Feedback is an important learning tool, and because we all use it, we imagine we know how it works. Yet if we learn anything from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the evolving scheme for rating undergraduate teaching in the UK, it’s that feedback isn’t working. As calculated by WonkHE, even some TEF gold-rated universities fell ‘significantly short’ in their undergraduate feedback. In writing workshops I’ve found that dissatisfaction with feedback also emerges as a key issue for academic staff. They may question the value both of the feedback they give students and the feedback they themselves receive, particularly on papers submitted to academic journals.
Years of wearing multiple writing hats – newspaper columnist, novelist, RLF Fellow and Consultant Fellow – have taught me that successful feedback combines two elements: from the giver, clarity; and for the receiver, emotional resilience, since feedback, however well-intentioned, can often feel like a punch in the guts.
With my own guts still aching from a recent punch, I’ll take the emotional side first. As I try to impress on academics and students in the workshops I run as a Consultant Fellow, key to emotional recovery is understanding that feedback isn’t personal. The editor/tutor is not focussed on you, the writer, but on the reader. Will the reader find logical gaps? A dearth of evidence? A grating tone? Once you’ve removed the personal, it’s easier to accept the feedback. Still, the best thing is to read it once, then close it and go for a brisk walk. When you return, read it again slowly. It’s this slow reading which often reveals that what, in your first anxious hurry, you read as negatively undermining is, in truth, positively improving.
On the practical side, feedback needs to be instantly comprehensible. The receiver should never have to ask ‘what does this feedback mean’? Three basic questions guide good practical feedback. What, exactly, needs looking at? Why, exactly, does it need looking at? How, precisely, might a solution be approached? For gold-standard feedback, detailed answers to these three questions are vital.
Years ago, in response to a first draft of my first novel, I received gold-standard feedback. The memory still kicks me in the guts. But ten novels, an academic writing website and countless newspaper columns later, it’s been incomparably valuable for my own work, and for my ability to help others give and receive the kind of transformative feedback that unlocks a writer’s full potential and presents a piece to its best advantage.