Writing teachers know—from research, experience, or both—that revision is essential to better writing and, most importantly, to better writers. But teaching revision can be a challenge.
This module builds on previous installments about the importance of feedback and the qualities of effective reviews, focusing on strategies for moving students beyond line-editing and toward high-quality revisions.
There are two significant challenges with revision in writing classrooms. First, while teachers know revision is important, we generally don’t leave much time in our schedules for students to actually do it. Second, research shows that most writers don’t revise at all, and many of those who do fail to address concerns like argument or arrangement, focusing instead on surface-level copyediting. Steven Witte found that:
The writer of the low-score revision uses important sentence topics at lower levels of topical depth, and also develops, at even lower levels, sentence topics not crucial to the development of the discourse topic … perhaps unskilled writers tend to revise primarily at the word or sentence level because they have never learned how to read and evaluate texts in their entirety, to respond to the overall semantic structure of texts, or to evaluate semantic structure against their intentions.
Coaching students to revise and to do so in a way that addresses higher-order concerns is one of the biggest challenges writing instructors face.
Much of what we know about revision comes from studies of cognition and writing, in which researchers investigated the thinking processes of individual writers when composing and planning revisions.
Other studies, advocating a “knowledge-building approach,” have revealed the importance of reflection by asking students to be conscious about their process and deliberate in their decision-making. When we combine these two perspectives, we see that it is key for learners to make revision visible and explicit.
The work of Linda Flower, for instance, provides us with three revision moves:
These three moves should be seen as a recursive cycle. This cycle leads to what is sometimes known as “deep revision” - students learn best when revision is reflexive and iterative. We serve students best if we can engage revision as the key learning moment in a writing experience.
Simply asking students to revise won’t necessarily result in deep revision. Neither will asking students to focus on editing issues such as fixing comma splices or other mechanics.
Instead, we must help students to see revision as “re-seeing” the ways we think about a text, about a rhetorical problem, about others, and about ourselves. This is why revision and peer learning are fundamentally different from editing and peer response.
In preparing students to make deep revisions, we must help them consider the following:
Helping students learn and practice deep revision begins with an effective review activity that will produce the feedback students need to prompt a “re-thinking” of their writing. With helpful feedback to draw from, students can begin to explore alternative perspectives on their writing and consider the broader issues outlined in the list above.
It’s important to acknowledge amongst ourselves, as teachers, and to directly discuss openly with students, that revision is hard. When we get really helpful feedback that questions our assumptions or points out where we’re not hitting a mark, addressing it can feel like starting over (and can literally require throwing out our work and starting from scratch).
We must help students not just re-think the ideas that inform their writing, but also re-think revision itself. While it can be painful, it is here that writers learn the most. We must help them to see that throwing out text and re-writing is not admitting defeat - everything to this point, including rough drafts and reviews, was leading to revision, because this is where the magic happens, where we improve our writing and get better as writers, and where we can most see our role as instructors to be more like a coach than a teacher.
The remainder of this module is designed to help teachers prepare students for deep revision. Section 2 will examine some of the basic revision moves that can help students as they learn to make deep, meaningful revisions. Section 3 will look in detail at revision planning, a move and a genre that is useful for both writers and teachers. Section 4 will explore a curriculum deeply invested in revision, and Section 5 will look in detail at a revision activity from that curriculum.
Module 2, Designing Effective Reviews, makes the case for why a well-designed review is critical to revision: good review prompts produce better feedback for writers and insight into changes to make in their own writing; Steven Witte says:
How students decide to revise a text is largely dependent on their understanding of the text, an understanding garnered only through reading. If writers cannot read and understand their own texts, or those of others, it is difficult to see how they could ever become effective revisers.
While Witte wants writers to be better readers, and sees revision first as a reading task, writers face a series of strategic choices as they approach a revision, choices instructors can help them understand and practice. As introduced in Module 1, the select-prioritize-reflect heuristic facilitates three important moves writers need to make when processing reviewer feedback:
The student chooses specific feedback to use.
The student orders feedback from most important to least important.
The student reflects on feedback and revises.
This approach to revision planning asks students to:
This is where the teacher’s role as a coach becomes most apparent. We can help students practice these moves and learn to use them more effectively.
Use describe-evaluate-suggest in reverse - Module 2 presented this heuristic as a way to help reviewers provide helpful feedback by encouraging them to describe what they see happening in the writing of their peers and offering suggestions for improvement. A writer can ask of each comment:
If the answer to these questions is no, that particular comment should probably be disregarded in favor of others that meet those criteria.
