Making the most of feedback
Building on Success
Feedback takes many forms. Here, I am talking about feedback that you gain from staff and other students about your work, but also that you give to staff and other students to help them improve. Feedback is, or should be, a two-way process.
Some students seem to regard feedback as essentially the comments and marks they receive on their completed work. However, spoken feedback and feedback given to you before work is finally completed and submitted (called formative feedback) can be at least as useful to your learning as final (summative) feedback.
Feedback from staff and other students
It is all too easy, when you receive your marked work, to glance at it, note any marks and accompanying comments, and then breathe a sigh of relief as you file your work away. But stop for a moment. Now is a great time to consider what you are doing right and what you can do to improve. Written feedback on marked work ideally should:
✵Indicate how well you are progressing in terms of meeting the standards and assessment criteria for your degree programme.
✵Suggest ways you can improve that you can apply to future assignments (tackling any weaknesses).
✵Reinforce those things you are doing right and should continue to do (building on your strengths).
Staff feedback on a recent assignment
Find a writing assignment that you recently completed and has been marked and returned:
(a)From the marks you have been awarded, are you aware how well you are doing in relation to other students and to the standards expected on your course?
(b)Is it clear what you need to do to improve for next time?
(c)Do you know what you are doing right and should continue doing?
(d)Was feedback on the assignment discussed in a lecture, seminar, tutorial, practical or other session? If so, did you make notes on those points most relevant to you?
(e)If you are not sure about any of the answers to (a)-(d) you may not be making the most of feedback. What could you do to find out what you have missed? What could you do next time to make the most of feedback?
Reflecting in this way, and making notes about what you have discovered, will only be of value, of course, if you actually take action to apply what you have learnt. This is one reason why keeping a learning notebook or logbook is so useful.
You may be on a degree programme where hundreds of students are taking a particular module. Written feedback on assessed work may be minimal. General comments may be given at the end of your work or on an accompanying cover sheet. Specific comments may be written on the work itself. Examine each and every comment and make sure you understand it and know what you can do about it for the future. If you do not understand any comments, you might be able to raise the issue with the person who set the assignment or the assessor. Other factors aside, they are normally the best people to approach. Or you might discuss the work with your tutor and other students at a tutorial, or more informally at other times. Comparing the feedback you received with the feedback other students received can help you clarify your understanding of particular writing issues. There may be other forms of learning support available in your university, such as writing tutors or learning advisors, who you can approach. But do follow up. Not taking action about something you do not understand is an opportunity wasted, which may come back to haunt you later.
Here is an example of how interpreting feedback is translated into action and is applied to your practice. Consider the following comments made at the end of an essay you might have submitted: Mark 58%. The essay is well organized and you have developed your overall argument in a clear manner. There are a few minor factual errors and your writing sometimes jumps from one topic to the next, lacking coherence. You have drawn substantially upon the lecture notes and recommended textbooks but there is little evidence of you exploring the relevant literature further. Your citations and references show some inconsistency. Overall, however, a reasonable effort.
Reviewing these comments, the student’s notes for follow-up actions might be:
1Find out how to write more ’coherently ’. Review comments on work and check with Dr Patel and/or friend Geoff.
2Check the factual errors and correct them. Cross-reference to revision notes.
3 Get advice from subject librarian about literature searching next time I write an essay.
4Consult citing and referencing guide to check where I have been inconsistent.
If asking for advice from staff or students, it helps to be specific. Getting comment while you are drafting a piece of work is one of the best times to learn and improve, and it may influence your grade for that assignment. However, in asking for feedback about your writing, be specific. You might wish to give your work-in-progress to different people, drawing upon their individual strengths. One friend might be really strong on grammar and punctuation, another very effective in guiding you in formulating a convincing argument, and so on. As you are now well aware, there are many matters to comment on about a piece of writing, from fine-scale to broad (see Chapter 10).
Rather than asking someone to read your work and comment on everything, it helps to draw their attention to what you are most concerned about or where you think they can best help. For example:
In the introduction, have I set up my thesis statement correctly?
