How to provide better essay feedback
Effective essay feedback is clear, specific, and timely. Feedback should help students to reflect and continually build upon their learning for future assignments. During a busy term, it isn’t always easy to provide feedback in the quantity and format that students demand, and it is often challenging to help students to act upon it! How can we provide better essay feedback for students? Here are some pointers.
Offer formative feedback in class
Formative feedback can really help students to improve their essay writing. Summative (post-hand-in) feedback has many useful functions – for instance, justifying grades – but by definition it cannot help students improve that essay before handing it in. In my experience, many students do not engage with feedback from previous assignments because those tasks are already completed. The students move on to the next essay without a backwards glance.
If they can see how they might improve their grade with the current essay-writing task, students will be more motivated to read and act upon any feedback. Whenever you can arrange feedback opportunities for work-in-progress, even (especially!) if it is just an introductory paragraph or a bullet-pointed plan, try to do so. For free downloadable lecturer and student resources – including classroom feedback activities – take a look at the Brilliant Essays companion site.
Enlist peer review
You can enlist peer review to maximise students’ exposure to the skill of essay-writing. To help students get the most out of the feedback they offer each other, you need to model what good feedback looks like. In my experience, 90% of my students struggle to offer any criticism at all, while 10% go in with a sledgehammer! You should tell students what constructive criticism looks like: clear, actionable points for improvement, coupled with sufficient positivity to soften the blow.
Have students act as discussants for each other, as we would do at academic conferences. Even if students read only a small extract from each other’s work, providing feedback for others is an invaluable experience. One way to do this is through a task I call Introduction Blitz. Invite students to read the first paragraph of their essay aloud to the class – no more. The class assesses the quality of the introduction by answering the following questions:
If you have enough time to ask students to read an entire essay, rather than just an introduction, you could help students offer feedback to each other through an exercise I call Mini-Tutorial. Pair students up and ask them to swap essays on the same question. Within the pairs, ask students to read their partner’s essay and answer the following questions:
You should engage in these exercises alongside students so that you can guide the conversation. Intervene if students miss key points, or overemphasize relatively superficial considerations (poor grammar and spelling, annoying as those slips can be!) instead of substantive ones (quality of argument and evidence). You know your marking criteria well; show them to your students.
Create an Examiner’s Report
Of course, students should receive individualised feedback to pinpoint their personal strengths and weaknesses as essay-writers, but generic feedback can also be valuable. Question by question, it is helpful for students to know what others have done when tackling the same essay task. What were the characteristics of stronger essays on this question, and which sorts of essays produced weaker responses? Don’t embarrass students by providing any identifying details, but help them benchmark their own essay within the field in general terms: ‘Stronger essays did X, or thought about the implications of Y; weaker essays ignored the question’s steer toward Z.’
An Examiner’s Report, written after a batch of essays has been marked, tells students exactly what a good and bad essay for each question looked like, with (anonymous) concrete examples, as well as providing an overview of the quality of responses for each question and the essay task as a whole. Students can read their own personal feedback in light of the Report. Such feedback reveals more about what the tutor is looking for and helps students to contextualise their responses.
Save time, so you can make time
Providing feedback becomes a time-consuming and mind-numbing chore when many students make similar mistakes. Instead of repeating the same advice on separate scripts, it is helpful to compile a list of essay howlers to which students can be directed quickly and efficiently. I find that the top five essay-writing errors are:
1. Lack of specificity in introductory paragraphs: Many introductions set an essay up for a weak grade because they are vague about content.
2. Unnecessary verbiage: Telling readers in a generic fashion that the essay needs to define terms, provide evidence, and elucidate causal mechanisms, or offering lots of basic background information, rather than getting on with the actual argument.
3. The dreaded seesaw: A student often identifies both sides of the question (‘on the one hand X, on the other hand Y’) and tries to insert some balance by asserting one side, followed by the word ‘however’, and then asserting the other side. The effect is a seesaw, leaving the reader without a clear idea of where the author stands.
4. A smattering of illustrations, but no evidence: Most essays identify some sort of evidence, but it often comes in the form of anecdotes, superficial mentions, or examples offered without context.
5. Excessive deference to the scholarly literature: Students weaken their arguments with unnecessary hedges (‘arguably, it seems to be relatively clear that… ’) or simply describe a scholar’s views, rather than telling the reader what the student thinks about that scholarly perspective.
Once you have compiled your list of your students’ common essay problems, you will have more time to provide personalised feedback on individual essays. Make the list available to students before hand-in and direct their attention to items on the list as you find them. Then, instead of writing out: ‘this introductory paragraph lacks specificity’ fifty times, you can simply reference ‘point #1’. You’ll give yourself more time and space to provide personalised feedback for each individual student – and save some sanity at marking time!
