While I was working on my dissertation, I learned one of the most valuable teaching practices of my career: the art of revision. My dissertation committee didn’t set out to teach me this strategy, but perhaps, that’s why it impacted me in such a powerful way. Rather, I learned it through doing. The writing process taught me that in order to be a strong writer my style, word choice, syntax, and organization is only as good as my ability to revise.
Helping students make the shift from the one-and-done essay to a work-in-progress manuscript requires a strategic plan. Still, even with a great plan for students, teachers also need a plan for themselves. Grading one round of essays is hard enough let alone committing to re-grade those same essays. Nonetheless, this process can be done in a very meaningful way for students and an extremely efficient way for teachers.
Before you get started, you may want to check out this article about How to Plan a Writing Unit for Manageable Grading. In this article, I’m going to walk you through my process for creating a writing unit that uses revision as both a writing strategy and a feedback strategy.
Step 1: Make the mindset shift
This step is important not only for your students, but also for you as well. I will admit that at first, I was completely turned off from this process because of the thought of doubling my grading load. I knew revision was important, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it manageable. My mindset shift happened when I was on the other end of the assignment.
As a doctoral student, my dissertation committee made it clear that revision was an opportunity to put forth my best work. I knew from the beginning that we would be working on many, many drafts before it was going to be passed and accepted for publication. Also, I trusted that my committee made up of three distinguished professors would know far more than me about a successful research study. I needed their feedback if I wanted my work to be as good as it could be.
Revision as an opportunity
Therefore, rather than looking at revision as another time-consuming step, I looked at revision as an opportunity–an opportunity to make my writing worth reading, an opportunity to contribute to my field, and even on a very superficial level an opportunity to pass my dissertation defense. If you haven’t caught on yet, the keyword here is opportunity. Giving students the opportunity to revise, whether they are a doctoral student or a high school student, can be a valuable experience when they look at it as an opportunity. Even if you don’t have an ah-ha moment to share with students, like I do, the way you frame the assignment is important. Here are some suggestions to help students make the mindset shift:
- Always use the word opportunity when referring to the revision.
- Introduce the assignment by calling it a revision assignment and explain that students will have the opportunity to make improvements to their essays. I intentionally choose the words improvements or enhancements, instead of revisions. I’ve found that this helps students see revision as a positive opportunity versus fixing something they’ve done wrong.
- Use the word feedback to indicate that students will receive revision suggestions. For example, I might say, “I’m giving feedback to help you make improvements to your essay.”
One more word here: students should type their essays for a revision assignment. In order to facilitate successful revision, students have to be able to quickly and efficiently make improvements. It’s just not possible with a handwritten essay.
For the rest of this article, I hope to help you make your own mindset shift by showing you how revision actually makes grading and feedback more manageable.
Step 2: Give feedback throughout the writing and revision process
One of my best tips for revision essays is providing feedback in little chunks throughout the writing process. For example, I always give students feedback after their introductions. The introduction is the foundation to the essay. With a very quick read, I can tell if students understood the prompt/task, set up a workable argument/stance, and prepared a solid organizational pattern. If they don’t, I can quickly guide them to improve their essay before, not after they write. While this might seem tedious, I actually view it as a proactive way to save time later.
Think about it this way: it might take me two minutes to give feedback on an introduction, but it would take triple or quadruple that time to give feedback on that same essay if it was written with poor organization, a lack of focus, or an illogical claim. Of course, providing students with feedback on the introduction doesn’t ensure that they’ll write a perfect essay, it just ensures that they’re starting strong and setting themselves up for success.
I love using voice notes for richer (and quicker) feedback. If your school has TurnItIn, you can use their voice feedback feature to leave feedback up to three minutes long. One drawback is that it doesn’t provide a transcript making it less accessible than other options. My favorite option is the Google Chrome extension, Mote. I started with their extended free trial and loved it so much that I purchased their unlimited option, which allows me to leave a voice recording up to 90 seconds long and it provides a written transcript. You can try out the extended free version here.
Conferencing with students throughout the essay is another efficient way to give feedback. I always make myself available for short one-on-one meetings to provide guidance while they’re writing.
Step 3: Rethink copy editing
Years ago, I worked as an independent copy editor specifically for dissertations. As I’m sure you already know, copy editing is tedious work, and people will pay a pretty penny for an expert to do it for them. So, unless your students are paying you (kidding!), you should NOT copy edit students’ essays.*
*My only exception to this rule is when students ask me to copy edit their college application or scholarship essays. I’m always happy to help, but I still use track changes so my revisions are suggestions that they can decide to keep or reject.
For students, the process of copy editing should be a learning opportunity, not a mindless fix or click from your copy editing. English majors learn this early on. Professors don’t copy edit. They’ll comment on content and maybe if you’re lucky circle grammatical mistakes, but it’s up to the writer to figure out why something is circled. And with a world of grammatical advice at their fingertips, students can and should learn how to improve their essays through their own inquiry. But, if they don’t know what to edit, how will they know what to look up? I go into a lot more detail about this topic in my article, Why You Should Stop Copy Editing Students’ Essays and Do This Instead, but here is a quick overview.