Are you convinced by my evidence and reasoning overall?
Have I cited and referenced correctly?
Is my conclusion doing its job?
By being specific you are more likely to gain useful feedback that you can apply to improve your work. When giving or receiving feedback, I suggest there are six levels of analysis on which you can focus (see Tip). Whether reviewing your own work, asking for feedback on your work from others, or giving feedback on the work of others, I recommend focusing on only two or three levels at a time.
Six levels of analysis
Is the overall structure (beginning, middle and end) appropriate and well- balanced? Is each part doing its job? Do sections or subsections have appropriate headings, which reflect well the progression of the argument?
Does the argument flow logically within and between paragraphs?
Does the argument lead logically to a conclusion?
Is the argument clearly signposted using connectors?
Are there any omissions, distractions, misinterpretations or overgeneralisations?
Is there plentiful evidence of critical evaluation of the assignment writer’s own work and that of others?
Is the writing style and vocabulary used appropriate for this assignment and the intended readership?
Is the writing clear, precise and accurate?
Is the viewpoint, e.g. personal or objective, appropriate?
Are the sentence and paragraph constructions repetitive, or is there appropriate variety?
Do you suspect any plagiarism?
Citing and referencing
Has citing and referencing been used elegantly, with precision and consistency, to support the paper’s overall argument?
Does the citing and referencing appear to be balanced or biased?
If quotations are used, have they followed appropriate conventions?
Grammar, punctuation and spelling
Are tenses used consistently?
Do subjects and verbs agree?
Is punctuation complete, accurate and consistent?
Are spellings correct and consistent, e.g. UK or US spelling?
Visual and other elements
Are these clear, complete and correct? Are they appropriately labelled? Do they meet the assignment’s requirements?
Do visual elements, e.g. graphs and tables, complement the text and are they referred to appropriately in the text?
Is there any undue repetition?
Turning feedback into feed-forward
There is always a danger that feedback is seen as something that relates to work that has been
completed. Feedback becomes useful when it is a spur to action. This involves turning feedback into feed-forward; reflecting on feedback and responding with specific points of action that you can apply in order to improve. For example, if your work had received this comment from your assessor:
About 15% of the words in your essay are quotations. This is far too much.
you could turn this into feed-forward:
In the future, I will paraphrase more and use quotations sparingly, reserving them to make a particularly strong point or for key definitions.
Feedback to staff and other students
The tutors and lecturers who set and mark your assignments are the best people to speak to about understanding the feedback you have been given and how this can translate into action on your part. Asking for such guidance is not just of benefit to you. It is part of the staff member’s job to provide effective feedback to students. If you are having problems in translating their feedback, it is likely that other students are too. Your feedback to staff can help them improve, which will be of benefit to students in the future.
Working with other students should also be a two-way process. Unless you are doing a group assignment, any submitted work should, of course, be your own. However, that does not prevent you from asking for guidance from other students along the way, discussing work with them, or offering them guidance. Giving advice is often as helpful as receiving it. Evaluating the work of others helps clarify your own thoughts about writing and encourages you to express them. Doing so often informs and improves your own writing. There is plenty of evidence from educational research that working with another student - whether they are more capable or less capable than you about the issue you are discussing - is likely to be of benefit to both (see, for example, Falchikov, 2001).
Making the most of feedback
Think about the assignments you have done over the last few months:
(a)Do you discuss your work with other students or ask their advice? Often/ sometimes/never
(b)Do you ask the staff member who marked the work to clarify any feedback they have given? Often/sometimes/never
(c)Have you spoken with another staff member, perhaps the person who set the assignment or a personal tutor, to clarify any feedback you have been given? Often/ sometimes/never
(d)Do you check through the comments you have received for a piece of work and translate them into action that can help you improve for future assignments? Often/ sometimes/never
(e)Do you keep a learning log or journal, or something similar? Yes/no
(f)What do you do with your completed and marked assignments? Where do you file them? Do you refer to them later?
(g)Review your answers to (a)-(f). What could you be doing to improve your opportunities to learn from feedback?