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Giving feedback

Feedback is more than just correcting errors

Feedback is an essential part of the learning process and should be both written and oral. In written feedback, 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 into sections on concepts, organization, and grammar. Remember to point out the positive features of the text. Reserve time for discussion (oral feedback), which can provide nuance and help supervisees remember the salient points of your feedback.


Comic courtesy of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com

Remember that specific feedback accelerates learning

As part of the learning process, feedback needs to be specific, 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 only on oral 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 opensource (free) software such as Audacity or with a smartphone (i.e., Voice Memos on Apple products, Voice Recorder on Samsung).

Kumar and Stracke (2007) identified three main forms of written feedback.

  • Referential: editorial, organizational and content comments

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

  • Expressive: 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. 

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 Guide to graduate supervision.

Writing supports for graduate students

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. For example, students in social sciences and humanities can sometimes submit their papers for roundtable discussions at conferences where their work will be read by an experienced scholar who will then provide feedback, as well as encouraging the rest of the participants to provide feedback on the topic.

The McGill Writing Centre has a program specifically for graduate students called Graphos, which offers:

  • 10-week scholarly communication courses (e.g., writing literature reviews; presentation skills);

  • 1-time workshops;

  • peer writing groups;

  • one-on-one tutorial service; and

  • Writing Commons - a space to write in the company of others.

Look for other writing guides to read

Here are some other useful references to help students with their writing:

Kamler, B., & Thompson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervisors. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Swales, J. M. & Feak, C. B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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.


What constitutes feedback?

Feedback can come in many different forms, depending on a supervisor’s style:

  • questions;

  • hints;

  • your thoughts; and

  • acknowledgement of good work.

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 (see Supervisory styles) will have an effect on:

  • the amount of direction given to the student;

  • personal interactions and psychological support;

  • the amount and type of criticism; and

  • frequency of interaction.

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.

What kinds of feedback do 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, drafting of thesis proposals, and finalizing of opening remarks for their oral defence.


According to experienced supervisors (EPIGEUM, 2014), feedback should:

  • come early and often - more than 3 days between submission and feedback is too long;

  • be regular and detailed; and

  • demonstrate the supervisor’s interest in the supervisee’s topic.

For some time now, the research has been clear: students emphasize the importance of feedback to their progress. Odena and Burgess (2015) found that tailored and supportive feedback helps students develop their independent thinking and such feedback is indispensable in developing academic writing skills. It is not surprising then, that Kleuver (1997), drawing on an analysis of "all but dissertation" students and those who had graduated, reported lack of constructive feedback as a hindrance to doctoral student progress.

Juwah and colleagues (2004) conducted several case studies in Scotland to determine the qualities of good effective feedback during graduate student supervision. They concluded that effective feedback:

  • develops self-assessment;

  • encourages dialogue;

  • clarifies what good performance is;

  • is timely;

  • guides learning; and

  • encourages self-belief.

In addition, students seek different kinds of feedback. Heath (2002) reported students sought supervisory guidance on:

  • topic definition;

  • research design and data analysis; and

  • literature to be reviewed.

Zhao, Golde, and McCormick (2007) corroborated the importance of feedback. The students most satisfied with their supervisors were the ones who reported receiving both:

  1. regular and constructive feedback on research; and

  2. regular and constructive feedback on progress towards the degree as well as direct assessment of progress.

Furthermore, according to Caffarella and Barnett (2000), face-to-face feedback is most appreciated by students. These studies also make the point that it is essential to make time to meet to give  feedback.


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.

EPIGEUM. (2014). Advising doctoral students.  Retrieved from https://www.epigeum.com/courses/research/advising-doctoral-students/

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

Juwah, C., Macfarlane-Dick, D., Matthew, B., Nicol, D., Ross, D., & Smith, B. (June 2004). Enhancing student learning through effective formative feedback. The Higher Education Academy Generic Centre.  

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

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

Odena, O., & Burgess, H. (2015) . How doctoral students and graduates describe facilitating experiences and strategies for their thesis writing learning process: a qualitative approach. Studies in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1063598 T

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

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.

Further Reading

Kritsonis, W. (2008). The functions of the doctoral dissertation advisor. Focus on Colleges, Universities, and Schools, 2(1).

Wisker, G. (2005). The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

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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