Digital Copy Editing
One great way to accomplish this task is to have students use a free digital copy editing website or program. This might on the surface feel like cheating. However, I actually love this option because a computer can suggest, but it’s up to students to make decisions. This process is far from a mindless “accept all changes” lesson. If your school district has a subscription to TurnItIn, I love their ETS paper rater. If not, Grammarly includes clarity and correctness suggestions for free.
When there are errors that need corrected, one of my favorite ways to address it is by identifying the error once, providing a link for them to read more on how to fix the error, and finally my favorite phrase, “revise throughout.” This phrase is so freeing! It puts the responsibility on the student to find the error throughout the essay and make the changes. This is a great learning experience!
As I’m reading students’ essays, I always keep a running list of common errors or points of improvement. Then, I create a series of mini-lessons that address those common errors. Depending on how advanced your writers are, you may be able to review all of these common errors at once. Or, you may create several mini-lessons to practice the topic independently. For example, one mini-lesson that I often teach is when to use semicolons versus commas in compound sentences.
Step 4: Set up quality peer review and self revision
Feedback doesn’t have to just come from you. Peer review can be another valuable strategy to give students feedback. Essentially, students learn from teaching their peers. I use the word can intentionally. It can be a valuable activity, if done strategically. There are two principles that I follow when creating a peer review assignment:
- Be specific.
- Keep it simple.
Through a lot of trial and error, I found that students can easily become overwhelmed with this task. Therefore, I usually limit them to two anonymous peer essays. Although practicing scoring is a great strategy, I’ve found that having students put scores on their peers’ essays, even when it’s anonymous, creates tension. Students tend to focus too much on the score and not enough on the feedback.
Therefore, I generally only ask three questions:
- In your own words, what is the essay about? For this question, students should reserve judgement and instead be a mirror, reflecting the main points of the essays.
- How could the writer improve the essay? Depending on your students and the assignment, I would include specific points to consider. For example, for an argumentative essay, I would ask them to consider the strength of the evidence and commentary.
- What did the writer do well? Concluding with positive feedback is really helpful for building confidence and teaching students constructive feedback.
As a final option, I like to leave an open-ended question about students’ overall impression of their peers’ essay.
If you’re looking for a digital option, Peergrade is my top pick. It has an integrated anonymity option and a great interface for both students and teachers. If your school has a subscription to TurnItIn, you probably already have access to PeerMark, a peer review tool. It also has an anonymity option; however, the interface is a bit clunky compared to Peergrade. Unfortunately, both of these options are paid subscriptions. PeerGrade.io has a free 30-day trial that is worth trying to see how well it works before requesting your school to purchase it. If you’re looking for a free option, check out eduflow.
I like to combine steps 3 (copy editing) and 4 (peer review) in a station format. My revision stations, which include both peer and independent revision tasks, walk students through structured revision steps. You can check out my print and/or digital revision stations here.
Step 5: Require revision notes
After providing preliminary feedback during the writing process, and going through a round of peer review and revision, I give students overall improvement feedback and suggestions and a preliminary score. Then, the most important step in the process is requiring students to make revision notes. I can’t stress the importance of this process enough. It adds accountability for students and will drastically reduce your scoring time.
So what are revision notes? Revision notes are student created notes in their final draft. Here are the four tasks students complete during this process:
- summarize the feedback they received from you and their revision plan based on that feedback (one paragraph at the beginning of their essay)
- identify where they made changes (highlighting and comments via the comment option in Google Docs or Microsoft Word)
- explain the changes that were made (in the comment boxes)
- explain how those changes improved their essay (in the comment boxes)
Keeping a record of revision feedback
The purpose of revision notes is to demonstrate how students improved their essay in a way that you can quickly and easily identify from their first draft. First, it is vital that you keep a record of your revision feedback. I personally use TurnItIn for my first round of feedback and Google Docs and Google Classroom for the next. If you’re using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, make sure students create a new document and title it “revision #”. This makes it possible for you to compare first and second drafts if necessary.
However, you will start by reviewing their review of your feedback, so a comparison likely won’t be necessary. You’ll be able to see all of the improvements in their essays with a quick skim through the essay. Even better, if time permits, having one-on-one conferences with students works really well. Remember, the onus is on the student to demonstrate how they’ve improved. In a conference, students can explain how they updated their essay, and you can ask them about their process and their outcomes.
If students improved their essays via the rubric, it will only take a quick review to update their score. Plus, students will have a way to track their process and will have a great visual to see their progress.
Step 6: Reflection
At the end of the assignment, providing an opportunity for reflection is a great way to help students build confidence in their writing ability, find pride in their revision work, and ultimately, help them to understand the power of revision.
This process can happen informally or formally. For example, if we review revision notes during conferences, I’ll informally ask questions that encourage students to reflect on the process. You can also assign a formal written reflection, which works really well for extended projects.