Professor feedback on essays is essential

Danielle Zukowski

For a moment after turning in an essay, I feel relieved. As I leave class, though, the anxiety begins again. I prepare myself to play the waiting game. That span in between the deadline and the grade always feels so long. As much as we try to empathize with teachers as they tackle through the process of evaluating writing, we can not truly understand unless we provide commentary ourselves. We know the process is difficult, sure, but our desire for a response often gnaws at our patience and compassion. With diminished sympathy, researching and writing 10 pages can feel like a waste of time when the long awaited grade arrives with a simple ‘good’ or ‘needs work.’

Commentary consisting of vague and brief phrases such as these, albeit time efficient, often result in little revision and do not contribute to the betterment of the student as writer. Instead, professors could provide an end comment or response memo with specific reference to what in the essay was effective and what requires revision to be effective. A personalized comment about higher order concerns, such as development, are more difficult for students to revise and certainly take professors more time to comment on, but those lessons are most applicable to future literary improvement.

In the effort to produce feedback that aids in this mission, providing text-specific revision strategies is a complex, yet effective, practice. Informative research from linguists such as Lynn Goldstein can help guide professors in the ever-challenging process of writing feedback. However, knowing how to comment effectively on student’s drafts may be even more time consuming and challenging, so again, it’s important for students to try to be as understanding as possible.

The weight of revision should not fall solely on the teacher, however. Students can take steps throughout writing to be fully engaged in the process. Being active in the writing process starts with fully reading the prompt. Begin by identifying the genre, purpose, audience, and topic if possible. Following the basic context of the paper, look for the evaluation criteria, which is sometimes provided with the assignment or on the syllabus. If not provided, ask the teacher! It’s important to know the lens from which the paper is being evaluated so that current drafts and future revisions can aim for these principles.

Revision does not have to be postponed until after the submission though. Actually, drafting can be a really helpful way to sort out ideas when used productively. Some students work well with outlines, while others find it easier to just begin writing. Although diving in can be limiting, brain dumping is fine as long as a student goes back and revises using methods like the reverse outline or highlighting by subject to further develop the essay. In this drafting process, peer review and our campus’s Writing Center can be especially helpful.

Now comes the due day and ultimately the evaluative eye. Once feedback is returned, a student may take a trip back to the Writing Center or to a peer, but another option is to go to the teacher’s office hours. Sometimes it is easier to communicate with a professor in person due to illegible writing, unclear suggestions, or the lack thereof. A one-on-one conference may be able to address those issues by clarifying strategies for revision. Even if the paper was praised, it’s helpful in the long term to know the specifics so one can keep improving as a writer. This goal is something that we, as students, have to actively work for in conjunction with professors and mentors even if the initial feedback is not especially effective.