Grading Less, Learning from Students, and Giving Better Feedback

(Originally titled “How I Learned to Be Strategic About Writing Comments”)

In this Educational Leadership article, high-school English teacher and consultant Cris Tovani bemoans the way her students used to ignore the comments she spent hours writing on their papers – and the fact that her comments didn’t seem to make a difference. Overhearing a conversation between two high-school athletic coaches, Tovani realized how differently their feedback was received and used by young players. “In a perfect world,” she thought, “teachers and students would work together toward a common goal, like athletes and coaches do. Students would care about the feedback we give them as much as we do.” This epiphany led Tovani to three conclusions:

–   Spend less time writing comments.

–   Modify instruction based on what’s learned from students’ work.

–   Build in time for students to revise their work based on feedback and self-assessment.

“Where I really needed to give feedback was before final assignments were due,” she says. “I needed a chance to reteach concepts, and students needed a chance to revise.”

In Tovani’s reading lessons, students now take four-question comprehension checks as they read, assessing how well they can summarize, analyze the author’s craft, annotate a text, and make inferences. Tovani grades these quickly (very few comments), gives them back the next day, and has students self-assess against a model answer. “Students compare my criteria of success with their performance,” she says, “and reflect on how my responses are alike or different from theirs.” If students do poorly on one of her quizzes, she’ll go over items in class, giving students a chance to add points by showing improvement.

In her writing lessons, Tovani takes a cue from Kelly Gallagher, who gave her this rationale for assigning students four times more writing than it’s possible to grade: “Improvement starts with volume. Volume suffers if I have to grade everything. Grading doesn’t make kids better. Volume, choice, and conferring makes kids better.” This helped Tovani realize that she didn’t have to assess every piece of student writing, which allowed her to grade less and assess more: “I don’t have to always write the perfect comment or give a grade,” she says. “[W]hat’s most essential to improving the quality of students’ work is collecting feedback for ourselves from that work and noticing patterns in students’ skills (or lack thereof) that we can use to determine our next instructional moves.”

Her new philosophy is, “Give students daily opportunities to leave tracks of their thinking, use those tracks to notice patterns, and adjust instruction on the basis of what kids know and what they need. Repeat cycle.” Here are some of her tools:

–   Reading think worksheets – Students jot on these as they do their independent reading, prompted to note pages read, stamina, use of their inner voice to remember what they read, and how their reading reflects new thinking (see the full article for a sample).

–   Exit tickets – At the end of class, students jot one thing they figured out and one thing they’re wondering about. Tovani spreads these out on a table and draws conclusions about the next day’s lesson. “I don’t waste time writing comments,” she says. “I simply look for patterns, and when I’ve figured out a few, I throw the tickets away.”

–   Response journals – In individual composition notebooks, students reflect on their learning for the day. Tovani reads a third of these each day during her planning period, takes a third home, and reads the rest the next morning. “I limit my comments and challenge myself to identify patterns,” she says.

Tovani continuously streamlines her process. She decides which qualities of students’ reading and thinking she’ll focus her feedback on and limits her comments accordingly. While commenting, she records her observations in four columns: students’ use of skills and strategies; confusing vocabulary; students’ questions related to the reading; and how skillfully students are dealing with a genre or text structure. She gives feedback or a quick correction to individual students or to the whole class.

“As much as we’d all like to coach kids one-on-one,” Tovani concludes, “we can’t. Getting feedback from student work and giving students feedback to advance their learning are both essential, but educators have to be strategic in how we use these instructional moves. In the end, both teacher and students have to get smarter.”


“How I Learned to Be Strategic About Writing Comments” by Cris Tovani in Educational Leadership, April 2016 (Vol. 73, #7, p. 56-60), available for purchase at; Tovani can be reached at