July 20, 2016
By Patricia A. Dunn
When people are overly self-conscious or frustrated, they don’t learn well. Whether they are new drivers or new writers, rattled people need to calm down. The feedback they receive can make things better or worse. I used to teach driver’s education, which taught me much about how people learn. I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I see many parallels. Sometimes new drivers or writers who have the most need of improvement are least able to absorb multiple commands. Here are some suggestions for how to give more useful feedback on written drafts—and what to avoid.
What to Avoid in Giving Feedback
Screaming at brand new drivers to “Check your blind spot!” does little good to those who have never been taught what a blind spot is. Barking at them to “Brake smoothly!” may not help either—they would if they could. Sometimes developing writers encounter multiple marginal comments from their teachers to “Fix commas!” or “Write in complete sentences!” But these angry-sounding commands may not work. Disheartened writers have no doubt heard all this before, but they may be too confused, frustrated, or disengaged to learn.
Therefore, driving—or writing—instructors should take care not to engage in criticism overload. I’ve seen new drivers, frozen with fear, struggling to coordinate what experienced drivers do without thinking: signal at the right time or brake smoothly without throwing passengers into their seat belts. I’ve learned that yelling Don’ts at them can sometimes make things worse: “Don’t signal too early!” “Don’t stare in your rearview mirror so long!” Some new drivers are already so stiff and nervous that they’re not thinking clearly. They need to take a breath, gain a bit of confidence, and think about what’s around them—as do writers. It doesn’t work to tell new drivers or new writers how terrible they are and then demand that they stop being so bad.
Two scenes: a driver education teacher and a writing teacher yelling at terrified learners.
How to Give Better Feedback
Say something positive: “You stepped on the gas a little more smoothly just now!” “Your hands are certainly placed firmly on the steering wheel!” This praise, small as it was, would calm their frazzled nerves. They had succeeded at something. Shaky writers, like shaky drivers, need to be handled with similar tact. Like some student drivers, student writers may come to a new challenge overwhelmed, discouraged, perhaps, from repeatedly being told how bad they are. They, too, are afraid. They may have a litany of good (and bad) advice playing in their heads. They face a blank page or screen with the same frozen self-consciousness that blocked the clear thinking of the trembling drivers.
Try an Alert Noticing of Positive Features in Writing
Writing teachers, like driver education instructors, also need to notice what’s going well. However, many instructors do not know how to notice or name what developing writers might be doing right. So focused are some teachers on error, or perhaps on justifying a bad grade, they may not know how to find in a very rough draft some aspects to praise (an active verb, a complex sentence, some vivid details, a lively snippet of dialogue, a helpful transition, the legal use of a semi-colon, etc.) When teachers can name specific things a writer is doing well (as Nancy Mack shows how to do with color coding), that writer is more likely to remember to continue to do those things in the future. What’s more, this confidence boost can provide motivation needed to address the many aspects of the draft that undoubtedly need to be fixed.
Of course it’s true that writers “in the real world” will surely have their writing criticized, sometimes brutally. It’s possible—in fact preferable—for instructors to provide a balance of response to a writer: an alert noticing of effective rhetorical moves as well as a focused analysis of how the piece could be improved. It’s this alert noticing of positive features that many of us who write comments on student writing need to learn how to do better.
Address First Things First—Mostly
New drivers and new writers often need to fix much, but first things first and not all at once. Regardless of the number of big and small things drivers and writers need to improve upon, they can’t fix everything before the next block, or before the next draft. Instructors must learn to prioritize. What needs addressing now? What can wait until next time? With beginning drivers, I’d let them build their skills gradually, both for their own development and my own safety. I’d start them off in empty parking lots, dead-end streets, or cemeteries. As their steering and braking improved, they’d begin looking further ahead than the hood of the car and start to process events unfolding in the coming blocks.
Here’s where my driver/writer analogy breaks down, however. Developing writers should not be made to slog around in the dead-ends of grammar exercises or mind-numbing five-paragraph themes. In addition to developing their skills, these wary writers also need to develop their engagement in writing—to see it as both doable and empowering. They need to write about things they care about, in real-world, authentic writing situations, for reasons more important than a grade.
Use a Strategic, Customized Balance of Praise and Critique
Another caveat is that not all writers—or drivers—need the same proportion of praise and critique. In fact, some overconfident new drivers often require candid commentary on their perceived skills. While their wisely under-confident peers often need gentle encouragement coupled with well-placed, prioritized direction (“Nice signaling—now brake gently here for that right turn coming up”), these Grand Prix wannabees often need clear, immediate, and unfiltered correction: “Stop speeding!” “Don’t pass here!” “Pull over now!”
Likewise, some writers, accustomed to getting As on well-edited but vapid school writing, can handle a less-cushioned response from an alert reader who sees their potential to challenge themselves: “Support your claim here with a more respectable source.” “Consider deleting some unnecessary throat-clearing in your introduction.” “You seem to want to say more about this.”
Feedback on writing, like feedback on driving, should be informed, balanced, and tailored to the individual learner. There should be well-placed, solidifying praise when it is warranted and needed, and insightful, prioritized suggestions for what can be improved. Having teachers who can balance their responses strategically for these learners will make our students’ writing better, and our highways safer.
Patricia A. Dunn is a professor of English at Stony Brook University (SUNY), where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing. She is a former high school English teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing, including Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011), with Ken Lindblom. She has contributed several other posts at this blog: the role engagement plays in writing, how bad “grammar” instruction can impede a young writer’s progress, and what learning to play a ukulele taught her about teaching writing. She has a new book, Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature (2015). She is on Twitter as @PatriciaDunn1.