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!