#3. The Writing Feedback Death Spiral

In the last article, we discussed how the world’s education system is NOT structured to support students on writing due to the Educator-Time Problem. Writing education is in a death spiral in part because the Educator-Time problem remains unsolved. The only way to solve the Educator-Time Problem is through one-on-one writing feedback. Now, we’ll discuss the difficulties of delivering one-on-one writing feedback. Breaking the death spiral requires a step-change improvement in the feedback students receive and buy-in from educators and institutions.

The Writing Feedback Death Spiral of Today

Today, receiving writing feedback is a terrible experience. This has set off a chain reaction whereby no one wants to give or receive feedback.

Writing feedback is a terrible experience. 

Students don’t find feedback useful or valuable. It tends to be surface-level (e.g., grammar editing). It tends to fail at identifying the higher-order problems (content, structure, clarity). It tends to be vague and not actionable (e.g., comments like “unclear” or “fix this”). It tends to be unavailable close to deadlines. It tends to take days or weeks to receive.

Students are left thinking, “Why should I bother getting feedback?” They don’t see or feel themselves improving. They don’t earn a better grade as most receive As and Bs regardless of the work put into revisions. Today’s feedback leads students to make minor changes (if any), and students are unclear how to act on more substantive changes (so they just don’t do it).

Students don’t seek or act on feedback. 

The poor feedback experience results in students that don’t seek or act on feedback. Writing accounts for less than 1% of tutoring paid for by students and families. Students rarely revise their essays to improve their grades when given the opportunity. Peer review is often not taken seriously and struggles with many of the same feedback experience issues as feedback from educators. Writing centers in higher education are rarely used, often on fewer than 1% of writing assignments.

Educators and institutions deemphasize feedback.

The natural result of students not seeking or acting on feedback is for educators and institutions to deemphasize writing feedback. The Educator-Time Problem means educators lack the time to provide writing feedback. But, there’s more to the story. Educators aren’t motivated to spend more time providing feedback as they know students are unlikely to act on it. Institutions see students who aren’t using feedback and choose not to invest in resources to support writing.

The spiral continues

As educators and institutions continue to deemphasize feedback, the feedback experience becomes worse. The cycle begins anew. As the feedback experience worsens, fewer students seek and act on feedback, which in turn leads educators and institutions to further deemphasize writing feedback. In the end, students enter the workforce unprepared for writing –  the most important skill for the future.

Breaking the death spiral

The only way to start breaking the death spiral is to solve the writing feedback experience. However, solving the experience won’t immediately solve the problem. Educational institutions will need to require students to regularly receive and act on feedback. Only then will students get in the habit of seeking out and acting on feedback.

Educational institutions must be involved because students have grown accustomed to thinking they’re good writers. Students receive minimal constructive feedback, and most are getting As and Bs. Students don’t have an incentive to seek and act on feedback. Educational institutions must create the incentive by requiring students to receive and act on feedback for many of the essays they write. 

Educational institutions must not act hastily. A strong writing feedback experience is vital and challenging to execute; it must focus on the higher-order aspects of writing (content, structure, clarity). Additionally, a strong writing feedback experience cannot exist without solving the Educator-Time Problem. The only way to solve the Educator-Time Problem and writing feedback experience is through one-on-one writing tutoring with on-demand writing coaches. Implementing one-on-one writing tutoring requires a completely different operating model, delivery model, and set of tutors than tutoring for other subjects. No one has effectively solved writing tutoring before Prompt because writing tutoring is hard.

Next: #4. Writing tutoring is hard