Writing (Teaching) Tip: Beyond the Praise Sandwich

Many of us responding to student writing have softened the blow of an end comment with an opening affirmation and a closing pat on the back.  We do so because we recognize that writing puts “self” on the line in a way that other assignments do not.  (Imagine returning a test, “You showed a deep understanding of the revolution by picking “d” on question #7, but the rest of your mistaken choices show you should read the chapters on colonial life.”)  Even though students crave a kind word, they often disregard its substance, tossing out the bread of a “praise sandwich” to get to the meat–the criticism.

Yet what if we made praise the only, or the primary, feedback on the plate?  Brad Hughes, the teddy bearish director of all things writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asked a skeptical crowd at the Writing Across the Curriculum 2010 conference in Bloomington, Indiana, last spring.  What if, instead of asking students to shore up their weaknesses, we challenged them to build on their strengths?

Immediately a hand shot up.  “What if… I can’t find anything to praise?”

The room exploded with laughter.

Hughes knows as well as anyone the deficiencies of student writing.  But he and fellow UWM panelist Beth Godbee have been experimenting with a new commenting practice developed out of the research field of “appreciative inquiry” (AI).  According to the definition at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons at Case Western University, “AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.”  To spur revision, an instructor shows a student what’s working, and perhaps why, and suggests ways to apply an already mastered skill to other parts of the paper.

Godbee offered a couple of sample comments on a short freshman essay.  She set a time limit and restricted her comments to a few big-picture points.  Here’s an excerpt:


I can see that you’re a good storyteller, and the narrative approach serves you well in this paper.  You have a lead-in hook (“College will be the best time of your life!”), a set of struggles in the middle, and a hopeful finale.  Your introspection is very engaging and a real strength of your writing style.  This is most evident in the first three paragraphs.  Have you considered breaking the 5-paragraph essay form and continuing the story about your experience, making what seems to me to be not only a transition from high school to college, but also from one country and language to another?

For praise to be effective, Hughes and Godbee agreed, it has to be sincere.  They offered some questions to help professors ease into appreciative inquiry.  First, are you reading the paper and responding when you’re in a good mood?  Then ask yourself

  • What strengths does the author bring to this project?
  • What evidence of learning is already exhibited in the draft or underlies even the paper’s flaws?
  • What resource or skill might the author develop?
  • What should the author build on?  (Start a sentence, “Keep doing X…”)

Needless to say, you deep-six the red pen.

If you’d like to experiment with this or any other feedback technique, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.  Feel free to deputize me to search out examples on the Web or to serve as a second reader or comment writer.


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