Feedback and self-assessment

Foster a safe and comfortable space for feedback discussions

Be sure to dedicate enough time so that the discussion about feedback is not rushed and everyone can express their ideas. Be aware of body language that may indicate understanding, acceptance, confusion, or resistance towards the feedback, and practise active listening. Feedback can be given from supervisor to student, from student to supervisor, between peers or colleagues, or from the larger community.

 

Getting feedback from your supervisor

Getting regular and constructive feedback from supervisors has been shown to be a major factor in students’ satisfaction with the supervisory relationship (Zhao, Golde, & McCormick, 2007).

Students often look for feedback on:

  • topic definition;

  • research design;

  • literature to be reviewed;

  • data analysis;

  • written documents, including manuscripts and theses; and

  • general degree progress.

(CAGS, 2013a; Heath, 2002; Zhao et al., 2007)

When discussing expectations with your supervisor, talk about your expectations regarding feedback:

  • What type of feedback would help you for each of the areas listed above?

  • How will you ask for and receive feedback (e.g., individual meetings, group meetings, email)?

  • How often will you ask for feedback?

  • How long will your supervisor need to give you feedback after you’ve asked for it, and how long do they expect you to take to implement it (e.g., by revising a draft)?

  • Keep in mind that research has shown that learning is most effective if revisions are made immediately after feedback is received (Brookhart, 2012).

Here are some suggestions for efficient and productive feedback meetings (CAGS, 2013a/b; Vehvilainen, 2009):

  • Agree on the motivation for the feedback meeting, including what problems are relevant and worthwhile (e.g., is the meeting focused on big-picture concepts or technical specifics?).

  • Bring a prepared agenda to the meeting, which includes issues that both parties want to discuss.

  • Express your level of understanding of your supervisor’s comments. If something is not clear, ask for more information or justification.

  • Be aware of resistance strategies.

    • Especially when much time and effort has been put into the work, it may be tempting to sway the discussion to tweaking what has been done rather than considering other alternatives. This may be observed as dismissing undesired discussion topics, bringing up preferred topics, or defensiveness. If you notice yourself heading in this direction, remember that the goal of the feedback discussion is to help you learn and produce your best work. The path leading to this goal may not always be the easiest, shortest or most desirable, but will be worth the effort when the goal is achieved.

Click here to learn more about the supervisor’s perspective on giving feedback.

Giving feedback to your supervisor

Feedback is not only given from supervisor to supervisee – supervisees can also give feedback to their supervisors regarding their experience in the supervisory relationship. Especially since there is a lack of formal assessment of supervisors (Lee & McCormick, 2011), feedback from students can help supervisors identify their strengths and weaknesses and continually improve their supervisory practice.

You may feel embarrassed or nervous about giving feedback to your supervisor, but this can be reduced by agreeing on a frequency and format for this feedback when discussing expectations with your supervisor, and viewing it as a reflection on the learning process rather than a critique. When giving feedback, think about the type of feedback you like to receive. For many, this includes positive comments acknowledging what was done well, and constructive criticisms with justification and suggestion of an alternative.

One suggestion for organizing your thoughts before thinking about giving feedback to supervisors is to use the Start-Stop-Continue method (Strobino, 1997). Divide a blank page into three columns and to label them as follows:

  1. Please start...

  2. Please stop...

  3. Please continue...

List activities in each column. For example:

  1. "Please start responding to my emails sooner because I feel that would help me make more timely progress on my project.”

  2. "Please stop scheduling social events with the other students at 5 p.m. because I have a family commitment at that time and can never attend. 8 p.m. would work better for me."

  3. “Please continue being available every Monday afternoon for individual meetings, because this ensures that anything we need to discuss gets addressed quickly.”

Use these notes when giving feedback to your supervisor to ensure that you include positive and constructive comments.

For more information on this topic from the supervisor’s perspective, see the Feedback from supervisees page.

