One of the main tasks we have as instructors and teaching assistants is reading students’ writing and assisting them in communicating their ideas. Even when we have engaging class discussions, how do we get students to do good thinking and move their ideas from their heads to the written page? One way to help students is by providing effective feedback. Feedback serves as a conversation between a reader and the writer. The goal of feedback is to offer a different view of the writing, from which the writer is obscured. Feedback also helps the writer see what others take away from their writing and if their ideas have been effectively communicated.  

After serving as the department’s writing intensive teaching assistant this past year, I have a few manageable pieces of advice to offer. These ideas and techniques are adapted from the University of Georgia’s graduate Writing Intensive Program course, discussions with other writing-intensive teaching assistants, and Gottschalk and Hjortshoj (2004)’s The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. The advice below should help instructors provide effective feedback on all forms of writing, from short pieces to longer, scaffolded essays:  

  1. Focus on the forest and not the trees. Our main goal is to help students grow as writers. Students enter the classroom with different writing skills, experiences, and backgrounds.. You cannot fix everything in one semester, but you can help them identify what they are struggling with. Focus on these issues when giving feedback instead of honing in on individual sentences or singular minor points. 
  1. Focus on giving each student a manageable number of tasks. When commenting on a first draft, I usually concentrate on only 2 to 3 big points related to major content or overarching arguments. Sometimes, for longer pieces, I might include 1 or 2 small points as well. 
  1.  Do not write directly on students’ work. Instead, I write a note on a separate page (or a separate attached comment on our online system). This indicates to them that not only did I thoroughly read their essays but that I value their contribution and do not see them as just a number in the class. Having a note format for feedback also indicates that this is their work and gives them ownership over the page.
  1. Think critically about the verbiage of your constructive criticism. One of the changes I have made to get students to really think about big picture issues is always including a sentence about what I thought their main point/key takeaways were. Rearticulating their argument in my words serves as a point to see if there is miscommunication between their thoughts and what the reader is taking away from the page. It creates an opportunity for them to clarify their intentions in revision. I have also changed the verbiage of how I articulate this to “As a reader, this is what I took away.” Furthermore, no matter how creative I have to be, I always try to start with a sentence of positive reinforcement on what they are doing well. 
  1. Do not copy edit a draft. Copy editing students’ work can make the writing feel finalized and subvert the revision process, preventing students from producing a new, better draft as a finished product. Emphasize that grammar errors and minor style issues are part of the polishing stage writers enter once they have worked through content. To help students polish their work, suggest (the free version of) Grammarly or your campus’ writing center. You can also provide specific guidance on polishing once they have submitted a “final” draft.

As public sociologists, part of our job is to encourage critical thinking and clear writing. The tips for providing feedback I offer here promote students’ agency in the writing process and encourage deep thinking throughout the revision process. Students can often feel resistant to receiving feedback on assignments often preferring to turn in one draft, this feedback encourages them to lean into the revision process. The goal is to emphasize writing as communication and part of a collaborative process. 

Emily Tingle is a second-year doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Georgia where she currently serves as the department’s writing intensive teaching assistant. She holds a Master of Science degree in Sociology from Mississippi State University. Her areas of study include political sociology, social movements and collective action, and rural sociology.