Learning about our writing through feedback: giving and receiving

When we think about academic writing, generally, and how we might characterise it for students learning how to express their thinking at university, what might we tell them? This blog has discussed some of this here, and here, but let’s just say for the purposes of this post that we might tell students that academic writing is not vague – it has something specific to say, and generally it tends to try and say it as clearly, and concisely as possible. An excellent article I read recently has really helped me to better express a great deal of my advice to writers I work with on how to be less vague, and more focused. There is a lot of advice out there for writers on how to polish, strengthen and improve their writing.

But students, especially undergraduate students, find it difficult to turn all of this advice into improved writing – at least, this takes some time, and they tend to need a good deal of guidance and opportunity to practice, make errors, and receive feedback that can help them to avoid those errors in future writing. Theresa Lillis wrote in her 2001 book on student writing that essay writing advice is often most helpful to writers who already have some experience of writing in the right sorts of ways. Fresh out of school, with no real sense of what an academic argument is or how to create one in a piece of research-led writing, most undergraduate students read essay writing advice with a sense of overwhelmed confusion, and their attempts to put the advice into practice tend to produce different kinds of results, some more successful than others.

Lucy writing advice

Image credit: Charles Schultz

So, how can we assist students, practically and practicably, with their writing? How can we show them what better and poorer writing looks like in our disciplines or fields of study (rather than in a generic way), and how to turn the weaker aspects of their writing into strengths over time? Feedback, I hear you say. Yes, I would agree, but feedback from whom? Many lecturers would groan on hearing this word ‘feedback’, especially those who teach increasingly large classes in disciplines where students need to write a great deal, the more the better for their learning (think here especially of the humanities and many of the social sciences). With large classes and reams of written work to mark, lecturers often skimp on the detailed written feedback, or give only the most cursory comments, perhaps supplementing this with ‘global’ feedback in a lecture for the whole class on common errors and misunderstandings. This tends to mean that students keep making these errors, and the development of their thinking, writing and ability to create and critique knowledge in the discipline takes far longer to progress.

Yet, feedback is what all writers need. Critical, thoughtful, clear feedback that praises what is well-considered and realised in our writing, and points to what has been less well realised and needs further revision and rewriting. Whether in larger or smaller classes, in disciplines where students write a great deal, and are expected to improve with each piece of writing, feedback is essential. Preferably individual feedback that engages students in thinking differently about their writing, although this is often a logistical challenge for many lecturers and tutors.

Peer feedback, then, has been used as a partial solution to these challenges in many university courses globally. Students give feedback on writing to their peers, either in classes or in tutorials, in structured tasks that try to guide students on what kinds of feedback to give and how to give it well. Many of these instances of peer feedback work well, probably as many struggle to achieve their goals. Giving constructive, kind-but-critical, and helpful feedback on a piece of writing – feedback that will make it possible for the writer to make effective revisions – is hard work. Telling someone a paragraph they have written has no point is not that hard, but giving them advice that helps them to understand why there is no point, and how to both create a point and then reconstruct a paragraph that makes sense within the piece of writing – that is much more challenging. Many students, especially undergraduates, need guidance in order to provide their peers with this kind of feedback – this is a practice that needs to be learned, and that can be taught or scaffolded.

There are many, many research studies that have been published on feedback – the principles of good feedback, how to work with feedback as a writer, how to structure peer feedback-giving exercises, why feedback is ignored by students and how to get them to pay attention, and so on and so on. One of the questions asked in many of these studies goes something like: ‘how do we get students to learn from feedback, and improve their writing?‘ (The corollary of this seems to be ‘why don’t students learn from the feedback they get?’) One paper I read recently on a peer feedback-giving exercise revealed an unexpected finding in the students’ evaluation of the exercise: that they learned more about their own writing from giving feedback to their peer than they did from the feedback they received.

