Feed back to me (part 2)

Last week I offered some thoughts on marking with the rubric as a close guide and feedback framework; today I want to share some nifty feedback advice from Lynn Nygaard, the author of Writing for Scholars: A Practical Guide to Making Sense & Being Heard (Sage, 2015). Just as I was contemplating the difference using the rubric is making for me as a grader, her ideas about one-to-one feedback crossed my desk via the ever-reliable Tomorrow’s Professor listserv, to which I’ve belonged since 2001 (thanks, Jenn Stephenson!).

I was struck in particular by two pieces of intel in Nygaard’s piece: the importance of asking questions during the feedback process, and the value of offering feedback face-to-face (as opposed to solely in written form).

The context for the chunk of Nygaard’s book that was excerpted on the TP listserv is “peer reviewing” – the process through which scholars offer one another comments and assessment during the publishing process. (When you read that something is “peer reviewed”, it means experts in the field have read the material, assessed it based on a range of criteria from quality of research to quality of argumentation, and deemed it valuable enough to be shared with other experts in the field as well as the broader public.) For Nygaard, this context includes both graduate students (IE: feeding back to supervisees who are completing dissertation work) as well as peers whose work we might be asked to comment on for publication.

So undergraduate students aren’t the explicit focus here, but as I mentioned last week I think we can extrapolate easily for undergraduate constituencies – after all, good marking practices are good marking practices, full stop.

The first insight in Nygaard’s excerpt that grabbed me was:

Do not underestimate the importance of asking questions.

We hector students about this all the time, right? ASK QUESTIONS. THERE ARE NO BAD OR WRONG QUESTIONS! Questions are the route to a good paper, a strong experiment; research questions are more important than thesis statements. (Or, to nuance that a bit: good research questions yield better thesis statements.)

But how many of us have thought to ask questions in our comments for students on their written work? It’s not atypical for me to pepper students with questions after an in-class presentation, but those questions rarely make it into the typed feedback. In fact, I tend to focus on declarative statements (“your paper/presentation would have been stronger had you X”) when I write up my comments – asserting my knowledgeable opinion rather than keeping the feedback student-centred. So Nygaard is suggesting something provocative here, I think, when she encourages the asking of questions as feedback.


Now, Nygaard stresses that these need not be complex questions, or even content-driven ones. When we respond to student work, remember, we’re offering, usually, feedback on practice as much as (or even more than) content: how well students ask questions themselves, identify the parameters of their study, structure their articulation of the data or their reading of the text they are presenting. At their best, then, feedback questions might drive back to basics, focusing on the sorts of things students tend to skip past in an effort to get to the finished product. Nygaard offers the following samples for questions to ask a (student) writer:

What is the most interesting thing you have found so far?
What are you finding most difficult to write about?
What is it you want people to remember when they are finished reading this?
What interested you in this topic to begin with?

Now, if these questions sound chatty, it’s because they are. And here’s Nygaard’s other key insight (for me): what if feedback were offered orally more often?

When we speak to colleagues and graduate students, often we do so in our offices, face to face. Undergrads, by contrast, get sheets of paper or pop-up windows on their computer screens with some typed stuff and a grade. Easy to distance, easy to dismiss.

But, as Nygaard notes, the value of feeding back in person is significant. It gives the feedback (and not just the grade itself) real stakes. And, more important, it offers an opportunity for dialogue that is integral to the producing of stronger, future work:

…if you deny the other person a chance to explain, you rob them of an opportunity to achieve greater clarity for themselves – because there is no better way to understand something than to explain it to someone else.


Reading this reminded me, ironically, not of supervisions with my own grad-school advisers, but of encounters with a dear and influential undergraduate instructor, the feminist and queer theorist Dianne Chisholm. Dianne is an Oxbridge graduate, and every time a paper was due she had us all into her office, one by one, Oxbridge-style to read our essays aloud to her and receive our feedback in person.

We were, of course, TERRIFIED of this entire process (and kinda terrified of Dianne, too). But we also adored her, because she offered us the opportunity to learn, grow, and get better – she proved that to us time and again, by giving us her time and her attention.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all take every undergraduate assignment in like this; it’s time consuming and really only works in seminar-sized groups. But it does have key benefits that we ought not to dismiss. For one thing, it places the onus squarely on the student to absorb and respond to feedback – to do something with it, even if only for a few minutes. To imagine the better version of the paper in front of them, maybe.

Nygaard goes on to write:

…remember that your job is to help the author, not to make yourself look good.  Your ultimate measure of success is the degree to which the author walks away knowing what to do next, not the degree to which you have made your expertise apparent.

Declarative comments on written work (like the one I offer as an example above) tend toward the “me expert, you not so much” end of the spectrum; they demonstrate that I know stuff and that you don’t yet know quite enough of it. But guess what? We’re in the scholarship business, with the hierarchy professor//student more or less entrenched; the “knowing//knowing less” binary is sort of a given. So what if we took it as that given and moved on, instead asking questions and offering meaningful advice to students that could drive their work forward and upward? This might happen on paper, or in an office-hour debrief, or – maybe best of all? – in a mix of the two.

At minimum, what if we aimed to provide more feedback to undergraduates that simply indicated that this particular assignment, even returned, graded, to them, is *not* the end after all? Nygaard offers the final, following thought:

Even if you are meeting informally with a colleague, try to end the session by asking, “So, what is your next step?”

The perfect question for us all, really.




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