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Positive Feedback Strategies to Enhance Student Engagement

Dr. Jennifer Haber, a professor at St. Petersburg College, shares her experiences on how to engage students in the writing process through positive feedback.

The Turnitin Team
The Turnitin Team

In a discussion with Dr. Jennifer Haber, a professor at St. Petersburg College, she shares her experiences on how to engage students in the writing process through positive feedback. Dr. Haber has been teaching writing classes at a four-year institution for over 15 years and her approach to helping students succeed is to provide them with as much feedback on their writing as possible.

One challenge Haber has faced over the years, after repeatedly coming across similar types of papers and seeing similar mistakes, was that she became negative in the feedback she was providing to students. She shares a story about a turning point in her teaching strategies.

A few years ago Haber received a note in the mail from a previous Composition course student who had since then received an MBA. His letter said that "if it weren't for me and my positive encouragement and feedback, that he probably wouldn't have gone on in pursuit of that degree." Those words encouraged her to revert to the philosophy of being more positive and less critical and to change the way that she evaluates and engages students with their writing.

Haber has spent the last couple of years reinventing her methods: "I wanted not to just grade a paper and return it to students, but that I wanted to make students a part of that process, and to show them how well they were doing. I tell all of my students that every one of them is doing something well. They may not be doing everything well but they are doing something well. I also wanted them to understand their grade. The last thing I wanted was for students to receive a paper back and then be done with it. If they weren't involved in that process, then the likelihood is they were not going to look at the feedback, they were going to make the same mistakes, and then they weren't going to get anything out of the process."

Dr. Haber was curious about how technology could assist in providing her students with more constructive, positive feedback. With students already well attuned and receptive to technology, she searched for a solution that could help the student as well as the instructor. Turnitin was the perfect fit in for her needs. It allows her to provide all kinds of feedback to students.

"Typically I use the terms 'higher-order' and 'lower-order' comments, and I see some of you do teach writing courses, probably have a sense of what that means, but that I really wanted to focus more on the higher-order concepts, so development and focus and organizations. Students always want to know if they they're missing commas, but I tell them, 'so you're missing a couple of commas. Are you focused? Are you organized? Let's really think about that first.' Turnitin really is a great piece here to mold all of this together."

The three ways that Haber uses Turnitin are: QuickMarks, Voice Comments, and revision.

Using the QuickMark™ comments---which is a commonly used comment that can be dragged directly onto a students paper online---allows Haber to create templates of positive comments so that she doesn't have to recreate them every time. "One element that I like to see in a paper is a really clear thesis sentence that provides insight into what the paper is going to be about. One of the nice things about Turnitin is that I can actually add to the original comment that I have if I want to add a specific example related to their paper. Because I do the higher-order first, I try not to get into the commas and the semicolons, especially if they're still having difficulty with the organization and those kinds of issues."

Students in Haber's classes responded well to her feedback and use of QuickMarks, especially when she added examples to the paper. One student, in particular, said, "My teacher always tells me that I lack reader attention…What I loved about your Turnitin comment was that you gave me an example of how to make it even stronger." Haber explains that, in that student's paper, the student was trying to do something with imagery. Haber asked the student if she considered using that word, to which the student replied: "I finally understood what that meant, that that simple generic comment, 'good reader attention,' is not enough." Clicking on the QuickMark allows the student to see extended information and feedback.

Voice Comments is the feature on which Haber has received the most positive feedback from students. Haber said: "Students like to hear your voice. If I was going to start some Voice Comments, I would say, 'Your topic was interesting, I hadn't even considered the numerous negative aspects of 'SpongeBob Squarepants.' Moreover, your organization was clear, I like that you started with the most important point and moved to the least important point." And then you can get into something maybe that they should work on, but students really like these voice comments. The best combination is the QuickMark comments directly on the paper and the Voice Comments with it."

Whereas QuickMarks are more visual, and Voice Comments are more auditory, enabling students to revise their work is more tactile or kinesthetic. Haber allows students to revise their work and directly improve the writing in their papers because often students get their papers and do nothing with them, which is not engaging them, so the tactile makes them look at their papers and potentially have a positive experience with it.

"Sometimes I might write a QuickMark comment on a paper, and then I might give them a sheet of paper and say, 'Okay, now take those five comments that I wrote on those five sentences and write them down on a sheet of paper, now try to figure out how to correct them.' Maybe I wrote a comma splice, maybe we're dealing with sentences, and so maybe I recognize five-sentence issues on a paper. 'Now, try to correct them. How can you do that?' It can become a really positive learning experience for students."

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