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No thesis? No problem. How to provide better, formative feedback on essays

Providing formative feedback for students often begins with an evaluation of their thesis. If there isn’t one there, or if it’s weak and lacks structure, educators must provide helpful guidance to help students get back on track.

Providing formative, digestible guidance when grading papers is one of the most critical skills an educator can learn. When students receive personalized feedback promptly, it helps them genuinely know and understand the taught concepts.

Despite these clear benefits, it can be a challenge for educators to offer helpful feedback to every student when they have a pile of essays on their desk that all deserve the same care and attention.

In this article, a guide to take educators through improving their formative feedback so that they can spend more time engaged with their students and less time grading papers.

The benefits of formative feedback for students

Many studies detail the benefits of formative feedback for students, with one study noting that teachers are “frequently exposed to contradictory information about the best ways to implement these written feedback types.”

The same study notes that there is “a lack of accord between researchers … with some advocating for [feedback’s] usefulness for student writing development and others claiming that it inhibits student learning.”

Despite these debates, written feedback is the most frequently used form of feedback in elementary schools, secondary schools, and universities. When delivered effectively (and remember, each student has a different way of receiving and processing feedback), it helps students improve their work by deepening their understanding of the material.

Critical elements of useful feedback for online paper graders

Another way to help students deepen their understanding of the subject material is to get them more engaged in the learning process. If a student’s essay lacks a coherent thesis, or if their argument is weak, it’s not the educator’s job to solve this problem for them. Instead, they should take this teaching opportunity to move the student forward in their understanding.

Here are some of the most critical elements of effective feedback for students.


One of the most critical elements of good feedback is that an instructor provides it promptly. That doesn’t necessarily mean immediately, but generally, students shouldn’t have to wait weeks to receive a teacher’s input on their work.

The material should still be fresh in their minds, and the feedback should come quickly enough so that a student can remedy any gaps in their understanding before they move on to more advanced topics that may build from this knowledge.


Great feedback must feel personalized to each student. Every instructor and educator has specific phrases that they repeatedly use to save time, but these should never make up the bulk of your feedback to students.

In studies, simple compliments like “Good job” or “Well done” are not “associated with learning gains, as [they] provide no information that a student could use to improve his or her work.”

Instead, your formative comments should reflect the student’s learning style and offer observations and challenges to clarify their thought process.


Instead of just ‘fixing’ students’ work, teachers should strive to use meaningful feedback to engage students more deeply in the learning process. They can do this by focusing on collaborative rather than corrective feedback.

Instead of marking up their paper with statements, educators should ask students questions to expand their understanding of the essay topic.

4 tips for improving your feedback when grading papers

There are many ways for educators to improve their feedback to make it more timely, personalized, and collaborative. Here are some of our top suggestions from educators.

  1. Use open-ended questions to help them reach the next level of understandingFeedback shouldn’t just be offered to students struggling or have issues with the grammar, tone, or structure of their essays. Students who understand the material still deserve the same level of attention and should be encouraged to dig even deeper into their understanding of the topic.To help students reach that next level of understanding, use open-ended questions like “What are the implications of —?” or “How could you bring in another side of this argument?” to help inspire them to reach more nuanced, thoughtful conclusions.
  2. Build frequent feedback checkpointsEducators should try to offer feedback as frequently as they can, without having it completely take over their life. Students benefit when they’re able to have regular check-ins with teachers to ensure they’re building a complete understanding before moving on to the next lesson or topic.Instructors don’t always need to write their feedback. In the early stages of essay development, ask your students to have a sit-down conversation, in person or over Zoom, to discuss their thesis and approach so that you can provide verbal feedback at this critical stage of development.
  3. Try grading papers online with CrowdmarkStudents who want you to grade their paper quickly have no idea how long it can take when you’re dealing with the same demand from 30 or 300 students.Instead of doing it all by hand, try grading papers online with a platform like Crowdmark.Students upload their work onto the platform. The online paper graders (educators, professors, or teaching assistants) can evaluate it from any device, making it easy to provide meaningful feedback quickly since it can be typed as a comment or handwritten using a stylus. Crowdmark also retains your comments as a library, so you can save the ones you use frequently and reuse them across assessments.
  4. Provide multimedia feedbackSome students absorb information faster and with a greater depth of understanding if you provide feedback using multimedia. With Crowdmark, this is easy. Educators can embed links to extra resources like videos or images that explain the concept in greater detail or draw freeform images, charts, and other visual aids.

How online tools like Crowdmark support better feedback

Essays are a challenging assignment for any student and can be even more frustrating when their instructor cannot provide meaningful feedback that they understand. To make feedback easier and faster to deliver and more accessible to students, invest in online grading software like Crowdmark.

With a library of robust grading tools, Crowdmark makes it fast and easy for educators to write or type in detailed feedback.

If you find yourself using the same phrases repeatedly, they can be saved into your library and re-inserted into new assignments with a simple keyboard shortcut.

To learn more about how Crowdmark can support your students’ work on written assignments like essays, get in touch to explore a free trial today.

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About Crowdmark

Crowdmark is the world’s premiere online grading and analytics platform, allowing educators to evaluate student assessments more effectively and securely than ever before. On average, educators experience up to a 75% productivity gain, providing students with prompt and formative feedback. This significantly enriches the learning and teaching experience for students and educators by transforming assessment into a dialogue for improvement.