As writing instructors, we spend hours “talking back” to our students in the margins of their papers, writing between the lines or in the leftover white space on the last page. Some of us scribble our notes by hand; some compose our remarks on the computer in a letter form…“Dear Sonia, I enjoyed reading your essay…” (Sounds cheery, doesn’t it?) Still others deliver our responses using audiotape recordings, personal conferences, or various online commentary methods. Whichever method(s) we choose and however many Sunday afternoons we sacrifice or hours of sleep we lose during the week nights, we’re mindful that this is still one of the best ways we have to teach writing.

But what do student writers do with our comments? We invest so much time and energy in our responses to papers. How do we know what gets through, what makes sense to our students?

These questions certainly aren’t new. Composition scholars such as Sommers, Brannon, Knoblach, Straub, and Hodges, to name a few, have probed all kinds of interesting issues within the murky waters of teacher comments. However, after listening to Nancy Sommers’ presentation at the 2005 Cs Convention in San Francisco, based on her four-year study of Harvard student writers, we were inspired to conduct our own empirical study of student response to teacher feedback. One of the most compelling conclusions Sommers reached in her study was that “feedback, more than any other form of instruction, shapes the way a student learns to write. . . . [F]eedback, more than any single factor contributed to their sense of academic belonging or alienation.” Further, we realize, after listening to educators like Judith Wootten describe the “crisis of confidence” first generation students experience when they run up against academic discourse, that teacher comments may greatly influence basic writers’ confidence and development in college. Yet the impact of teacher feedback on these students has rarely been the focus of research, so we decided to study a representative sample of basic writers at our college.

We conducted our study in fall 2005 with approximately 85 students from five classes enrolled in the same level of basic writing. Besides collecting questionnaires measuring student attitudes about feedback before the class, after the class, and on specific papers, we examined drafts with teacher comments and corresponding revisions for approximately half of our sample. We also conducted personal interviews with one-quarter of the students.

We anticipated our results would be different from those that Sommers reported. Our students are not Harvard students, after all. We expected the students we surveyed to have poor attitudes about writing, perhaps because of poor past experiences with writing. We expected they would want and need more directive feedback from teachers. We wondered how much ownership they would feel for their writing. We expected their sense of autonomy would be less than that of college-level writers, and they would show greater deference to an instructor’s commentary. However, we now recognize that many of these expectations fit the marginalized status of “basic writer” as “other,” defined by William DeGenaro and Ed White in the first posting on this site. Admittedly, we saw these students as different from other writers: as “basic” first and writers second.

To our surprise, the basic writers’ attitudes did not exactly match up with our expectations. Ultimately, the basic writers we surveyed did, like the Harvard students, read and appreciate teacher commentary and found “suggestions/constructive criticism” to be the most helpful; in fact, they believed that was the purpose of teacher commentary. Although these basic writers appreciated praise, the praise seemed to serve more as a self-esteem booster, relationship builder, or motivator than a tool to help students improve their written products. At the conclusion of the course, we found other interesting attitude shifts:

  • Fewer students found corrections and directive comments to be helpful.
  • Fewer indicated that teacher comments should help a writer “fix” his or her writing.
  • Fewer students found marginal comments helpful.
  • More students indicated that end comments were helpful.
  • Fewer students interpreted extensive comments to mean poor writing.
  • More students indicated they understood the instructor comments.

These results suggest that over the quarter the students were becoming more autonomous writers and more aware of global issues in their writing.

While we found many pleasant surprises in the basic writers’ attitudes, we noticed a discrepancy between what students said they valued in comments and what they actually applied. Although these students responded more favorably to end comments, they were less likely to apply suggestions offered in end comments to their writing.

Since we didn’t ask students to explain why they made the changes they did, we can only speculate until we conduct the second phase of our study. Some students did extensive revision, which did not match the teacher commentary, leaving us to guess that the students made changes based on personal choice or a conversation with their teacher, a writing consultant, or a friend. Some students made changes that did not improve their texts. In many of these texts, it appeared that the students read comments out of the context of their essays and simply reacted to isolated feedback rather than re-reading, reflecting, and revising. Other students seemed to make a sincere effort to address teacher comments but didn’t understand what the teacher was asking or suggesting. Students particularly struggled with comments such as “dig deeper,” “analyze,” or “develop,” suggesting they may not understand how to perform these academic tasks.

Ultimately, we found the basic writers in our study read and appreciated teacher comments just as the Harvard students did. However, the comments were not necessarily understood or used as the teacher intended. Contrary to our expectations, basic writers did not demonstrate poor attitudes toward writing. They showed a growing sense of autonomy as writers.

We also concluded phase one of our study with more questions than answers, some of which we hope you’ll discuss with us.

  • What commenting methods have you used that students respond well to?
  • Is there a difference in the feedback you give to “basic writers” as opposed to college-level writers? Should there be?
  • How can we get students to read comments in the context of their whole paper?
  • Why do students make the changes they do?
  • What strategies can we use to teach student the “how-to’s” of academic discourse (analyzing, digging deeper, developing ideas)?




Works Cited


Brannon, Lil, and C. H. Knoblauch.  “On Students’ Right to     Their Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response.”  CCC 33 (1982): 157–66.


Hodges, Elizabeth.  “Negotiating the Margins: Some Principles     for Responding to Our Students’ Writing, Some Strategies for     Helping Students Read Our Comments.”  Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines.  Eds. Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Peter Elbow.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.  77–89.


Sommers, Nancy.  “Responding to Student Writing.”  CCC 33 (1982): 148–56.


---.  “The Origins of Shaped by Writing and Across the Drafts.” The Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing.  Harvard College.  25 August 2006  <>. 


Straub, Richard.  “The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of ‘Directive’ and ‘Facilitative’ Commentary.”  CCC 47 (1996): 223–51.


Wootten, Judith, et al.  “The First Two Years: Spaces for    Change.”  Featured Sess.  Conference on College Composition and Communication.  Chicago, 23 March 2006.




Recommended Works


Across the Drafts and Shaped by Writing, two films produced from the Harvard study may be found online at


Giberson, Greg A.  “Process Intervention: Teacher Response and Student Writing.”  TETYC 29 (2002): 411–17.


Fife, Jane Mathison and Peggy O’Neill.  “Moving beyond the Written Comment: Narrowing the Gap between Response  Practice and Research.”  CCC 53 (2001): 300–21.


“Interchanges: Reimagining Response.”  CCC 48 (1997): 269–  83.


Smith, Summer.  “The Genre of the End Comment: Conventions in Teacher Responses to Student Writing.”  CCC 48 (1997): 249–68.


Straub, Richard, ed.  A Source Book for Responding to Student Writing.  Cresskill: Hampton, 1999.


---.  “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study.”  Research in the Teaching of English 31 (1997): 91–119.

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Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt &
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Conversing in Marginal Spaces:
Basic Writers’ Responses to Teacher Comments