Self-assessment: Giving yourself feedback

Receiving feedback from others is a crucial aspect of graduate research, but regularly practising self-assessment and giving yourself feedback can also contribute positively to your learning process. Self-assessment through reflection helps you identify strengths and weaknesses by examining your own practice. It generally consists of a systematic cycle (Kolb 1993):

Self-assessment can be practised for many aspects of graduate studies, including the following.

  • Research and degree progress

  • The supervisory relationship

    • The Student profile proforma from the University of Oxford allows for reflection on many aspects of student progress and the supervisory relationship by both student and supervisor

  • Time management and work-life balance

    • This website from the University of Oxford has suggestions and tools for reflection on time management

Getting feedback from peers and the larger community

Below are some opportunities to get feedback outside of the supervisory relationship.

  • Discussions with peers, either through informal conversations or structured writing groups such as the peer writing groups offered by Graphos at the McGill Writing Centre

  • The Would You Fund It? workshop offered by SKILLSETS, where students’ funding applications can be reviewed by former Tri-council or Quebec committee reviewers

  • Presentations at meetings and conferences, where you can discuss your research with students and professors from local and international institutions

  • Communication with a mentor or your supervisory committee

How can you respond to critical feedback?

Receiving critical feedback is not always easy. Try to see it as a way to improve, rather than as a discouragement. When you get feedback from your supervisor or others, remember that their goal is for you to learn and continue to develop your skills, and for you to produce your best quality work.

 

The difficulty in receiving critical feedback is seen in this quote from a student (Cafarella 2000):

“I felt that the paper was really coming together, but after receiving the second feedback, boy was I wrong. The feelings I had... first [I was] mad, really mad. Then I met with [the professor] later in the week, I had cooled down. After I met with [the professor], I knew I had to start all over again.“

Due to the power differential between supervisor and supervisee, some feedback may be misinterpreted. For example, a comment intended as a suggestion may be interpreted as a demand, or a critical comment intended to improve the work may be interpreted as a criticism on the student’s abilities in general. Cultural differences between supervisor and supervisee may also be a factor in how feedback is asked for, given, and interpreted.

This power differential also plays a role when conflicting feedback is received. Conflicting feedback can come from co-supervisors, a supervisor and a member of your supervisory committee, or between members of the committee. This is described by Dr. Alison Crump in a blog post on The Thesis Whisperer:

“What happens when your supervisor says “You need to add a section/ chapter on X.” And a committee member says, “No way, that doesn’t fit. You need to take out this whole section on Y.” As a grad student, you are in a lower position of power than your supervisor and committee members. You have to navigate some tricky power politics, and still write something you believe in.”

 

Here are some questions to reflect on which may help prevent misinterpretation of feedback and assist in better handling of critical or conflicting feedback.

 

  • How can you determine whether a comment is a suggestion or a requirement?

    • Are you comfortable asking your supervisor to explicitly distinguish between them when giving feedback, such as by using a different font on a written comment?

    • What will you do if it is not clear whether a comment is a suggestion or requirement, but you agree with the comment? What if you disagree with the comment?

 

  • How do you react when you receive a written critical comment? A verbal critical comment?

    • Is it possible that misinterpretation due to the power differential, or interpreting the comment as a personal criticism rather than aimed at improving the work, are factors in your reaction?

    • How can you reframe your thoughts about critical feedback to reduce the effects of these factors?

 

  • What will you do if you receive conflicting feedback from co-supervisors or your supervisory committee? Are you comfortable bringing this up in discussions? How much of a role would your opinion on the issue play, relative to the opinions of those who gave the feedback?

Strategies for maximizing the effectiveness of feedback

In-person meetings and the use of expressive feedback can help optimize the feedback experience for both supervisor and supervisee. Time from degree start to first written feedback, frequency of feedback, and including overall feedback in addition to in-text comments are also important factors in satisfaction with the feedback experience.

