Student Development Series #1

Feedback and Improvement

Becoming a Better Writer by Helping Other Writers

Let's Go Scroll Down

Getting feedback on how well we’re doing something and how to improve is one of the most powerful ways to learn and grow—as writers or anything else.

Giving feedback also helps us grow because we get better at noticing how writers’ choices are affecting us as readers. As we distinguish between successful and less successful strategies, we improve our skills as reviewers. There’s also an additional benefit for our work as writers: As we see strategies used well by others, we expand our set of effective writing tools.

This module explains Feedback and Improvement in the learning process. It also talks briefly about the qualities of helpful feedback and introduces detailed strategies you can use to get better at giving feedback.

Part 1

Feedback Fuels Learning

Feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. Research shows that students learn the most when they receive information about a task and how to do it better.

Graduate student Rebecca Zantjer explains how being told to delete half of what she’d written freed her to improve her work.

As Zantjer’s experience shows, feedback focuses on helping someone meet a goal. Helpful feedback gives us not only specific insight into how well we’re doing something but also advice on how we might do that thing better.

Feedback is instructive language that positively influences behavior. It has an assumed intrinsic benefit: it provides knowledge on how to improve what we do and how we do it. It helps us grow and become better. - Paul Jun

A lot of “peer review” or “peer editing” does not produce feedback, however. Peer comments often focus on copyediting, a term Michigan State University Associate Professor Stuart Blythe explains in this video.

Copyedits are surface-level changes—spelling, grammar, syntax—that are best left until the last stage of the writing process, after revision is mostly complete. These sentence-level comments have the narrow goal of correction.

Unhelpful Student Response A common yet unhelpful marginal response

Peer feedback, on the other hand, should have the broader goal of revision. According to Blythe, peers should be developmental editors, helping the writer strengthen their ideas. In other words, peer feedback that is focused on revision involves rethinking the purpose, goals, audiences, message/thesis, as well as organization and the form of a draft. Peer feedback should lead the writer to make big changes.

Feedback Helps Writers Grow Student responses are often focused on surface-level changes, which isn’t really feedback

Helpful feedback enables writers to “re-see” their ideas and words. If you want to help a writer who has understood the draft one way see it in a different way, then you first have to see it the writer’s way. You need to understand where writers are coming from and where they want the draft to go as they try to meet the goals of the assignment. Then, form your own interpretation of the writer’s draft—how well it meets the assignment’s criteria and how effectively the writer connects and expresses those ideas.

Part 2

Everyone Can Be a Helpful Reviewer

The biggest challenges we face in the process of giving and getting feedback are overcoming our fears about the quality of that feedback:

  1. We must have confidence in the feedback we receive from our reviewers.
  2. We have to trust that we are qualified to give helpful feedback.

Trust is particularly important because feedback can lead to big changes in our writing. But trust has to be earned. Gaining confidence in the quality of the feedback we get and give occurs over time, with practice.

SUNY-Albany Professor Emeritus Peter Johnston observed in Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives:

If students can provide productive feedback, then collectively they will tend to get more feedback. And it will be more immediate feedback, because, rather than waiting for the teacher, their peers can provide it. More feedback improves learning, and immediate feedback is more effective than delayed feedback.

Even in small classes, instructor feedback is limited by the amount of time instructors have to respond. But more feedback and faster feedback is possible between peers. That feedback can sometimes be more helpful than instructor feedback.

Michigan State University Associate Professor and Co-creator of Eli Review Bill Hart-Davidson explains why peer feedback can be so effective in this video.

Because classmates are all in the same boat—trying to meet the expectations of the same assignment/instructor and having similar levels of experience with writing—they’re highly qualified to give helpful feedback. Reviewers are well-qualified to tell writers:

Good reviewers are good readers. Being a helpful reviewer means reading peers’ work thoughtfully and critically with the aim of helping them revise. And, if reviewers can do it for other writers, they can do it for their own drafts too. Giving helpful feedback teaches us to revise our own work.

Learning to give helpful feedback is challenging, however. Few of us know how to do it well without preparation, but we can learn how to do it with coaching and practice. The next sections describe what helpful feedback looks like and offer strategies for how we can get better at it.

Part 3

The Qualities of Helpful Feedback

When it comes to feedback, especially when you’re first learning how to give helpful feedback, it’s useful to think of the Golden Rule:

What are the qualities of feedback you hope to get from your reviewers so that you can greatly improve your draft?

