Why Your Essay Feedback Isn’t For Your Essay At All

Alan Cann calls this one ‘a bit depressing‘.

A new study found that:

“…a replacement of manually generated feedback with automatically generated feedback improves students’ perception of the constructiveness of the provided feedback substantially (undergraduate) or significantly (postgraduate).”

I don’t know why more respondents preferred automated feedback. Could it be because students aren’t frequently told that feedback is best used in order to improve on future assignments?

How clearly are students made aware of the need for ongoing assessment? If you don’t fully appreciate the way detailed and specific feedback can help you, the auto-generated feedback may seem a great idea. Get the grade and some general advice and walk away with all the info you think you need.

(photo by jepoirrier) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

(photo by jepoirrier) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On the face of it, an automatic report makes sense. Anything beyond that seems like a time commitment with little gain. There may seem no point poring over the details when the essay has already been submitted.

But feedback isn’t for the past, it’s for your future work. General advice and rough guidelines won’t do more than weakly nudge you in the right direction. For the best hope of improvement, you need to respond to detailed information that is tailored to your specific circumstances.

Detailed feedback may be hard to swallow when you have a lot to improve. That may also explain why some people would prefer automatically generated reports. They feel one step removed, so you almost have an excuse not to listen. It wasn’t aimed exclusively at you, so there’s wriggle room and you don’t need to take the advice so seriously.

Whatever flavour your feedback comes in, consider these points:

  • Have an open mind – You may not like to hear that you’re not perfect, but the more you put your head in the sand, the less likely you are to even get close to perfection. Make the opportunity to action problem areas rather than defend yourself.
  • Think of the future – Work out what you would have done to improve the essay and remember that so you can make a similar effort in your next piece of coursework.
  • Ask more questions – When you’re not sure what the feedback means, speak to your tutor for more information. The key is to get a detailed understanding of how you can improve, so keep searching until you have a plan on which steps to take.

Automatic feedback isn’t useless, but it needs context and it should never be the only type of feedback given. It’s not enough when the aim of higher education is to dig deep and explore the possibilities.

There are loads of things you can do with your assignments when you get them back. The grade is just one part of it. Check out these links from the TUB archives for more tips on using your essay feedback:

Keep Your Desk Tidy (No Matter How You Use It)

What is your main working space like?

When you sit down to study, what do you encounter?

A haven of minimal zen mastery? A sea of junk that’s pretty stormy at its best? A makeshift area of whatever space is currently available?

Because where you work matters. Presentation shouldn’t be left to your work. You need to get serious about your surroundings too!

A typical student's desk. Okay, okay, perhaps the mechanical stamp is a step too far...

A typical student’s desk. Okay, okay, perhaps the mechanical stamp is a step too far…

Some desks are (supposed to be) for nothing more than study. In reality, that leaves a lot of space begging to be used.

Other desks have multiple purposes. Work, entertainment, storage, you name it.

However you use your desk, let’s take a look at how to keep the space tidy.

For a dedicated work space:

Use your desk as a desk – A smooth surface is such an easy dumping target. It’s easy to succomb to temptation. Make sure you have a system in place and remove things you don’t physically need there.

Accessibility is key – Keep the important items nearby and find appropriate housing for everything. Boxes, holders and folders give active spaces for everything and keeps you focused on your work, rather than where your stuff is hiding. A focused mind is crucial, since it can take around 23 minutes to recover from interruptions. Ouch.

Love your space – You need a welcoming area to inspire you. But there’s a fine line between too sparse and too distracting. Have just enough to inspire and cheer you.

Have a 2-minute clean-up process – You know how quickly things can get messy. Clear up each evening so you’re ready for the following day. If you don’t create too much clutter, you could do a 10-minute clear once a fortnight instead. Think ‘little and often’. A short and simple system is easy to keep on top of when you get used to it. Make a habit of removing the rubbish straight away.

Not everyone has the luxury of a work station. When you use your desk for several purposes, remember these things:

Prepare your space – The stuff around you competes for attention and importance. Make sure you have enough space to do work. Arrange the space in advance as far as you can. A makeshift space at the last minute doesn’t help productivity at all.

Stick to priorities – With junk all over the place, you’re easily distracted. You can also spend too much time looking for necessary books and equipment when they aren’t laid out in a suitable place. Consider the priorities you need, not the priorities you want. When coursework and reading is important, ensure your desk is primed for that priority. Everything else takes second place. If other uses take over, it’s time to take action.

With no dedicated study space, a basic order is a must – I used to put everything in random piles so I could hide them out of sight very quickly. I soon realised that it’s far better to give everything a suitable home. It was easier for me and it looked even more presentable than keeping everything hidden.

You live and learn! And now you’ve read this, you can start as you mean to go on. You tidy, wonderful person, you!

Habits, Emotions & Locations

Not all habits are equal. The harder the task, the longer it’s going to take to form into a habit.

