If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Giving Feedback

I've been thinking about how we learn to give feedback.   Giving feedback is a critical skill in academia. We don't usually call it feedback, instead we conduct peer reviews and we grade papers. But how are we actually taught to do these things?  I remember being given opportunities to review papers as a doctoral student but no one really showed me how it was done.  As for  grading, I was taught how to develop rubrics but there was no instruction on how to provide feedback for a poorly written assignment.  I was very lucky to have mentors and editors who provided extensive and painful reviews of my work.  This not only taught me to be a better writer but I believe it taught me how to provide constructive criticism to others.

I have taught peer reviews in both my undergraduate and graduate classes.  Depending on how much time I have to devote to the topic, my instruction ranges from just providing a framework to showing effective reviews and discussing the review process.  As much as I can, I assign writing in drafts to allow for feedback before the final product is turned in.  Often I can arrange it so that each student gets feedback from me as well as from a peer.  Sometimes the peer feedback is helpful but there are many times when it is not.

Regardless of how I instruct students to do peer reviews, good reviews seem to come from good writers.  If you have spent time working on your own writing it is easier to see what is not working in someone else's writing.  If you are clueless in your own writing, it is pretty difficult to provide a meaningful critique of someone else's work.  Or perhaps it is associated with the ability to read critically.  Good writers are usually good readers and learning to read as a writer is one of the best ways to improve your own writing.

Most of my students appreciate my feedback.  They don't enjoy it in the moment but it helps them get to the next step for that particular paper and for their writing overall.  On doctoral committees I am often the one providing the most indepth feedback.  I provide feedback on both issues of design and issues of writing.  Sometimes this means I end up reading more drafts than other committee members, even when I am the outside member.  I don't like the additional workload but I'd rather help out early than have to critique a poorly written dissertation right before a defense.

Some advisors provide very little feedback.  My gut reaction is that this is not a sign of laziness or disinterest in a student.  It does take a lot of time to provide useful feedback but I find most of my colleagues are willing to invest that time in their students, especially their doctoral students.  Instead I think it comes from discomfort with the process.  This is probably a combination of not liking to tear apart someone's work (although many people are comfortable doing this in a blind review) and not knowing how to give helpful feedback.  Like students, many academics struggle with their own writing.  Technically they may have stronger writing skills than their students (although as a group academics are not known for writing well) but they struggle to put words on paper on a consistent schedule.

It is interesting to me that we spend years receiving specialized training in our field but so very little attention is paid to developing skills for the tasks we need to do on a daily basis: teach, write, review.


Joan Kane Nichols said...

So true. I have found that having one clueless writer critique [the word used in my field] the work of another clueless writer can actually be damaging. Sometimes it's the strongest part of the writing that's dismissed as not up to par, which the writer, not knowing any better, then takes to heart.

Anastasia said...

I agree completely and I'd add that it frustrated me consistently how difficult it was to start a conversation about developing these skills when I was a graduate student. Of all my professors, I only found one who actually thought seriously about his writing and how to do it and only one (a different one) who actually thought critically about pedagogy. In a huge department, this struck me as pretty amazing and I found it frustrating because I thought that's what we were there to learn.

If academics are teachers and writers, how is it there are so many academics who are poor writers and worse teachers who still manage to be successful?

Annie said...

In the couple of writing courses I took, it was always frustrating when a number of people consistently gave little to no feedback, and were "off base" if they did. I found the most useful feedback came from the best writers, and it became a reciprocal process.

Still, we were not taught how to give feedback. It was intuitive, and my philosophy was always to be thorough and kind, helping someone get to the next step, as you said. I felt it was my obligation to share what I knew about writing technique, and my opinion about what was working or needed review.

With academic writing, it should be easier to judge if the concepts are valid, if the research is comprehensive enough, and if the issues are clearly described, so you'd think all professors could give constructive feedback.

I understand your position that you want to give useful feedback, so it must be frustrating when your colleagues aren't addressing the quality, leaving a student to "sink or swim." The students are lucky to have you on their committees, and it really doesn't matter what the other professors are doing, if you want to feel good about your own contribution. Still, it gives you a big, self-imposed responsibility!