Feedback is more than just correcting errors
Feedback is an essential part of the learning process. Is it critical for supervisors to point out both positive features as well as areas of improvement, and to provide detailed feedback in an organized and timely manner. For graduate students who need additional support and resources to improve their writing, there are courses, workshops, and regular programming offered by McGill that can help (e.g., Graphos).
Specific feedback accelerates learning
As part of the learning process, feedback needs to be specific, detailed, and constructive. Vague or derogatory 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 help to quickly improve writing by reducing trial and error. Encouraging students to revise immediately after getting feedback is also an effective strategy for facilitating student progress (Brookhart, 2012).
Regularly review research plans and processes
Reviewing research plans and processes on a regular basis can be helpful for both the student and supervisor. Students may encounter unexpected problems such as errors in data analysis, unexpected results, data collection challenges, or technological issues. Establishing a regular meeting schedule allows supervisors to review research plans and address unexpected issues before they become larger problems.As part of the learning process, feedback needs to be specific, detailed, and constructive. Vague or derogatory 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 help to quickly improve writing by reducing trial and error. Encouraging students to revise immediately after getting feedback is also an effective strategy for facilitating student progress (Brookhart, 2012).
Offer written or recorded oral feedback in an organized format
It is important to not rely solely on discussion for feedback on writing. Providing written comments that outline concrete, specific examples or actions for improvement is a useful strategy for supporting and documenting progress. Some supervisors also record audio of comments to retain some of the advantages of verbal communication (e.g., nuance, tone).
It can be especially helpful to both the supervisor and the student to organize and prioritize comments. Feedback can be broken down by level of abstraction:
- High-level content-oriented comments
High-level comments might include your overall impression of the work, offer suggestions for organization, identify gaps to address, or offer relevant references.
- Mid-level stylistic and presentation comments
If your comment applies not just to a specific instance but to a broader pattern of argumentation or analysis, mid-level comments would explicitly address this pattern rather than simply correcting ta given occurrence.
- Low-level comments on syntax and grammar
Low-level comments on surface issues are important (e.g., writing style, typos), but should be avoided until high-level or mid0level comments that necessitate major revisions to content are first completed.
Recommended: Graphos writing programs
Graphos is a program offered by the McGill Writing Centre designed specifically for graduate students and postdocs that teaches how to become accomplished communicator. Students in thesis programs can register at no additional cost.
- Thesis-writing support
- Thesis Writing Groups: Three Months to Advance Your Thesis
- Thesis-Writing Lab courses
- 1-credit courses include:
- Strategies for Academic Communication in English (for students whose first language is not English)
- Cornerstones of Academic Writing (for students whose first language is English)
- Literature Reviews
- Communicating Science to the Public
- Writing Commons
- Space (in-person and virtual) for students to write in the company of others, and exchange tips and strategies for writing productively
- Hosted weekly writing sessions
- Day-long writing sessions
- Writing retreats
Consistent feedback can support student learning
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. 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.
Questions for reflection
If you find yoruself repeating feedback, or you find a student is repeatedly asking a quesiton you've answered before consider:
- Does the student demonstrate that they understand the feedback? If you asked students to summarize what was discussed at their last regular meeting, could they fully convey the points you made? Are there ways to break down complex feedback into manageable components or provide specific examples of critical concepts?
- Does the student already know the answer but ask anyway? Is there a gap in either skills or confidence that needs to be addressed to encourage the student to work more autonomously?
- If you sense a student is resisting feedback, have you addressed this? Are these underlying issues that may also need to be addressed?
- Are you seeing any gradual change? Or are you observing a lack of progress?
In cases where students are demonstrating an inability to improve based on regular feedback, consider speaking to the Graduate Program Director and communicating this to the student during annual progress tracking.
Brookhart, S. (2012). Preventing feedback fizzle. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 25-29.
Vehvilainen, S. (2009). Problems in the research problem: Critical feedback and resistance in academic supervision. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 53(2), 185-201.