Rate the feedback they receive - Asking writers to rate the feedback they receive asks them to think critically about each comment. A simple rating scale like in Eli Review or similar approaches work well:
Asking writers to asses their feedback using a more specific scale can also help them to learn to differentiate helpful from unhelpful comments:
Rate each comment on a scale of 1-5 based on how well it meets our helpfulness criteria: remember that a helpful comment clearly names what the writer has done, is specific with regard to the goals of the writing, speaks to quality of the writing, and is respectful in tone.
- The comment exhibits none of the helpfulness criteria.
- The comment exhibits few of the helpfulness criteria.
- The comment exhibits some of the helpfulness criteria.
- The comment exhibits most of the helpfulness criteria.
- The comment exhibits all of the helpfulness criteria.
Rating feedback can have additional benefits for reviewers and for instructors. Because ratings are collected and aggregated, reviewers can learn how the feedback they gave was helpful to the writers who received it. Instructors can use aggregated feedback ratings to identify peer exemplars, identify students who haven’t gotten the feedback they need, and customize their teaching.
Prioritization asks writers to consider what is most important and demands immediate attention. With that in mind, a few targeted questions help writers prioritize their revision goals:
Which comments will help me make the best revisions according to the assignment’s criteria?
If instructors re-emphasize learning goals before a revision starts, prioritization becomes straightforward for writers. With goals in mind, writers can start to see the difference between comments that will drive effective revision and those that won’t.
Which comments match my stage of writing?
Instructors can help writers differentiate between higher vs. lower order issues by reminding them where they are in the process. Feedback focused on audience, purpose, and learning goals will have the greatest impact on quality; it is most helpful early in the revision process when there’s still time to make high-level changes. Feedback focused on grammar or syntax is helpful in later stages of a writing project once higher-order issues have been addressed and a draft is being finalized.
With the time I have to revise, which comments can I realistically address?
Writers must triage the feedback they receive and prioritize their revisions based on how much time they have remaining in the project. Getting feedback early and often in an assignment sequence is so helpful because writers will have time to make higher-order, global changes without having to throw out lots of work. If a deadline is looming, writers must be able to assess the feedback from their reviewers and determine which of the biggest weaknesses in the text can realistically be addressed in the time remaining?
Prompting reflection during the revision process gives students an opportunity to consider their actions and justify their decisions. In a reflection assignment, we can follow through with what Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Steinback tell us is crucial for learning revision: making the process visible, conscious, and deliberate. Even a simple prompt like:
Write briefly about what you hope to accomplish with your revision.
asks students to consider their goals. Such prompts can lead to critical thinking about the revision moves they intend to make. Also consider asking students to:
Write about selection / prioritization moves - Such elaboration can add depth to the simple prompt above, requiring students to be conscious of their decision-making process.
Identify trends in their feedback - Asking writers to Identify patterns in the feedback they’ve received can influence their revision decisions. Ask them:
If reviewers were unanimous about something that needed to change, what was it, and what convinced you?
Discuss revision goals - From simple to complex prompts, getting writers to articulate their goals can help them “fail faster.” That is, rushing straight to revision might result in an hours worth of work that is later discarded; if a portion of that hour is spent planning for revision--thinking through the effects of responding to feedback in different ways--the time spent revising is more likely to result in a satisfactory revision.
For example, ask students to use the describe-evaluate-suggest heuristic to assess their decisions. This heuristic slows down the decision making process and invites writers to consider the consequences of their choices before they make a single change. Other goal-related questions might include:
The select-prioritize-reflect moves are part of our larger pedagogical goal, which is to prepare students to engage in strategic revision planning, which is addressed in Section 3.
Revision planning asks students to think and reflect in a way that allows teachers (and peers) to see that thinking and perhaps provide feedback (or make other interventions). It is also the best way to move students toward deep revision.
As an activity, revision planning is one way to put the select-prioritize-reflect heuristic into action. Students select feedback to guide revision, prioritize the most important revisions, and reflect on the the choices they’ve made.
As a text, the revision plan externalizes students thinking about revision. Making their moves visible demonstrates selection and prioritization and how well they’ve understood the assignment. Reviewing a writer’s revision plan can help instructors see where they might help the writer rethink how they’ll revise a specific piece of writing and also coach them to make better decisions in the future.
