Encouragement. Support. Kudos.
Kindness. Students and faculty alike associate these with the Prescott College learning experience. They contrast with the competitive, tough- love precepts that have traditionally permitted teachers to cover a student's first draft with red ink. PC mentors need not feel caught between the professional writing standards they value and the warm bonds they form with each of their students. There is a way to be positive when giving specific feedback in writing, one which motivates rather than alienates your student.
Decades ago, research on the teaching of writing began to show that students want detailed feedback on their papers and that they understand that criticisms are useful in their revision process.* What matters to students is how criticisms are worded.
Negative comments such as "You still don't know how to use a semi-colon," or "I find your point hard to believe," will motivate only the most confident writers to revise their work successfully. The same errors can be highlighted using a positive approach as in "See the Purdue OWL site at...on semi-colons," or "You need more evidence to convince me of this point," respectively. The latter comments are positive even though they draw attention to weaknesses in the paper. The positive phrasing implies solutions rather than judgments. Even writing-phobic students recognize the difference.
Which brings us to the most important way mentors can be positive when giving feedback on their students' writing. Sometimes students turn in drafts or even finished work that is downright scary, riddled with misunderstandings, errors, and misuses of scholarly language. The key to a successful outcome, however large the task of giving feedback may seem, is to remain absolutely positive that every student can learn how to write for the audiences she or he wants to reach.
A mentor with this positive attitude will refer students to resources like those available through the PC Learning Commons rather than to an editor-for-hire who might fix the student's papers without teaching the student a thing. A mentor who believes in her students regardless of their variable writing proficiency will contact the Writing Center with questions about how to best help a struggling writer rather than ask her student to read the latest version of a professional style manual, again.
Encouragement, support, kudos, and kindness all have their place in teaching, learning, and writing. Mentors who strive to give constructive, productive writing feedback and refer students to others who can help play a positive role in their students' lives. Isn't that why we all do this?
*We highly recommend the excellent article titled "Responding to student papers: Responses to avoid and productive advice to give," by Jessica Mosher (1998) that typifies this research. Mosher's piece, available in this blog, offers the results of a survey of student writers and specific dos and don'ts for those who want to comment effectively on student papers.
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