Striking the Right Tone in Written Feedback
Providing written feedback on students’ writing is one of the most important—and time-consuming—parts of any instructor’s job (Grearson, 2002). But even the most thorough, helpful feedback can fall flat if it’s delivered in the wrong tone. Feedback written in a productive tone is more likely to be understood, appreciated, and acted upon, whereas the wrong tone can prevent students from hearing and implementing your guidance (Fink, 2013; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004; Rupiper Taggart & Laughlin, 2017). Particularly harsh comments can demoralize students, dissuade them from further writing experiences, and even haunt them years later (Ferris, 2018). What exactly is the “right” tone? The precise tone you want to convey depends on various factors—including your relationship with your students, the level of students involved, the length and type of assignment, the point in the semester, and your personality. But, generally speaking, students tend to respond best to feedback that’s candid, empathetic, supportive, encouraging, constructive, and respectful (Enquist, 1996; Fink, 2013; Gottschalk & Hjortshoj, 2004). By contrast, students respond worse to feedback that’s interpreted as sarcastic, cruel, accusatory, condescending, disrespectful, pessimistic, or patronizing (Enquist, 1999; Rupiper Taggart & Laughlin, 2017). Fortunately, there are many strategies to help you strike the right tone in your writing feedback.