While Section 2 introduced the revision moves students can employ to make effective revisions, here are some moves instructors can make when introducing a revision task to help scaffold those activities for writers:
Reiterate assignment and learning goals first - Goals matter only when you can see them. Reminding writers of the learning objectives helps them remember the purpose for their revisions before they’ve begun selecting from among the feedback they received.
Reflect on review results - Writers need instructors’ guidance. Weigh in on the outcomes of a review before students begin their revision planning:
Give direct instruction in select-prioritize-reflect - As discussed in Section 2, writers need coaching in how to revise, particularly in the earliest stages of the revision process. Direct instruction in the heuristic leads writers to make strategic choices early. As they gain experience, they'll rely less on the heuristic because its steps will be a natural part of their process.
How we design revision activities require as much or more attention as writing and review activities. As with any learning situation, there is no one right way, but here are some important moves and considerations for supporting students as they plan revisions.
Ask for specifics in the activity instructions: Specifics are always important to getting the results we want, particularly as writers are learning to be reflective revisers. For example:
Select the three most helpful ideas you received from your reviewers. Write briefly about why they’re important and what you’re going to do to address each one in your revision.
Include a reflective prompt - In addition to clear instructions, also consider asking writers to reflect on the plan they’ve developed. Even a simple prompt can get students to engage thoughtfully with their choices:
What are your top priorities for revising and why?
Requiring more detail can help them engage with specific moves:
Describe how you selected the feedback to address - why were those the most important comments, and how did you arrive at those decisions? Likewise, describe how you determined which were most important and how you will address them.An example revision plan activity. Download the template for this assignment to modify and re-use.
As mentioned before, revision plans give us a window into student thinking about an individual writing task and also about a writer’s intention to revise deeply. Providing teacher feedback on revision plans may be the most powerful intervention we can make with a writer.
Once students have submitted their revision plans, some important questions to ask of them include:
Responses to student revision plans at this moment, before they begin their revisions, may be the most effective way to help them learn to think like writers.
Revision, when part of a larger pedagogy, can be more than just a move to “fix” a single piece of writing. In this example, two instructors develop a curriculum in which students learn the conventions of a particular genre through direct instruction, writing practice, and - most importantly - demonstrate their uptake of the genre conventions through revision planning and executing those revisions.
While the specific tasks in this curriculum are targeted at a higher-ed audience, the pedagogy behind their design is applicable at any level.
Melissa Graham Meeks and Ingrid Lofgren are two veteran instructors who collaborated on a curriculum designed to help students learn the genres and conventions for writing a science journal article. Melissa had designed a similar curriculum as a Brittain Fellow post-doc teaching at Georgia Tech and collaborated with Ingrid to adapt her original material for Ingrid’s course on pharmacological research at the University of Rhode Island.
In this curriculum, students practice writing each component of a science article (introduction, methods, results, etc) and complete many criteria-driven reviews of those components. Using feedback from those reviews, writers build revision plans and revise constantly before moving on to the next component. The final phase of the curriculum has writers assemble the individual components into a fully-functional draft of a journal article.
Although similar writing courses emphasize the conventions from the writer’s perspective (e.g., does this draft meet the conventions?), Meeks and Lofgren designed a curriculum equally focused on helping reviewers gain confidence in their ability to recognize those conventions and offer feedback to improve peers’ drafts. These approaches come together in revision planning, when a writer is expected to reflect on all the feedback they’ve received and what they’ve learned from reviewing peer drafts.
Revision planning is critical to Melissa and Ingrid’s pedagogy for several reasons. First, as Melissa explains, is that revision plans help students adjust their expectations of producing a perfect first draft:
Revision plans are about humility and agency. Revision plans acknowledge that your first draft isn’t perfect and that you’ll make improvements based on feedback--improvements based on how well others have perceived the effectiveness of the draft at meeting the criteria.
Second, the frequency and pace with which students review in this curriculum is also a pedagogical move. Melissa believes small components and focused criteria ensure that that students can thoughtfully apply criteria:
Consistent use of three evaluative words--complete, clear, and compelling--help students develop a shared language for talking about their performance as writers; increased precision leads to greater confidence in their ability to participate in review; it also drives their own success as writers. Shared language for evaluation amplifies their confidence in knowing the criteria when revising their own work.
