We are all told – as students – about the importance of reading and noting the feedback we get from Tutors and Supervisors, as well as from other readers, whether in written or spoken form.
However, in all these cases, it is possible that the feedback comments could be less than helpful: maybe because they are not detailed enough with examples, feel too much like a subjective judgment rather than an objective critique, or simply confuse the writer who felt confident heading off in one direction…only to be told (suddenly) to change their approach.
I have been there before, mystified by a reader’s feedback, while more recently a friend of mine has undergone a painful reassessment of their work on the basis of an unavoidable – but only partially articulated – requirement to update.
As such, I thought it might be helpful to have a little look at online advice regarding this matter, and have broken down the information as follows. Hopefully, this may help mentees to work with Tutor feedback more effectively, while it may also boost our approach as commentators – and students – ourselves.
To pre-empt unhelpful feedback:
Considering pre-empting a Tutor by asking questions like:
- Am I on track?
- How might I improve?
- What aspects should I focus on in this piece of work?
- What are my strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement?
Consider, also a self-assessment. How do you feel about your work? What do you struggle with, that you might like help with? What are you particularly proud of? Can you discuss these aspects in more detail with Tutors?
Moreover, have you edited your work before submitting? In terms of structure, argument, references, and grammar/spelling/punctuation?
To respond to unhelpful feedback:
Academics are rarely taught how to give feedback; but as students, we’re not taught to receive feedback either! Therefore, this area needs a careful approach – ideally from both sides, but certainly as the student, we need to take the lead for our own degree. So try to make this process as useful, positive, and constructive as possible.
It is worthwhile remembering that it is a compliment to have someone spend time and energy assessing your work, especially when they are experts in your field.
The more preparation you do before engaging in feedback reading/discussion, the more open you will be to the feedback. So ask yourself first: how did that work really go? What would I have changed if I could do it again? What will I try again because it worked well? How might I put these changes into effect?
Read your feedback immediately. It is important that the work is still fresh in your mind, for the feedback to make the most sense. If you have only had oral feedback, request something in writing that will be more tangible and longer lasting.
But, after reading the feedback, let it sink in before charging into the Tutor’s office to demand a re-mark! We can read things differently (more negatively) in the heat of the moment, or fail to realise that a particular comment may have been more accurate than we’d like it to be. Plus, you need to decide what are the most useful questions you need to ask before having that conversation.
Note that there are three major types of written feedback:
- Referential: editorial, organisational, and content comments
- Directive: suggestions for change, questions, and instructions
- Expressive: praise, criticism, and opinion
Another way of breaking down the comments is by content or technical issues: are they discussing your inability to criticise sources, or the referencing format?
Also, try to separate fact from opinion, as well as the delivery from the content of the message. A comment like, ‘I think this is great and well-referenced’, for instance, is different to ‘This work adds a new perspective on this topic by examining X, and there are plenty of accurate and relevant citations.’ Or ‘clearly you haven’t bothered to read Y’s theory’ as compared to ‘In this section, you demonstrate no awareness of Y’s theory in relation to this topic’.
If you cannot work out what the Tutor is asking for or criticising, ask for specific examples or actions to take, such as ‘In paragraph 4, line 3, you need to add another example of why you think Z’ or ‘try, next time, to use more varied language instead of repeating however’.
To this end, I came across a fantastic UCL website (listed below), offering a list of typical phrases used in feedback. The site decodes them, with instructions and examples. For instance, on the subject of ‘developing a point’, it states that it might be useful to supply more examples and explain the implications of the point raised. Or on a ‘lack of criticality’, the site shows an instance of adding comments to, and not just paraphrasing, a source.
Another thing to find out, regarding feedback, is what to do with it: can you/do you have to try the work again, and when is this for? Can you revise a small section for a review – whether or not it will affect your marks? Even if it was amazing feedback that makes you dance around, still try to learn how you can produce the same results next time!
Last, but absolutely not least, prioritise the issues raised. Discuss with your Tutor which aspects to work: just on one or two of the most important issues first, before tackling everything else. It is important not to overwhelm yourself, while you’re trying to learn everything else as well, this approach will also ensure lasting improvement.