It's #UniMentalHealthDay today! Here are 4 practical ways to reduce students' anxiety about essay writing
4 practical ways to reduce students’ anxiety around essay-writing
Student anxiety about university study is widespread. A 2019 poll of 37,500 students at British universities found that almost nine in ten (87.7%) struggle with feelings of anxiety. Students spend more money than ever on their education, and put themselves under increasing pressure to perform well. But anxiety can make students risk-averse in their essay writing and prevent them from achieving at the highest levels. Most students I encounter are hard-working and ambitious, yet worried about moving away from school-taught formulae that produce boring essays and vanilla grades. As tutors, how can we help students manage their anxiety around essay writing? How can we encourage them to write with greater creativity, confidence, and control? Here are four suggestions:
1. Demystify essay writing
Writing brilliant essays is a creative process. Students need to think afresh about a scholarly puzzle and craft their own answer to a question. Such creativity cannot be forced. Emphasize the fact that there is no ready-made formula for essay writing, and no single ‘correct’ interpretation. Students should know that moving up from a 2.1 to a First requires flexible, original thinking about a question. You can reduce student anxiety and demystify the essay writing process by being open about your own essay-writing journey:
You might even have some of your own undergraduate work sitting in dusty folders or buried on your hard drive. Dig it out! I have a few examples of my own first-year essays that I share with my students. I ask them to critique my first-year self and offer suggestions for improvement. I find that students are more willing to engage in constructive peer review and evaluate their own essays if they have had a chance to criticize my imperfect teenaged efforts.
We need to show students that nobody arrives at university with the miraculous ability to write brilliant essays. Everybody is learning. We are a community of scholars. And it is okay to make mistakes.
2. Make it as practical as possible
Induce confidence in your students by being as practical about the essay-writing task as possible: break the process down into manageable steps and use students’ natural understanding of everyday language to guide their initial thinking. Deploy concrete examples to show what abstract marking concepts – such as ‘original thinking’ or ‘authoritative interpretation’ – actually mean in practice. If you start by asking students to spot hidden assumptions in ordinary speech, you can reduce their anxieties when confronted with unfamiliar essay questions. For instance, if you ask ‘Is this course fun or tedious?’ students should be able to spot the false dichotomy (the options are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive: some parts of the course might be fun and others tedious, or the course might be neither). If you ask ‘how did you cheat in the final examination?’ students should be able to identify the assumption underlying the question: that you did in fact cheat. After you have run through the assumptions embedded in ordinary language, you can move on to essay questions:
Start early and often. Essay writing skills should be integrated into the course rather than bolted-on as deadlines approach. In my classes, every single seminar is an opportunity to tear apart essay questions. Once students have got the idea about paying close attention to question wording, this exercise takes only 5-10 minutes and is easily absorbed into a seminar timeframe. Students who can deconstruct and sceptically evaluate essay questions are usually less anxious about tackling new writing tasks.
3. Use skeleton slides
Seminar presentations can help reinforce essay writing skills if you provide the right sort of guidance. Without tutor-set parameters, student presentations can sometimes become a basic, boring, and entirely descriptive exercise. I use skeleton slides to encourage students to utilise higher-order evaluative and analytical skills. The slides prompt students to think carefully about a real question, rather than simply providing a generic overview of a topic. They contain the main elements of a good essay:
Skeleton slides reduce student anxiety by helping them learn the elements of essay-writing in a structured way. They aren’t a straitjacket: you should allow, and indeed encourage, students to reorganise and add to the slides as they require. Giving students prompts helps them feel more secure because it signals your intentions clearly, but without prescribing any particular answer or formula.
4. Offer regular opportunities for (managed) peer feedback
You can also reduce student anxiety by making time for students to read each-other’s work regularly in class, even if it’s just an introductory paragraph or essay plan. Make this a positive and useful experience for students by following these guidelines:
Students who regularly read and discuss each other’s work are usually less anxious about essay writing tasks because they have had plenty of opportunities to practice. As a tutor, you can help alleviate anxieties by ensuring the tone of the discussion stays supportive and constructive, and by signposting students to further resources. Check out the Brilliant Essays Macmillan companion site for free resources to help you – there you’ll find questions for classroom discussion, editable skeleton slides to distribute to your students (with a filled-out example version), and activities you can use in class.
By opening up about your own essay writing journey, breaking the task down into manageable steps, using prompts to signal your intentions, and encouraging the giving and receiving of constructive criticism, you can help reduce student anxiety – and inspire them to engage more openly and creatively with your essay questions. Good luck!