Feedback for Writing

Semester 2 has lots of writing in it. I supervise students in first, third, and (sometimes) fourth year as they write scientific pieces for various audiences.

It took me quite a while to figure out how I could improve their learning in this kind of setting. The whole point is that they do most of the work themselves, and students are usually rather good at finding sources of scientific content. I think the main way I can add value is by giving feedback in an approachable, well-timed, and actionable way. Here is how I try to do that:

  1. Build a Relationship Early - Getting critical feedback from a stranger is hard. I try to find out what the student wants to get out of the project (grades, skills), and to ask them how they’re finding things along the way.

  2. Focus on Structure and Argument - ‘Big Picture’ ideas often help to make sense of the small picture stuff. I have never understood a topic better for having my spelling corrected, though. The formal creation and construction of an argument is a precious training in thought; typos can be circled and left undiscussed.

  3. Ask for Subheadings Early - The chance to discuss the mechanics of slotting ideas together becomes harder when you are also reading text. Early intervention around structure is a high-impact piece of teaching. It also saves the heartbreak of cutting cul-de-sac paragraphs near the end.

  4. Ask for Small Sections Often - This does two things. 1. It lets me catch systematic mistakes early (which saves me time in the near-deadline bottleneck). 2. It helps the student set realistic continuous deadlines rather than unrealistic end-of-project ones. I always try to ask my students what they want to do for our next meeting; my go-to advice is that 200 (referenced) words/week is a strong pace for someone starting early.

  5. Rank Feedback - I like to make notes on work as I go through, but I allocate extra time to summarise and prioritise feedback. The question I ask myself is “what do they need to do to get the marks?” I then try to list the top three most important things they need to scoop the marks. It is uncomfortable to stop myself writing a fourth, but Winstone’s work on feedback suggests that the prioritisation is more valuable than total feedback coverage. This relies heavily on properly-aligned rubrics.

  6. Talk! - I try to give feedback in person at key moments (e.g. first section, final draft), though this is not always possible. Carless’ model of feedback-as-dialogue suggests that this is effective, but I suspect that it is also affective: it helps communicate that I care about this work and the student’s progress. Cognitively or otherwise, I feel that this helps direct the focus of feedback onto development rather than marks.