Instructor Insights

Providing Feedback on Student Writing

In this section, Prof. Aram Harrow shares his approach for providing students with productive feedback about their writing.

Providing students with productive feedback about their writing can be challenging because there so many different aspects of a paper an instructor might focus on. To address this challenge, I try to tailor my feedback to match the writer’s stage of paper development. I don’t correct grammar on a rough draft, for instance. I save that kind of feedback for later iterations.

"I provide feedback that helps (students) plan in such a way that, even if they were to complete only the first part of their proposals, their papers would be successful. This allows the students to be both realistic and ambitious at the same time."
— Aram Harrow

In addition to providing students with feedback on the mechanics of their writing, I also provide them with feedback on their strategy for planning and executing a paper. I used to get really excited when a student would tell me they planned to do something ambitious in their paper. Now, I realize that they may not see how much work they’ve bitten off. We have a page limit for the term paper in 8.06 Quantum Mechanics III and there’s a time limit for how long students can work on their papers. When students come to me with ambitious proposals, I think carefully about the scope of their intentions. I ask students to identify their goals and sub-goals and to think about how they will accomplish the work they’ve set out to do given the constraints of the assignment.

But, of course, I don’t want to discourage them, so I also ask, “Which part of this proposal would you work on first? Which part would you focus on next?” I provide feedback that helps them plan in such a way that, even if they were to complete only the first part of their proposals, their papers would be successful. This allows the students to be both realistic and ambitious at the same time. This strategy for providing feedback has been useful because it recognizes that students’ energy comes in waves during the semester. There’s a time (usually toward the beginning of the semester) when students are energetic and feel they can do anything; and then there’s another period when they’re scrambling. Providing feedback that works with, instead of against, this ebb and flow of energy has been productive.

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