Lastly, revision planning is a reflective act that not only helps writers look forward but it also produces an artifact that makes thinking visible for teachers and writers; Ingrid says:
In science writing in particular, reviewers never tend to agree. You have to negotiate which feedback you’re going to follow and which you’re going to ignore - and that’s the uncomfortable part of becoming a scientist. And so the revision plan, as an informal text shared with the instructor, helps the instructor coach that negotiation. It shows which comments students are following and which they're ignoring. Seeing their choices helps me as the instructor help them negotiate conflicts in the future.
Melissa and Ingrid’s science writing curriculum introduces writers to the components of a science journal article (using the well-known IMRAD structure, or Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) and breaks them into separate instructional units. Each component goes through a development process resembling the following:
Writers are first introduced to the conventions of that particular component, read examples of effective writing that make those moves, and practice writing that component on their own. Those practice drafts are reviewed, giving writers the criteria-driven feedback they need to plan effective revisions. Once instructors give feedback on those plans, writers follow through and revise before moving to the next component.
Section 5 will look in detail at the design of two of Melissa and Ingrid's revision cycles and how they designed them to help writers learn to make effective revisions.
While this section elaborates on the curriculum by Melissa Graham Meeks and Ingrid Lofgren that was introduced in Section 4, the learning goals described here demonstrate how revision planning can be effectively deployed in multiple ways to support writer development and effective revisions.
While the science writing curriculum features multiple write-review-revise cycles, there are two cycles where a text is reviewed three times. The first of these cycles - the introduction - results in three separate revision plans while the second cycle - the assembled journal article - only results in one revision plan. Why the difference?
The introduction of a journal article is incredibly difficult to write. It needs to lay out the problem-solution approach of the research while framing the work as a contribution to the field’s scholarship. Weaving together the problem statement with a literature review requires careful attention to coherence and unity.
To address this complexity, Melissa and Ingrid devised this set of write-review-revise cycles for just the introduction component of the article:
The three reviews in this cycle provide different lenses for students to see the opening paragraphs of their science journal articles:
The question becomes: Should students create revision plans and revise their introductions between reviews? Melissa’s perspective is:
Reason 1: Students can’t get good feedback about the contextualization of their research project until they’ve gotten their problem-solution statement refined; likewise, there’s little value in adding transitions if a whole topic of research is missing. Asking students to revise the Introduction after each review (that is, to produce versions 1-4) is actually going to help them work through the trickiness of the introduction in a productive, manageable way.
Reason 2: As an instructor, being able to coach writers based on three revision plans for the Introduction instead of trying to respond to all aspects at once makes that high-cost commenting also high-impact. If you can help a student zero in on the problem-solution underlying their work early on, you can help make sure the rest of the project goes smoothly. If you can get the necessary topics and sources into the draft, it’s easy to help students add transitions and make connections later. In fact, it’s pointless to suggest transitions and connections UNTIL the problem-solution and lit review are complete, clear, and compelling. The article’s Introduction is quite a rhetorical and research-savvy feat.
In the Introduction, revision drives a complex thinking and writing process. At the end of the project when writers assemble their completed articles,revision is about last-minute fine-tuning and proofreading. In this stage, the pace of review is faster, without revision in between. Reviewers read the same draft three different times, applying a different lens each time:
The final journal article should only need editing because the components have already been reviewed and revised. It does not benefit from multiple revision plans, but writers and reviewers always benefit from narrowly focused reviews.
The three reviews at this stage focus feedback on very specific aspects of the article drafts:
Reviewers’ comments should not lead to global revision at this point in the curriculum; global issues should be addressed in earlier revisions, so there’s no need for writers to revise between reviews. In fact, given the pace of the terms’ end, they only have time for sentence-level editing. This sequence of three reviews just helps to make sure that nothing is missed in the race to the finish.
Revision plans create time, space, and an artifact between drafts. In the science writing curriculum, the revisions plans are designed to drive resubmissions of the original task. These two examples demonstrate different strategies for helping students consider both higher order strategic concerns (in the Introduction) and lower-order issues as the assembled journal article is nearing completion.
Melissa and Ingrid's entire curriculum, including all of the prompts and review protocols, are free to reuse and adapt in the Eli Review Curriculum Repository.
Revision, like review, is not something that students know how to do instinctively. Students need to be instructed and coached in how to make deep revisions that lead them to re-thinking their writing.
Explore additional entries in this four-part Teacher Development Series to take these ideas further, or find examples of Eli Review in action and how to use it effectively.
Looking for ways to build a classroom culture rich in feedback and revision? We have activities and readings that can help you set students’ expectations and get everyone off to a helpful start:
Curriculum materials and activities:
Reading materials for students:
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