A simple act, such as drinking a glass of water, doesn’t take long to turn into a habit. It doesn’t take long for emotion to drain away from the action. But exercise and anything that requires a bit more effort and preparation will likely bring more emotional issues with them too. No wonder, then, it takes longer to form some habits than others.

Every teardrop is a waterfall (photo by dollen - CC BY-ND 2.0)

Make yoga a habit? Not as easy as drinking a glass of water each morning! (dollen – CC BY-ND 2.0)

Jeremy Dean sums it up nicely in his book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits“:

“…the act of performing a habit is curiously emotionless.” – p.9

This also explains why too much of a good thing can become boring. The more it becomes a habit, the less you attach any sentiment to it.

I was fascinated by another thing Dean had to say:

“…new surroundings don’t have all the familiar cues to our old habits.” – p.12

This could help reignite a drive for old habits in different places, as well as bringing new habits into play.

I have long believed that you shouldn’t limit yourself to a single place of study. Use all sorts of places. Your room, the library (changing seats and rooms too), the canteen, a campus bar, parks and uni seating areas, coffee shops, a quiet public space, a loud public space…

Moving around means you’re not in any ‘usual’ grounds. Your focus is on study and your mind is open to new things. Simply by altering your situation on a regular basis, you can gain mentally.

There’s more! As a bonus, your recall may develop as you build memories with each different setting in place. When you try to remember something, your first recollection may be sitting in the middle of a field when you covered the precise thing you need right now. Because you weren’t fixed to a single place of study, the concepts have another opportunity to come to the forefront of your mind.

While performing a habit dulls the emotions, a choice of different locations could help give a new lease of life to learning methods you thought had gone stale.

Not All Contact Hours Are Equal

“Contact hours don’t mean anything unless they are high quality, and you have a real relationship with your tutors.”

This comment is from Rachel Wenstone, National Union of Students (NUS) Vice-President for higher education. She makes an important point.

A piece in today’s Guardian newspaper says that the National Union of Students (NUS) is striving for better relationships between tutors and students. To make this work, universities need to focus on more than merely the number of contact hours given.

Some comments on the Guardian website complain that students shouldn’t have their hands held and should learn to be more independent rather than rely on academics to organise their every move.

photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

However, NUS isn’t looking for students to be wrapped up in cotton wool. The drive is to make contact hours count in a way that goes beyond numbers:

“The union is calling for greater transparency about the number and size of seminars and tutorials, and assurances that students’ predominant experience of higher education won’t be sitting among a sea of faces passively taking notes in a lecture theatre. It wants universities to provide much more detail about what students should expect when they arrive.” [Source]

This is a sensible next step, for these reasons:

The term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation, which is unhelpful

It doesn’t matter how many hours of contact time you get. The number is irrelevant.

Far more important is what takes place in that time to ensure nothing is lacking. Five hours may be adequate in some cases, twenty hours in others. Daily contact may be required for some, while once a week may be enough for others.

You need context to make sense of the situation.

Independent learning doesn’t mean a student works alone

Yes, a lot of independent work is done by the individual. But to be independent means finding your own direction, taking charge of what you do, planning ahead, asking for help when you need it rather than waiting to be told, and so on.

Independent learning is a difficult concept to define. But it isn’t about learning by yourself. The Higher Education Academy goes into depth about the term, showing that it can mean different things to different people.

I also recommend you read James Michie and a number of commenters discussing what they think independent learning is.

The word ‘relationship’ is important

Do you follow any celebrities on Twitter? Does that make you best friends with them? Of course not.

That’s why simply having contact time with a tutor is not enough, even if it’s precious one-to-one time. You need to build a strong connection over time. The more two-way understanding you can get from the experience, the more the tutor can help you and the more you can help the tutor. Both students and tutors need to be constructive in their efforts in order to make the most of that contact time. This is part of independent learning in action.

Learning requires conversation, communication, and discussion

Bringing the above points together, it’s clear that not all contact hours are equal. At least, not in terms of the raw figures. Passive contact time and active contact time are different. Both are necessary. Listening is important, and so is participating. What’s your own contact time split?

Learning–and many of the factors surrounding it–cannot be truly measured. Contact time, however it is dished out, is not a guarantee of better learning.

And with greater numbers of people going to university, personal contact time isn’t always easily organised. Large groups often take precidence due to financial, logistical, and time considerations.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, VC of Robert Gordon University, explains the importance of exercising caution before making any bold reaction:

“Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic clichĂ©, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.”

It’s understandable that contact hours are under so much discussion. With all the importance given to things like ‘value for money’ and ‘getting the best education’, contact hours are a convenient starting point. However, the focus must go further than the number of hours and, indeed, ticking boxes.

How do you view independent learning? (photo by striatic)

How do you view independent learning? (photo by striatic)