When you know what you want to get from feedback, you have a better idea of the kind of feedback you should give.

Helpful feedback is, first and foremost, constructive. Constructive feedback respects the work the writer needs to do to build a better draft. Reviewers and writers are on the same team. Together, your efforts will improve the draft.

Helpful feedback must also have a respectful tone. When you comment, remember that you are writing to other learners—people who did the best they could and who want to do better. With that in mind, you can make moves like these in your feedback:

Be specific. Statements like “It was good” or “I liked it” are kind but unhelpful. These comments don’t give writers the insight they need to make improvements in this draft or in future drafts. Whether you are offering praise or criticism, be specific and mention how the writer’s draft met the goals.

That’s a lot to remember! In this video, Bill Hart-Davidson offers a simple pattern for how to give helpful feedback, and he indicates that it might also be helpful in relationships too.

Watch an extended clip of Bill Hart-Davidson discussing the describe - evaluate - suggest heuristic.

Hart-Davidson’s simple feedback pattern requires us to:

The descriptive move is especially important because it lets us give feedback in a non-judgemental way. Hearing an idea restated back to them can help writers know whether or not they are meeting readers’ expectations:

“Yes, the reader gets what I was trying to say.”

It’s easy to overlook the descriptive step in favor of evaluation. Describing what you see is also a good way to build credibility as a reviewer. If writers can recognize what you see in their drafts, they’ll be more inclined to accept your evaluations and suggestions. Spending more time on describing will also help you give more thoughtful evaluations and may lead to more insightful suggestions. Seeing clearly can help you provide the feedback writers need to “re-see,” to revise.

When we give constructive, respectful, and specific helpful feedback that describes, evaluates and suggests, we want to help writers understand:

  1. What they accomplished by being descriptive about what we see;
  2. How what they accomplished compares to what they were asked to accomplish by referencing the goals of the draft;
  3. What they must do next by offering specific advice about what they can do to improve.

These strategies won’t guarantee that our feedback is helpful. But, it’s a good frame to use as we practice.

Part 4

Practice, Practice, Practice

This module started with the claim that feedback is something we can get better at—both giving it to our classmates and using it ourselves to revise. In this section, we’ll look at specific things we can do to get better at both.

Practice: Making Room for Feedback

One important reason for using a technology like Eli Review is that it makes it easy to practice giving feedback. For example, you’ve probably been assigned writing projects structured like this timeline:


In such assignments, lots of time is invested in developing a fully-functional version of a text. Spending so much time on drafting has consequences for your work.

  1. You have less time for feedback or revision;
  2. You are more likely to ignore feedback because of impending deadlines.
  3. You are less willing to throw out substantial amounts of text, even when feedback suggests it could/should be done better.

Instead, in Eli, you might have a writing sequence like this timeline, where the motto is "review early and review often":


Here, review and revision take up as much time as writing. This iterative writing process has many advantages for writers:

There are also advantages for you as reviewers:

Practice: Giving Better Feedback

You and your instructor will be able to gauge your performance as a reviewer through Eli’s helpfulness score. In the next module on revision, we’ll explain how writers’ evaluations of your feedback generate your helpfulness score.

Think about your helpfulness score like a batting average, which changes every time a baseball player is at bat. Each time you give feedback, you have an opportunity to be extremely helpful, but being consistently helpful is far better for your average than a rare extraordinary comment plus a bunch of strikeouts. Use a framework like describe-evaluate-suggest to help you learn to be consistently helpful.

Practice: Using Feedback to Drive Revision

Giving feedback also has additional benefits for your own writing. In the next module on revision planning, we’ll explore how your observations about other writers’ strategies can inform your own revision plans. The moves or connections you see in others’ work, you can apply in your own writing.

We all learn by watching others, and review is a structured way of talking with writers about what you see in their work that they need to re-see as they revise.

Part 5

Takeaways and Next Steps


Next Steps and Additional Materials

Module 2: Rethinking and Revising

Interested in the research discussed in this module? See the instructor versions.


Sources Cited

  1. Jun, Paul. “The Art of Feedback: Striking a Balance between Guidance and Criticism”. Life Hacker.
  2. Johnston, Peter. Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives . Maine: Stenhouse Publishers. 2012.