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Giving feedback

Give feedback in writing because most scholarly work is written.

Avoid using undefined verbs such as "improve" or "clarify" unless you can provide a brief example or explanation. Adding a statement about problems arising from the data or argument can help. As your feedback lengthens, organize it, e.g., into sections on concepts, organization, and grammar. Remember to affirm all the text's positive features. Reserve time for discussion, which can provide nuance, and which can help supervisees to remember the most important of your responses.


Remember that specific feedback accelerates learning.

Feedback is an essential part of the teaching and learning process, and both students and supervisors should view feedback as more than just "error correction." As part of the learning process, feedback needs to be specific, often detailed, and constructive. Vague and destructive comments (e.g., “This is nonsense”) do not explain or address the problem, whereas constructive comments (e.g., “Define X before introducing Y”) make specific suggestions that improve the writing more quickly, because they reduce trial and error.

Encourage students to revise immediately after getting feedback, because learning is more effective at that time (Brookhart, 2012).

Offer written or recorded feedback as an editor, instructor, and supporter.

It is important not to rely on verbal comments for feedback on writing. Give written comments with concrete, specific examples or actions to take for improvement. Comments can be made electronically using the “track changes” feature of Microsoft Word and equivalent software. Or, to retain some of the advantages of verbal communication, feedback can even be audio recorded using free software such as Audacity.

 There are three main forms of written feedback:

  • Referential (i.e., editorial, organizational and content comments)
  • Directive (i.e., suggestions for change, questions and instructions regarding change)
  • Expressive (i.e., praise, criticism, and opinion)

It can be especially helpful to both the supervisor and the student to organize written comments. The feedback can be broken down by level of abstraction: high-level content-oriented comments first, followed by mid-level stylistic and presentation comments, with low-level comments on syntax and grammar last. High-level comments might include your overall impression of the paper, offer suggestions for organization, potential extensions, or offer relevant references. Low-level comments are especially important for papers being submitted for publication, but should not be ignored in any type of writing. See the “Advice for advisors” section of the article How to succeed in graduate school [.pdf].

Start with written feedback and then discuss it.

Build on written feedback by discussing ideas and progress during regular meetings. Be prepared for these discussions by reviewing material beforehand. Don’t wait until the student comes to you with drafts to read; ask students to submit drafts or chapters to review at least a week before the meeting will take place. Consider taking notes during the meeting which can then be reviewed prior to the following meeting. Ensure that notes or other information discussed during meetings are confidential. For more ideas on this, consult the “Supervisory dilemma” and “Characteristics of effective supervision” chapters in the University of Western Ontario’s Western guide to graduate supervision  [.pdf].

It can be helpful for students to get feedback from other people in the field. Help students find other forums for receiving feedback by recommending conferences or other events where students can present their ideas and works in progress.

Look for other writing guides to read.

Useful references to help students with their writing include:

  • Kamler, B., & Thompson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervisors. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Thompson, P., & Walker, M. (2010). The Routledge doctoral supervisor's companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences. London: Routledge.

Myth: "I shouldn't have to repeat my feedback."

Feedback is ideally regular and must sometimes be repetitive, but with enough variation to ensure that the problem is not with the message. An effective tennis instructor would never say, "You've seen me demonstrate the serve, so I won't repeat it." Patient repetition can reinforce learning. If you notice that your supervisee is repeating an error, think about what you too can learn from the repetition.


Research plans and processes

Reviewing research plans and processes on a regular basis can be helpful for both the student and the supervisor. Supervision is especially important during the actual research phase, when students may encounter unexpected problems such as errors in data analysis, unexpected results, inaccessible field or research sites, or technological issues.

If a research problem has already been explored by another scholar, follow up with the appropriate reference for the student to read, and then discuss with the student whether or not the topic can be adjusted or if this scholar’s work has opened up new avenues of research relevant to the student’s interests.

Be flexible and available to discuss unexpected problems, but also establish early on in the student’s program a regular meeting schedule for reviewing research plans and progress. There should be at least one annual meeting between the student, supervisor, and the supervisory committee or other departmental representative to evaluate past progress and outline future steps and objectives.

Regular meetings and discussions can be opportunities not only for considering new developments but also, occasionally, for repeating feedback.

Repetition of feedback

Regular meetings will inevitably involve some repetition, whether a supervisee is remarking on an ongoing concern, or whether a supervisor is continuing to encourage a student. Reflect on the repetitive aspects of your work and ask yourself if the repetition is effecting a gradual change or if it is a sign of a lack of progress.

Vehvilainen (2009) observes that supervisors often repeat their feedback until their students understand and accept the feedback, and that on rare occasions students actively resist the feedback.

Overall progress to the degree

While students can work and enjoy working independently, many experience a desire for feedback on their overall progress on an ongoing basis. This is because they lack a broader perspective on institutional expectations and disciplinary norms of progress. Supervisors can provide this context, while also advising on the criteria which must be met for successfully completing qualifying exams, a thesis proposal, and dissertation as well as how to balance research, writing, teaching, and other scholarly roles. Different students respond best to different approaches, and different supervisors will also have different styles. It is important to find a balance that works in the student-supervisor relationship. It is helpful to consider how different styles will have an effect on aspects of feedback such as:

  • Amount of direction given to the student
  • Personal interactions and psychological support
  • Amount and type of criticism
  • Frequency of interaction
  • See also Supervisory styles

Meet early on in the student’s program to discuss and clarify these expectations of what can and should be accomplished, such as how often meetings should be held, the editorial role of the supervisor, and the level of independence of the student.

General guidelines for giving and receiving feedback

See Chapter 6 of Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors [.pdf] and the list by Kritsonis (2008) of Functions of the doctoral dissertation advisor [.pdf].

What kinds of feedback students want

They want feedback on defining their topics, designing their projects, analyzing findings, and their writing about existing scholarship. They report the most satisfaction with their supervisors when they get regular, constructive feedback not only on research but also on their progress through their academic programs, e.g., their planning for comprehensive exams, their drafting of thesis proposals, and their finalizing of opening remarks for their oral defence.


For some time now, the research has been clear that students report the importance of feedback to their progress. For instance, Kleuver (1997), drawing on an analysis of "all but dissertation" students and those who had graduated, reported lack of constructive feedback as a hindrance.

Students seek different kinds of feedback. Heath (2002) reported students sought supervisory guidance on: a) topic definition, b) research design and data analysis, and c) literature to be reviewed. Zhao et al. (2007), in another large study, corroborated the importance of feedback. The students most satisfied with their supervisors were the ones who reported receiving both (a) regular and constructive feedback on research and (b) regular and constructive feedback on progress towards the degree as well as direct assessment of progress. These studies also make the point that essential to the giving of feedback is the availability to meet.

Furthermore, according to Caffarella and Barnett (2000), face-to-face feedback is one of the ways of giving feedback most appreciated by students.

The text of this page is based on:

How McGill helps to ensure that feedback is prompt and frequent

The positive impact of frequent feedback is reflected in McGill's Student assessment policy [.pdf], which requires all courses to have more than one assignment per class. Beyond coursework, giving and receiving feedback to graduate students remains essential to their success throughout their programs and in their careers. The Guidelines and Regulations on graduate student advising and supervision state thatstudents should receive guidance and constructive criticism on their progress on a regular basis throughout the program.” Supervisors should establish regular, periodical meetings to review both short and long-term goals and the overall progress (including planning and writing) of students as they move through the program.


Acknowledgements: Original content adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Kristen Emmett and Joel Deshaye, April 2013.