Summative Feedback on Writing: What matters at the end of the term?

Daniel Emery

Research in the teaching of writing has demonstrated that early feedback offered when a student has an opportunity to revise has beneficial consequences for learning.  This formative feedback affords the opportunity for students to learn in the context of their own writing, to experiment with strategies for improvement, and to engage in self-directed learning as they revise. However, what about the end of the semester? Can faculty offer meaningful feedback at the end of the term? Of course! Here are some things to keep in mind as you respond to student writing at the end of the semester.

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Distinguish between Grading and Feedback

Grading is the process of awarding credit for students’ work based on their performance in relation to expectations for the assignment. Previous Tips have focused on designing and revising effective rubrics and grading at the end of the term. The goal of grading is to evaluate students’ performances in a manner that is evidence-based, transparent, and fair. In short, grading addresses institutional demands for the assessment and ranking of students’ performance, relative to one another and, preferably, to established and explicit standards.

Feedback is the process of providing commentary on a student’s performance with an eye toward improvement in future performances. While feedback can and should reference evidence and standards of performance, the emphasis of feedback is student-centered commentary with an eye toward learning. Effective feedback can help students see the needs of continuing to develop their work, can motivate students to increased effort and can serve as the groundwork for future performance with similar and more challenging tasks.

Dimensions of Effective Feedback

Not all feedback is equally valuable, so be aware if you allocate your effort. John Hattie and Hellen Timperley (2007) conducted a widely cited meta-analysis of feedback practices in order to determine which modes of feedback were most effective in promoting a modification in student understanding, a change in outlook or interpretation that better allows students to meet the expectations of an assigned task.

Hattie and Timperley distinguished among:

  • Task-level feedback: How well the task was performed.
  • Process-level feedback: How routines, skills, and practices produced an effective performance.
  • Self-regulation feedback: How students self-monitoring and self-directing produced effective performance.
  • Self-level feedback: Personal evaluations or affective feedback about the learner.

Task-level feedback is valuable to let a student know how well they have performed a writing task and is thus the most akin to grading. Task level feedback is most valuable when focused on addressing misconceptions or gaps in understanding, along with strategies for rethinking or closing gaps in knowledge. Task-level feedback is the least valuable when it merely corrects errors, particularly at the end of the semester. To save yourself time and effort, you might write brief task feedback notes on a Post It note to assist with grading, but only elaborate it into sentences when a student intends to pick up their document

Process-level feedback relates to the student's strategies and practices for task performance and is often the most significant mode of feedback for learning. By focusing on how students approach an assignment and the specific skills, routines, and strategies they bring to their performance, the emphasis is on how the learner can think about similar performances going forward. Such feedback is often discipline-specific and field-specific and thus can benefit from explicit description. At the end of the semester, this feedback can be reserved for students continuing in the field.

Self-regulation feedback addresses students’ belief in their capacity as learners more broadly and can have significant motivational effects. This form of feedback addresses the students’ apparent effort when composing an assignment and their ability to manage complex tasks. Positive self-regulation feedback illustrates a belief in students’ capacity for success. Negative self-regulation feedback is risky and can be counterproductive, as the quality of a student’s performance on a task does not reliably indicate the level of effort or attention. A high performing, experienced student may perform a challenging skill with little effort, while an inexperienced student may expend a great deal of effort and still struggle with a complex task.

Self-level feedback includes comments addressed to students’ general ability, character or aptitude and was demonstrated to be the least valuable feedback for student learning. Self-level feedback can be demotivating whether positive or negative and may be unnecessary at the end of the semester.

While task level feedback is often necessary and valuable, the most effective feedback tends to focus on process improvement and positive self-regulation feedback when applicable. Extensive correction and generic praise or criticism are the least valuable. Brief, targeted feedback works any time but is well suited to the end of the term.


Boud, D. and Molloy, E. (2012). Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well. Taylor and Francis Publishing.

Hattie, J. and Timperly, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research 77. 81-112.

Lee, I. (2009). Ten mismatches between teachers’ beliefs and written feedback practice. English Language Teaching Journal 63. 13-22.

Further Support

Visit Teaching with Writing on the Center for Writing website for additional resources.


For a perspective based less on research and more on experience, here are my notes, abridged to highlight end-of-semester issues, from the "Student Responses to Faculty Feedback" panel at the WEC Symposium with undergraduate students Eric Wisz, Alanna Hildebrandt, Kendra Wiswell, and Tamira Amin, and Rachel Dumas.

Of course, some of the opinions expressed are contradictory, and some contradict the article; I tried my best to present them as they presented them, rather than smuggling my own narrative under their names.

Dumas expressed a strong distaste for "reading a students paper as a writer rather than as a reader". Her interest was knowing what was unclear or unconvincing, rather than an editor's PoV. "I want to know why I failed to meed expectations, rather than how [you] would have written the paper." Wisz had a somewhat more moderate stance, saying that students appreciate when you are clear about distinguishing between (e.g., passages that violate) your classroom norms versus the norms of the discipline.

When asked "Is positive feedback useful?”, Wiswell's and Hildebrandt's responses were lukewarm. They said that it was most useful when connected to the discipline's standards of writing, e.g. what makes this particularly good as a philosophy paper as opposed to an art history paper?

Amin stressed the importance of considering all the modes of feedback you give, not just formal written comments. At the end of the semester, it's too late to change the way you have interacted with students in the classroom. But having a consistent tone between classroom and comments builds the trust needed for students to accept criticism.

She also warned that feedback can be destructive to the instructor. She in some detail about one of her professors who clearly cared about helping their students write, and poured many (helpful!) comments into his responses... but essentially burned themselves out and ended up very bitter about the perceived imbalance of their effort versus the students'.

Hildebrandt lamented that the bar is lower in CSE. "A vast majority of students at the U are not getting good writing instruction in the sciences". It's therefore particularly important for writing-conscious CSE instructors to consider the instructive side of their feedback, and end-of-semester is not too late; perhaps it will help in future courses?

In this vein, there was a lot of Q&A discussion about what sort of feedback the students felt most able to use. Dumas cited specificity; "give me a direction". Hildebrandt refined this a bit and asked that if you identify 'global' issues like organization or clarity, try to pinpoint those to particular 'local' passages. The more local, the better. In addition, if you (or an imagined reader) have a hard time understanding a passage, Wiswell said she was interested in knowing what you *did* interpret it to mean, more than what you thought she did not successfully convey.

Finally, Amin had some advice on grading: be empathetic. Give your students credit that they know what they’re trying to accomplish. Try to see why they chose to write in that style or tone that you never would, and address that in your feedback. And when you do have to give those low grades, it never hurts to say explicitly that this doesn’t mean you think the student is unintelligent, or a bad student.