How do you know when a student has turned in a good essay? It can be tempting to answer this question as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in describing obscenity: I know it when I see it. But educators need a more concrete definition they can apply consistently across all subject areas.

For Patti West-Smith, the answer is simple: Does the piece of writing do its job?

“There’s no magic prescription for that,” said West-Smith, a former teacher, principal, and instructional supervisor who now heads the curriculum team at Turnitin. “It’s simply, does it work?” In other words, she said, is the essay effective in communicating its ideas? Does it resonate with its intended audience? If so, then the writing is probably good—and if not, then it needs revising.

West-Smith was the first guest in a new podcast series launched by Turnitin, called The Written Word. Co-hosted by Meredith May and Sean Tupa, the podcast explores how written language helps us communicate and engage with the world around us.

In the debut episode, West-Smith described how to evaluate whether a piece of writing is effective. She also revealed what teachers must do to be successful in their writing instruction—including the four essential elements of student feedback.

Purpose and Audience

If a piece of writing is of high quality when it does its job, how can teachers measure this effectiveness? There are two key factors involved, West-Smith said: purpose and audience.

“One of the things you have to consider right off the top is, what is my purpose here?” she said. If the purpose is to tell a story, then how you approach that task is very different from how you inform or persuade someone.

“Even if the topic is the same, those are very different things,” she noted. “What makes a narrative effective is very different from what makes an informational piece or an argument effective.”

The intended audience also matters. For instance, an argumentative essay must make an effective claim. But what that looks like depends on who is reading the essay. “A claim that uses logic is appropriate for a particular audience, but a claim that uses emotion might be more effective for a different audience,” West-Smith explained.

“There is this constant interplay between purpose and audience,” she observed.

(Next page: Effective writing through opportunities and student feedback)

Opportunities to Write

While the elements that make different kinds of essays effective might vary, there are some fundamental keys to successful writing instruction that apply across all styles of writing, West-Smith said. One of the most important is giving students ample time to practice their writing skills.

“Students must have opportunities to write,” she argued. “These opportunities must be frequent; they cannot be sporadic.”

If you want to become a marathon runner, you have to run. You can’t just watch videos about running. The same holds true for writing. “You can learn about writing, but if you don’t do it, you’re probably not going to get great at it,” she said.

Besides giving students more opportunities to practice, integrating writing frequently into instruction reduces students’ anxiety about the writing process. “It becomes a natural part of your classroom, as opposed to this ‘other’ event,” West-Smith explained. “Saying, ‘We’re going to have writing Wednesdays’ sounds like a great idea, but it also builds up this stress around writing and makes it seem something other than what we do the rest of the time.”

Also, writing instruction should not be relegated only to English classes.

“It’s not just a question of integrating it more in your classroom; it’s also about integrating it throughout a student’s day,” she said. “The English teacher’s nightmare is when students and other colleagues think writing is something that happens in that room, as a part of English instruction. But writing is really about communication. If we’re communicating our ideas, shouldn’t that have a part in every classroom? It should.”

Useful Student Feedback

Another key to effective writing instruction is giving students valuable feedback. To have value, the feedback that teachers provide must meet these four essential criteria, West-Smith said:

Relevant. It has to relate directly to the assignment that students are working on in the moment.

Timely. “Students tell us they are 60% more likely to use the feedback we provide if it happens inside the writing process, as opposed to at the end of the process,” she said. “If it comes at the end of the process, then there’s no point in getting that feedback, according to their perspective.”

Actionable. “It’s not enough just to say, ‘Good job, bad job, you did this, you did that.’ What am I supposed to do in response to that? ‘Your claim was not especially clear here.’ That’s feedback, but the problem is, if the student doesn’t know how to make her claim especially clear, then she doesn’t know what to do in response to that feedback. I need to say, ‘Here is the action you need to take in response to what I’m saying.’”

Accessible. Students must be able to understand the feedback. “If I say to you, ‘You need to construct your thesis in a way that organizes your ideas across the scope of your essay in a comprehensive and cohesive manner,’ and you don’t know what seven of those words mean, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to do that—even if you want to,” she said. “You have to make that feedback accessible to the student it’s geared toward. That means responding to individual students where they are.”

If you aren’t providing effective feedback on students’ writing, “you run the risk of asking students to practice a skill they’re potentially doing wrong,” West-Smith said. What’s more, students won’t know to repeat a practice they might be doing right.

For this reason, Turnitin’s Revision Assistant gives students positive as well as constructive feedback on their writing in real time. “We need to help students notice where they are doing well, and help them figure out where they can replicate that,” she explained.

During the wide-ranging podcast, West-Smith also discussed how writing instruction has shifted over time—and where she sees it heading in the future. You can access the entire 30-minute podcast on iTunes here. Future episodes will discuss writing in the digital age, collaborative writing, and a two-part series on Literacy.

About the Author:

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience covering education and technology. Follow him on Twitter: @denniswpierce.