Language of feedback

The language used in providing feedback can strongly influence the value it has for student learning. Too vague and the student has limited knowledge to move forward. Too complex and students can become confused or overwhelmed. If the feedback highlights only the errors made or the criteria met, then students can struggle to understand how to improve. Language that is too critical can cause students to feel that their efforts have not been acknowledged, and language overly complimentary can cause students to ignore areas for improvement.

There are various ways in which we respond to students' work. Often it is either by using the "What's wrong with this?" lens or the "What's right with this?" lens. Either way, any feedback we give should be more than a tick or a smiley face. It needs to be explicit so that our students know how to improve.

Different language responses

When providing feedback on written assessments, there are various response types that you can use to encourage students to develop their written expression. These responses range from facilitating independent action to a more instructional or corrective approach.


Raising questions to prompt student action or encourage independent revision strategies. Often used to help students become more responsible for identifying their own errors and encouraging them to problem-solve their issues. Examples include: “Where is your thesis statement?”, “What is the purpose of this argument?” However, a limitation to using facilitative language is that students need explicit information about where they have not met criteria. So, by just posing a question about their writing can leave them still confused about why something needs to change.


Offering instructive remarks telling students how they can improve. This type of language means that your responses are mostly phrased as directions on what needs to change, e.g. "Remove this section as it does not make sense in the context of your argument." Your rationale for using this type of feedback could be to highlight for the student precisely where the errors are and how to improve this assessment task. A limitation of directive feedback is that it can leave the students viewing your assessments as a guessing game, trying to anticipate what your expectations are. It can also remove the student's incentive to write or their own sense of agency if they feel their authority has also been removed (Brannon & Knoblach, 1982).


Include copy-edit remarks that usually highlight errors in syntax and grammar. Examples include: Labelling or circling errors, correcting or re-writing a phrase, or referring students to academic support services such as The Writing Space (in the Library) or an appointment with a Learning Skills Adviser.

Prioritising higher and lower order concerns

Another consideration when providing feedback to prioritise 'higher-order concerns' over the 'lower-order concerns' in a student's work (McAndrew & Reigstad, 2000).

  • Higher order concerns (HOC) are the 'big picture' elements:
    • addressing the topic;
    • clear thesis statement/purpose for writing;
    • relevant and clear structure; logical organisation of ideas;
    • supporting evidence (use of citations)
  • Lower order concerns (LOC) are those elements that are usually accorded fewer marks in the criteria:
    • sentence structure, punctuation, word choice, spelling

We need to think about the core message we want the student to take from our feedback. So, unless language is a core criterion (HOC) for your assignment, it is important not to be distracted too much by LOCs (unless the writing makes no sense at all). When we offer feedback to our students, it is important to identify which HOCs are most important for this student to focus on and provide clear advice on what needs to change for the next assessment task.

Resources, strategies or assistance


  • Brannon, L., & Knoblauch, C.H. (1982). On students’ right to their own texts: A model of teacher response. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 157-166.
  • McAndrew, D.A., & Reigstad, T. J. (2001). Tutoring writing: A practical guide for conferences. Portsmouth. NH: Heinemann-Boynton-Cook.


To explore ways in which you can improve the effectiveness of the language you use to provide student feedback, contact your Institute Learning Skills Advisor.