Rose Horell: Feedback on Student Work

The post below represents the fourth and final installment of our D’Amour Student Fellows’ blog posts for the 2018-2019 academic year. In this essay Rose Horell, a junior English major with a minor in Women’s Studies, gives a student’s perspective on the feedback that professors give on student essays.

Most students will agree that receiving feedback on their work is an emotional experience. Whether that emotion is positive or negative usually depends on the teacher’s approach to giving feedback. There’s hardly anything more frustrating than seeing a paper full of check marks followed by an inexplicably low grade; and there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a professor’s enthusiastic agreement with your argument accompanied by a grade you hardly dared to hope for. I once almost cried because a professor rated my writing as “very very outstanding.”

Not all emotions in this process are so positive. Disappointment, anger, frustration, and anxiety are among the mix.  These emotions can make it difficult for students to make good use of whatever feedback the student does get. Initial prompt anxiety plays a big part as well. If students feel they lack the information they need, or lack the ability to seek out that information, motivation almost immediately decreases.

Learning is inherently tied to a variety of emotions. Through more deliberate work, however, we might be able to maximize the positive emotions and minimize negative ones.

Assignment Sheets

The paper-writing process is most frustrating for students who have difficulty interpreting the professor’s expectations. Without a complete understanding of the expectations of the assignment, a student can hardly expect to do well on the paper.

Communication between student and professor is crucial during the paper-writing process. The student is responsible for seeking any clarification they might need, and the professor should be available to students and responsible for effectively explaining their expectations.

The clearest prompts will indicate the length of the paper (either by page length or word count), as well as clearly and concisely outlining what is expected of the student for the paper. Some prompts require a more detailed outline, but–depending on the structure of the class–it might be appropriate to leave some room for interpretation.

I’ve found that there’s more room for the student’s independent thinking in classes with a clear foundation in the text. If the class devotes their time to one single text (or author) at a time, a paper might be a good way for the student to explore their own interests in the text and prove what they’ve learned. This method has worked really well in my literature classes, where we devote a lot of time to that individual text, and then have an opportunity to independently explore it in a paper. With this method, however, the professor will need to be more available to the student to help flush out a thought that will be appropriate for the length of the assignment.

If the paper topic attempts to explain a more abstract concept that is discussed through multiple texts or unites a common thread, students generally do better with a more structured outline which identifies the different points that should be covered. This method seems to work really well in classes like history so it’s clear how much of the paper should be devoted to what aspects of the topic. If you tell me just to write about World War II, I don’t know if I should care more about the causes, ideologies, methods of warfare, or consequences. A series of questions or points that clearly define the parameters will help the student write a clear and effective paper.

Constructive Criticism

Feedback either gives students affirmation that their time has been well-spent, or provides the opportunity to continue learning and improving upon their preexisting knowledge.

What was most or least effective in my writing? What did I do well? What do I need to improve? Constructive criticism is crucial to this process. A poor grade does not always equate to negative emotions; if there’s good constructive criticism there is hope for future improvement.

Marking inconsequential grammar or structural errors doesn’t really teach us much, unless this is English comp. and you’re trying to fill some deficit in basic grammar that should’ve been covered in high school.

Criticism is much more constructive if it addresses a key issue with organization or a misunderstanding of the context which affected the quality of the paper. And it should be noted that there’s a difference between a student misunderstanding the topic and the professor simply disagreeing with their argument. The priority should be that the student can clearly and effectively support their argument. Students often feel unjustly penalized for not agreeing with the professors interpretation or opinion.

Timing

In addition to the nature of the feedback itself, the manner in which it is returned seems to be the cause of some stress as well. First and foremost, the papers should be passed back as soon as possible. We know professors are busy, but feedback is most useful when the paper is still fresh. The longer I have to wait, the less I care about that paper.

If papers are returned, or even just mentioned, at the beginning of class it can be extremely distracting. I’ve often found myself unable to properly focus on a lecture because I’m too busy thinking about what the professor thought about my assignment. I prefer when the papers show up at the end of class before I have time to stress out about my grade. It can be hard to hold students’ attention at the end of a class period, but the students who are invested in the feedback process will pay attention.

Another good strategy is to post or email the grades the day before class (with the expectation that the student can contact the professor for more feedback), which will allow enough time for the most immediate anxiety of paper feedback to dissipate. This might drag on the feedback process longer than necessary in some cases, but giving students the opportunity to seek out and discuss the feedback can make the process more deliberate.

TL;DR

Paper feedback is largely situational. There is no universally good approach, but some are definitely preferable. Avoid creating situations that leave students wondering about their grade or what they might have done wrong.

Overall I think the most important thing is that the student feels comfortable working with the professor. The professor needs to be accessible to the student throughout the process. Students like to know the professor will support them from the time they get the prompt until they get the grade back. The professor is as much responsible for helping their students learn as the student is responsible for learning.