in which students learn to reflect through the writing process, rather than just trying to manage their workload.

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