 

Supervisor to student feedback

The importance of in-person meetings for student-supervisor feedback has been consistently reported (Cafarella, 2000; Heath, 2002; Zhao, 2007), along with the importance of frequent feedback (CAGS, 2013a; Kleuver, 1997) to avoid receiving feedback on fundamental issues at the later stages of a project (Vehvilainen, 2009). More experience in giving and receiving feedback has been shown to reduce fears associated with feedback and improve confidence (Cafarella, 2000), as shown by this quote from a student:

“[Receiving critiques] boosted my perception of myself as a scholarly writer. The verbal and written feedback I received regarding my thoughts and writing about the topic added validity to what I perceived to be an issue worth studying.” (p. 46-47)

Initiating the feedback process early in the degree has been shown to increase satisfaction with the feedback received. Heath (2002) found that 70% of students who submitted written work for feedback in the first month of their degree were very satisfied with the received feedback, but only 48% of those who submitted their first written work for feedback more than a year after starting their degree reported the same level of satisfaction.

In addition to the method of giving and receiving feedback, the types of feedback used can affect how they are received. Kumar and Stracke (2007) list three main types of feedback on written documents.

  • Referential: editorial, organizational and content comments

  • Directive: suggestions for change, questions and instructions regarding change

  • Expressive: praise, criticism, and opinion

They found that expressive feedback was the most beneficial, and including overall feedback in addition to in-text comments was especially useful.

Student to supervisor feedback

Lee and McKenzie (2011) studied responses to the Research Student Feedback Survey, which included questions for students about their supervisory relationships. The questions in their survey, as listed below, can guide students when giving feedback to their supervisors.

  1. How would you describe your work with your principal supervisor in developing, refining, designing and conducting your research?

  2. How would you describe the role of your supervisor in managing the stages of the research and your candidature?

  3. How would you describe the role of your supervisor in assisting you to build the intellectual communities relevant for your research? This might include other students in your faculty, within the university or elsewhere, as well as academic and professional networks of people working in the area of your research.

  4. How would you describe the role of your principal supervisor in assisting you to develop your capabilities as a person who graduates with this level (master's or PhD) of qualification?

Pearson and Kayrooz's (2004)  Reflective Supervisor Questionnaire gives additional characteristics of supervisors that students can consider in this feedback.

  • Expert coaching: providing intellectual challenges, advice, and feedback on research

  • Facilitating: offering guidance through the timelines of supervision and degree completion

  • Mentoring: being approachable, affirming, encouraging, and having other positive affective qualities

  • Reflective practice: openness to different methods of research and supervision, and to reviewing them

  • Sponsoring: e.g., helping students gain access to the resources needed for professionalization

 

References

Brookhart, S. (2012). Preventing feedback fizzle. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 25-29

Caffarella, R., & Barnett, B. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 39-52.

Canadian Association of Graduate Studies [CAGS] (2013a). Evidence based strategies for students. Retrieved from http://www.cags.ca/documents/publications/3rdparty/Evidence-based%20strategies%20for%20doctoral%20students.pdf

Canadian Association of Graduate Studies [CAGS] (2013b). Evidence based strategies for supervisors. Retrieved from http://www.cags.ca/documents/publications/3rdparty/Evidence-based%20pedagogies%20for%20supervisors.pdf

Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students' views of supervision. Higher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 41-53.

Kleuver, R. (1997). Students’ attitudes towards the responsibilities and barriers in doctoral study. New Directions for Higher Education, 99, 47-56.

Kolb, D. (1993). The process of experiential learning. In M. Thorpe, R. Edwards, & A. Hanson (Eds.), Culture and processes of adult learning: A reader. London: Routledge.

Pearson, M., & Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.

Kumar, V., & Stracke, E. (2007). An analysis of written feedback on a PhD thesis. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(4) 461-470.

Lee, A., & McKenzie, J., (2011). Evaluating doctoral supervision: Tensions in eliciting students’ perspectives, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(1), 69-78.

Vehvilainen, S. (2009). Problems in the research problem: Critical feedback and resistance in academic supervision. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 53(2), 185-201.

Strobino, J. (1997). Building a better mousetrap.The Teaching Professor.

supervisory practice, International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.

Zhao, C., Golde, C., & McCormick, A. (2007). More than a signature: How advisor choice and advisor behaviour affect student satisfaction. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31(3), 263-281.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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