Writing engaging feedback
Dr Neil Sutherland, Associate Professor in Education, UCL School of Management on writing engaging feedback.
26 January 2023
Engaging students with their feedback
Contemporary research continually reminds us that the tone of feedback that students receive has a great influence on their engagement with feedback. That which is seen as overly negative, critical and ‘harsh’ can negatively impact the perceived efficacy and accuracy of the marking process, as well as the likelihood of longer-term learning. When leading on modules we often know of the pressures associated with the timeliness of feedback, and perhaps the importance of being thorough and specific, but how do we educate our markers so that they are also wrapping up their comments in a way that students would perceive as helpful? That is, how can we educate our markers to see the value of not only getting the content of feedback right, but also the form and tone?
For most markers, our ‘training’ took place during our own studies. Throughout Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees we ourselves received a variety of different types of feedback and started to learn our craft here – the implicit criteria for what we felt was fair, just and reasonable.
However, not only does this experience give us just a partial (and in some cases, skewed) view, but it also tends to stop when we begin our teaching journey. During our careers in teaching, how often do we or our markers actively read, digest and learn from others’ feedback? How often do we deliberately take the time to reflect on our own feedback and the opportunities and problematics ahead?
Teaching observations are a well-known way of developing tacit pedagogic skills, so why do we not try to emulate this with marking skills?
Share examples of marker feedback
One simple practice is to share examples of marker feedback in a workshop for your marking team.
In UCL's School of Management we run a discussion group centred on three specific examples: a piece of feedback that is sparse and unhelpful; another that is helpful but overly critical; and finally one that acts as a critical friend.
The attendees have the opportunity to read and provide feedback on the documents, in terms of how they felt messages were conveyed, and the extent to which they felt that the tone impacted the message. In advance, we provide several readings which primes them to discuss the complexities of writing good feedback.
For example, this piece which outlines seven principles of good feedback practice, this which discusses the impact of an informal tone (and emoji use), and this WONKHE article about a values-based approach to marking and avoiding dangerous assumptions. Following this exercise, markers also get the (optional) opportunity to share a piece of feedback that they have written, for analysis by the rest of the group.
Through this exercise and discussion, markers obtain a number of benefits:
- They are placed on the receiving end of feedback and are encouraged to reflect on the experience of reading the words of another who has made a judgement on your work. In occupying the subject-position of the student, the exercise serves as a useful reminder that each piece of feedback that we provide makes up a significant proportion of the students’ experience (despite it being one out of many that day for the marker!)
- Secondly, it gives the opportunity to learn the kinds of implicit and explicit techniques for writing feedback that has an appropriate tone. What phrasings did we see in the examples that were particularly helpful or triggering? What are some linguistic tools for re-framing a problem with a student’s work, to something more constructive? What language and words might others use that you could incorporate into your own work?
Taken together, the exercise can benefit the further development of our marking teams. It underscores the importance of not only spending time with each script, but developing the concrete tools and methods for finding appropriate phrasings and wordings. Even more broadly, it reminds markers that tone has a significant impact on student engagement with feedback, and is worthy of reflection and exploration.
Top tip: The bedrock of teaching and learning in Higher Education is centred around building good relationships. We spend a lot of time with our teaching teams discussing good pedagogic practice in the classroom, but we also need to ensure that we build safe internal spaces for teams to be able to discuss their needs for improvement, anxieties and potential blindspots.
Often during a module we sideline these discussions, but in bringing them to the forefront, Module Leaders can be more active in determining what support and development marking teams need.
The example offered here is just a snippet into the kind of activities we can easily introduce to our teams – not only to improve consistency, standardisation and student satisfaction, but also to help to further support our teams in their academic careers.
MacKay, Jill. Hughes, Kirsty. Marzetti, Hazel. Lent, Neil. & Rhind, Susan. (2019) ‘Using National Student Survey (NSS) qualitative data and social identity theory to explore students’ experiences of assessment and feedback’ Higher Education Pedagogies, 4:1, 315-330 (open access).
A contemporary exploration, with qualitative examples, of student experiences with feedback in Higher Education. The piece delves into issues of building stronger bridges between staff and students, and how to develop more inclusive feedback that encourages dialogue, perceived relevance, and satisfaction.
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