This is interesting, because many of the studies I have read focus almost solely on what to do with feedback received, and how to make sure that feedback givers give better feedback, so that the receiver can do more with it to improve their writing. But what of the lessons about writing that feedback-givers can consciously learn, and act on in their own writing? To return to the example above, if you need to give a writer feedback on how to improve a pointless paragraph, or one that doesn’t quite develop its point, you may find yourself reflecting on this aspect of your own writing and seeing it differently. Going back to it with fresher eyes, you may find yourself revising your own paragraphs, ensuring the the points you are making expand your argument, and are well supported with evidence.

Students can learn from the feedback they receive if it is given in understandable, actionable ways. But creating peer feedback-giving exercises in writing programmes, courses, or centres provides an excellent opportunity not only for students to learn how to give useful feedback, but also to learn more about their own writing through being asked to read, think about, and comment on a peer’s writing with the aim of giving them clear, constructive and useful comments and advice.

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Giving feedback that encourages engagement with writing and thinking

Image from Linchi Kwok’s blog

We have posted on this blog about feedback this year already, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what counts as useful feedback and what kinds of feedback constrain rather than enable a writer’s further engagement with their own writing. So, I thought a less ‘academic’ take on feedback might be useful.

I am a student, too, as readers of this blog will know, so I am currently getting and reading and working with a lot of feedback from my supervisor, and while some of the comments are tough because of all the extra thinking they ask me to do, all of them are actually helpful. But more than that, they encourage me to go deeper in terms of my engagement with and thinking about my own writing. They ask me to rethink things I have written; to question connections between parts of the text that I may have said are there but are not clear to the reader; to make links clearer and to edit out repetitive or vague comments that add little to my text or make it less coherent. They ask me to think, and to question and to challenge myself as a writer to grow and learn from errors and missteps. This kind of feedback, I think, is ideal. Writers only become more capable and more confident as they write, and they need to know what their readers think, and where the writing makes sense and where it does not. Further, if there are errors and missteps they need advice on how to correct these and get the writing onto the right path.

Feedback, then, needs to do two things: encourage further engagement between the writer and their writing, and offer useful advice on how to make that engagement constructive. Feedback that just tells you things are wrong, or vague or irrelevant is at best unhelpful and at worst demotivating, especially when no advice is given on what you could do differently to meet the reader or marker’s standards. It discourages students from doing more thinking, and reading and writing. It constrains further learning and growth. But this constructive, helpful and engaging feedback is not easy to give, and it can take time. It requires the reader to read carefully, and to step into the role of a critical friend, rather than just an assessor. The reader needs to think about what the writer has tried to achieve, and comment both on what has worked well, and also what has not. Rather than simply pointing out mistakes the reader needs to engage the writer, asking questions that will guide their thinking (‘could this paragraph make more sense if it came before the previous one rather than after? Think about the ideas you are linking together here’). The reader needs to offer advice that gives the writer choices (‘I would cut this section out because you have made this point already in the first part of the chapter. Maybe you could blend the best pieces of each section together to make one strong section earlier on’). The reader needs to encourage the writer realistically, so that hey know where they are in terms of the standards set and also what they still need to do to reach them (‘This is a good start, and the introduction and conclusion are well-written. However, parts of your argument are not well supported by evidence from the readings, so you will need to revise these, supporting your claims with relevant information where needed’).

The reality, often, is that when we hand in a piece of work we really want to be finished with it because we always have something else to move on to. Feedback, however, and the revisions that it asks for, are a necessary part of writing, whether you are writing an essay, a thesis or a novel. Mediating feedback by talking to students about it and explaining your own thinking as their reader is one way of foregrounding the role feedback plays in the writing process, and the fact that writing is a process and not just a product. Making time and finding creative ways of giving this kind of feedback can pay dividends in getting students, slowly, to learn how to read feedback, think about it and revise their writing. There are many different ‘tools’ you can use, like getting students to work out assignment criteria with you and give guided peer feedback, or getting students to submit essays on Google Drive and doing oral feedback as you read their essays. Whatever the tool, and however much feedback you give or however often, a guiding principle should be that it gets the writer to a next step in their writing process, and facilitates their own further engagement with their writing.