Academic feedback can seem scarier, and sometimes be more telling, than the mark on an assignment handed back by a Tutor. It tends to be a lengthy breakdown of everything we as writers did wrong, pinpointing writing that was vague or misinterpreted a fact, and sometimes the feedback even includes confusing comments that pertain only for that piece of work. Feedback can feel even less useful if there is sparkling percentage on the page which tells us that we obviously know what we’re doing. However, in all cases, it is necessary not only to read the feedback but to utilise as much of it as possible, so that, regardless of the mark for this particular piece, we ensure glittering grades in the future. For this blog, I’ve looked into the topic at a range of universities and organisation websites and books, including advice gleaned from my own experience too.
What is feedback?
To answer this question, it’s easier to start with what feedback is not. Feedback is not advice, and so does not include comments about how we could rewrite a passage, add a reference, or change the structure of an argument. Nor is feedback a value judgement. Feedback does not tell us whether the work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, recommend we never publish this in a Journal, or evaluate if the work could win us a Nobel prize. These go hand in hand with feedback, of course, but they are not one and the same, which even Tutors may muddle up at times.
Feedback is actually just information conveying the effects of what we’re doing as relating to a goal (ASCD website). So it would include comments such as ‘I, as a reader, do/do not understand the point being expressed here’ as relating to the clarity of the writing. When playing tennis, we want to know first and foremost if our serve caused the ball to land within the court or not. Similarly, an audience either does or does not laugh at a comedian, while a driving instructor will state whether we did or did not just hit a lamppost upon reversing the car. Once we have this information, about whether we hit the target or not (hopefully not in the case of the lamppost!), we can then make use of any advice as to how to improve, or repeat our success, which is why it matters to read the feedback regardless of the mark achieved.
Why is feedback important?
It offers clear indications of whether we are achieving goals such as clarity of expression, avoiding plagiarism, logically arguing our point and so forth. It also helps give us a better idea of what the Tutor expects, as they have probably not just taught the module, but set and marked the questions too. All in all, it acts as a kind of ‘You Are Here’ on a map of our educational experience, so that we can orient ourselves as to how we move forward to our chosen destination: whether that’s passing the course, or passing with a Distinction. The importance of feedback is well-established in education (Merry and Orsmond, 2008) but, at the same time, to be effective, it needs to be conveyed by the Tutor with detail and accuracy, and then be employed by the writer.
From a study by Merry and Orsmond, there seems to be a student preference for verbal feedback, through audio files or in person, to allow for discussion and a chance to ask questions. Verbal feedback, it was found, has the added benefit that Tutors are able to get more information across, in terms of both examples of how feedback could be utilised, as well as elements like tone of voice conveying more than a tick or a ‘good comment’, especially if the feedback was usually handwritten and often illegible. Meanwhile, Tutors also found it a positive experience, though there were technological issues and therefore there are arguments both ways for how time-effective this process is. Not to mention the fact that every institution will have their own methods for aspects like giving feedback.
However, what can be taken away from the study is that students want a bit more personalisation, and a blend of positive and negative comments in the feedback. They want comments to be goal-referenced, with examples where possible. The amount of feedback also needs to be manageable, as no one wants their work handed back looking like a crime scene of red pen mania.
Beyond this, it is of course ideal if there were to be more consistency across the relevant department in terms of teaching style, assignment requirements, and feedback offered, to avoid giving students mixed messages. It could be useful for a Tutor, who sees a regular problem occurring, to address it in class in order to help everyone. But the most important aspect, possibly, is that the feedback illustrates effective ‘listening’ on the part of the Tutor, both in terms of what was written in the essay, and any debriefing that occurs thereafter if the student approaches the Tutor for advice on how to improve.
All of this, unfortunately, is more the ideal situation than a constant reality; but as writers are entitled to this kind of support, if we don’t get it initially, we can certainly go to office hours and ask for it!
This topic is tricky, and a constant issue for students. It is time-consuming for Tutors to read and feedback on assignments, of course, but it needs to be done according to a set-out framework of time, so that everyone knows what to expect. Therefore, if this does not happen, the student has every right to ask for assistance from the department. The matter of overlapping assignments is unfortunate, as feedback cannot be used until much later work needs to have been handed in. However, practically, I doubt this can be helped.
The Study Skills Handbook advises that feedback be put aside for a few days after it has been received, to allow the mind to settle, and to feel less emotionally attached. To be fair to the Tutor, they have taken time to consider the work and offer their comments.
Moreover, we need to move away from the notion that feedback signals failure, error, weakness, or anything else debilitating and horrid. We need to view feedback, and our marks, with a rational, not emotional, point of view. I was often told by my parents during my undergrad: if I had come to uni knowing everything already, what would be the point of me attending? And then look at musicians or ballerinas, athletes or chefs. Practice makes perfect. Mistakes enable them to see how to turn a great performance into a phenomenal one. They cannot do that without feedback.
So it’s time to dive into those comments and soak up the information. The Handbook advises that the feedback be divided into major and minor issues, and that we are realistic about what to take forward for future work: not everything is possible all at once. For instance, is the comment about content or structure? How do the comments relate to the Learning Outcomes set out at the start of the course? The reason for this being that writers need to move away from trying to make Tutors happy towards demonstrating independent learning, and the attainment of specific skills that the module is expected to teach. Also, how much work would the adjustments really take? Improvements can be a lot less significant than at first believed: taking care over a slip in the use of a term, a hastily written and therefore overly complex sentence, or a missed example.
In any case, we need to take the time to think the feedback through and reassess our submissions for future reference, and not rush through the comments resulting in possible misninterpretation. If the comments aren’t clear, we could try chatting it over with peers, going to the Tutor, or even rewriting the work as a practice exercise and seeing if the Tutor would be happy glancing over it to check for improvement. Most of all, we need to concentrate on the next assignment: it’ll be a new topic, and another chance.
Cottrell, Stella (2013). The Study Skills Handbook, 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Merry, Stephen & Paul Orsmond (2008). Students’ Attitudes to and Usage of Academic Feedback Provided Via Audio Files, Bioscience Education, [E-journal] 11:1, pp1-11, DOI: 10.3108/beej.11.3, accessed 10th February 2016.