Effective and efficient techniques for giving feedback on writing


Marking written work can be incredibly time-consuming, and it’s disheartening when you see the students glance quickly at your detailed comments and put the piece of writing away in their bags never to be looked at again.

So, what can be done to a) reduce your workload as a teacher and b) encourage students to actually learn something from your feedback*?

We all know that it’s important to get students to take responsibility for their own work and many teachers use a correction code to encourage students to self-correct. This can be useful, but you still need to be selective.  Too many corrections/comments can lead to the student feeling overwhelmed and demotivated, and/or the student not knowing which of these areas are high priorities.

Be selective

  • Choose one or two areas with the whole class that you will focus on for this set of written work only. For example, if it is an opinion essay, you might choose to focus on text organisation. Or you could choose a grammatical area, such as articles, that the whole class finds difficult. Instead of the teacher choosing these areas, you could negotiate them with the class before they start or after they have written the work but before they have handed it in.
  • Ask students to individually select two areas they want you to focus on as you mark their work. They could either write these at the bottom of their work, or highlight sections that they don’t feel as confident about.
  • Focus on just one or two (anonymous) pieces of work that you look at with the whole class. Take it in turns so that everyone has this opportunity. Especially with a monolingual group, it is likely that many of the issues will be the same for most students.
  • Just correct one paragraph of each student’s work. Then ask them to self-correct anything similar in the rest of the piece.

Of course, with all these approaches it is important that the students understand that not highlighting something doesn’t automatically mean that it is correct, but that you are being selective.

Set aside time for students to respond to and act on your feedback

In the UK this has the lovely acronym DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time). If we don’t want our carefully thought through feedback to be ignored, DIRT is vital. However, it is unlikely in most contexts that you will have sufficient class time for students to sit and re-draft the whole pieces of work in class. Again, be selective.

So, if you have just marked one paragraph, students could work on that one paragraph in class, and then look at the rest at home. Or, if you have just marked errors with articles, you could write a selection of errors on the board for the class to correct, and then ask students to correct just one paragraph of their own work in class. Or if they have asked you about a particular section, give them time to work on rewriting that section in class, in response to your feedback.

Once students are familiar with the DIRT technique, you can write DIRT activities on the bottom of their written work. For example, ‘Find at least three sentences where you have used ‘and’ and ‘but’ and change them to use more complex linkers’ or ‘rewrite paragraph 3 and make sure that the tenses are used correctly.’

Extensive feedback that students do nothing with is, quite frankly, a complete waste of everyone’s time, so why not experiment with some of these ideas?


*Of course, feedback is not only about pointing out what could be better, and it is also important to point out what went well.

You can find another post on written feedback here:





Filed under classroom ideas, Correction, Uncategorized, Writing

12 Responses to Effective and efficient techniques for giving feedback on writing

  1. I really like the idea of DIRT activities. Thank you – I hadn’t heard of them before. I like to use video feedback for written work using screen capture software. I usually establish a duration like 90 seconds and limit the feedback to what I can cover in that time.

  2. Limiting the amount of time when using Jing or something similar is a good idea. I had experimented with using screen capture software, but had decided it was just as time consuming if not more. But, you’re right, no reason why that can’t be rethought as well.

  3. swenfrueh

    Hello Rachel,

    I’m very much satisfied with your post. Giving feedback that actually works is not easy. You have to listen very carefully. You should watch and listen to their responses to try to understand what they are trying to say.
    I have never done DIRT activities in school yet; however, I would love to experience that.

    I want to see more of your post. Thanks again.


  4. Liudmila Soloveva

    I haven’t heard about DIRT before. It is a great way to improve writing skills. And thanks for ideas how to create a feedback properly.

  5. Stephanie Greenberg

    I love your idea of only focusing on 2 areas to fix. It is also a great way to see growth in those areas during the next paper. When I think about my own feedback with writing and work, I always feel like opportunity to correct is so important. I feel that students should always be given the opportunity to fix work to receive a better grade. Not all students do, but it means that many of the students will actually start to think about those corrections so that they can improve.

    My only thought is about how to grade such a piece of writing. If you only focus on 2 areas of grammar that they do well, but the student is totally off topic, would they still receive a good grade on the task?

    • elt_admin

      I think this is about whether the purpose is developmental or to assess learning as a whole. If it’s summative assessment and you’re giving a grade, you will probably need to focus on the piece of writing as a whole, but we can also assess in a more formative way, and just look at very specific aspects. Generally, it’s a good idea to separate out those two things, as once we start giving a grade, students are not usually motivated to take on board specific feedback.

  6. Daniel Rodriguez Boullosa

    It is true that an extensive feedback can be overwhelming for a student and can even give him the feeling of “failure”. In additon, as it is stated in the article, it is time consuming for the teacher, and highly frustrainting when we see students putting them in their bags and we know they woll never look at them again (as a student I used to do it all the time!).

    I think the DIRT technique is very interesting. Spending time in correcting only a particular part of the assigment where the students feel the weakest is an interesting solution to make them really learn what they did wrong. I think less can be more in this case.

  7. Miri Raz

    I really enjoyed reading about DIRT and will definitely start using it. I have been putting in a lot of time marking work and writing comments – and always question whether my students actually read them or not.. This will really ensure that the feedback is put to use and actually supporting students’ progress – a great way to show students the improvements they have made and what they still need to do. Thanks!

  8. I totally agree that giving feedback without using it to develop and improve the language skills, is a waste of energy and time. Setting aside time for the students to act on the feedback, is a great way to make the feedback effective and establish an ongoing cycle of learning, practicing, and improving.

    I especially like your practical ideas for the teacher’s modelling to students the correct way of writing and then having the students use to DIRT technique to check themselves and rewrite their text.

    Regarding the selective feedback and focusing each time on one or two areas, would you recommend the same methods for L1 and L2/EFL learners?

    As a teacher to EFL/L2 students, considering the fact you know where you are heading with the class and what are the gaps, would you still negotiate with the students on which areas to focus the feedback on or would you make your own decision?

    Are there times where you would give students more thorough feedback on several areas, like to advance L2 high school students, preparing for their final language exams?

  9. Mais

    These are some helpful ideas to give feedback on written work. My only concern about having students choose which areas they are interested in having their teacher’s feedback on is that it might not be helpful for students in lower grades, or even those who are not aware of where they need to focus their work on (student may not always be aware of their weaker points).
    I particularly like the idea of sharing selected assignments with the whole class and discussing them and I can also suggest doing peer reviews of previously corrected work (students reviewing each others work along with the feedback on it).

  10. Shirel

    Giving feedback is always a challenge. On the one hand we need to help the students be aware of aspects that need improvement; and if we turn a blind eye to one aspect, a small snowball will turn to an snowman. On the other hand, we also don’t want to have the student sink in deep critique. This balance is key to success (ours and the students’).
    What you offered in the article is a step in the right direction in achieving this balance.

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