It’s rubbish, do it again!

Post by: Alex Wake & Ruth Moeller

Image: Leo Reynolds, accessed Flikr, 29 March 2012

This post grew out of a discussion stimulated by a teachers@work session on “Uses of automated feedback in teaching” by Rebecca Young, Games & Animation lecturer, School of Media & Communication, RMIT.

When I started as a journalist there was little in the way of feedback. The sub-editors would simply yell out “it’s rubbish, do it again”. Their desk was beside the ladies toilet. I didn’t pee for a year.

Although I eventually found a mentor who could help me with “there, their and they’re” I still remember the days when I was too frightened to ask for help – and too overwhelmed to know where to start.

These days I try to think about framing more constructive feedback for students. I’m still learning, but I know that I respond best when the feedback I get is clear, tells me what I need to do to fix the problems, lets me know what I did well, and most importantly is specific.

1. Tell them it is feedback. New lecturers may find it useful to be very clear when giving feedback to students. Give them a chance to read the feedback and then talk about the general issues. Use the word “feedback” often.

2. Make the comments useful to them. I’ve yet to see a student read the general feedback – it seems they are only interested in the mark. Moeller advises that it’s best to be practical about the good and the bad … tell them what is good so it can be repeated, then tell them what needs improvement and how it can be improved.

3. Cut and paste examples. When a student continually makes mistakes with apostrophes, give them an example of how apostrophes should be used. (This can be cut and pasted from a master document of common mistakes).

4. Don’t overwhelm students. They can only take in so much. It’s a careful balance.

5. Check your terminology. One of the most disconcerting moments for students is when there is discipline-specific terminology. If you comment, “What you are writing is pedagogically unsound” they will not understand what you are saying if they don’t understand the word “pedagogy”.

6. Marking isn’t a precise science. It can be useful to double check yourself. Look back at your marks – did everyone after the first three get a distinction. Using a rubric can help. They can take a lot of time to set up, but after you have thought it through they can help ensure that you are consistent in your marking.

7. The X Factor. The X factor or “the vibe” is something often used as a way of describing the difference between a distinction and a high distinction. If lecturers can’t describe the difference between a D and a HD, then the students will not know how to achieve it. It takes some thinking.

8. Excellent students. Sometimes students are extraordinary and the feedback needs to be carefully thought through. You can start by identifying what is good. If you can’t suggest improvements, think about extending their skills. You could say, “you’ve met the criteria for this assignment, perhaps next time you could try a different style or approach”.

9. It’s constructive to end on a positive note. Providing a general piece of feedback for students can help those who have done well and want to do better, and will also be invaluable for those who have done badly and need to know that all is not lost. Try to find something they did well and acknowledge it – grammar, referencing, meeting deadlines, attempting original thought.

This is my advice but as I said at the start, I’m still learning; so I’m interested in your ideas.  What ideas/examples/advice to you have for giving student’s feedback?  What traps do I need to be aware of?


Student Feedback Policy for RMIT University

Andy Adcroft (2011): The mythology of feedback, Higher Education Research & Development, 30:4, 405-419

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