Is written feedback a waste of time? University students say they read it, their lecturers think they don’t

“When it comes to feedback in academic writing, Lynda O’Brien knows it all. Looking back on my ex-students and on how they handled feedback, I can say with certainty that Lynda’s response to feedback always stood out in its skill, thoughtfulness and precision – always exceeding my expectations. Put on top of that a PhD on feedback and an established career as an academic advisor. No need to say more. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the reading!”

Denise Santos
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Written feedback on student essays at university level – a much researched and talked about element of teaching and learning – appears to remain ethereal to many students, while for many teachers it simply appears to remain unread. In response to Denise’s most welcome invitation to ‘guest blog’, I draw on my research to discuss why I believe this is so and to consider just how the discourse community of teachers and students can overcome their frustrations with this very specific genre of writing.  However, I begin with an anecdote which reveals not only the beginning of my much treasured friendship with Denise, but also my own first encounter with written feedback as a student. Along the way I hope readers may find value in my experience and those of the students who took part in my research.

The background: from student to researcher and teacher

When I received feedback on my first undergraduate essay, written as a mature English-speaking international student in a UK university at the age of 46, I was not only disappointed, I was incensed. “What do you mean, you need an introduction?”, I asked no-one in particular. “The instruction says you don’t need one.” While I no longer remember the wording of those instructions, I never forgot the lesson I learned as a result. It was understanding that I had joined a discourse community whose ‘rules’ were new to me and that negotiating those rules specific to writing for the academy was the key to success; after all, this is how the system would judge me. At that time, Denise was my seminar leader and it was to her I turned for advice. Fast forward 17 years, Denise and I are close friends and here am I answering her invitation to guest write her blog this month.

After that first disappointment and an insightful meeting with Denise (during which we agreed the wording of the task instructions could be improved), I found I enjoyed the challenge of written assignments as I navigated membership in the community of practice I had chosen to join. I eventually graduated with a first-class honours degree just before my 50th birthday and, at about this time, I began teaching academic writing in English to non-native English speakers (NNES). Teaching on English for Academic Purposes (EAP) pre-sessional courses – students attend such courses to prepare for entry to their university department – where students receive written feedback on two or three drafts of each essay, added to my own experience of receiving and responding to feedback on single draft essays, I had serious misgivings about the ability of these students to use feedback as a tool to improve their writing. As I began to teach in my academic department and to mark single draft essays from both native English speakers (NES) and NNES students, those misgivings remained. Thus, it was the written feedback that subject lecturers (as opposed to their pre-sessional teachers) provided to NNES students that became the focus of my PhD research. And which now allows me to continue to help students navigate their academic writing and responses to feedback as a self-employed academic advisor.

The first lesson

Clearly the first, maybe the most important, lesson for me when a student was to ask questions of my lecturers – and to keep asking questions until the answers were understood. The second lesson, much more difficult to address, was about knowing what questions to ask and which lecturers to approach for the most ‘digestible’ information. It was from this perspective that I began to narrow my research topic and to investigate how NNES students interpreted the written feedback they received on their academic essays – especially given that most of them had just emerged from pre-sessional EAP courses where they experienced guided feedback over two or three drafts of the same essay. Added to this, many, if not all, had never experienced written feedback on any writing completed in their home country when studying their undergraduate degree.

The group who participated in my research (any names used here are pseudonyms) were nine Mandarin speakers studying Master’s degrees in business. They were two males and seven females who ranged in age from 23 to 29; they had all completed undergraduate degrees in their home country and attended pre-sessional EAP courses in the UK before beginning their Master’s degrees. Because my concerns about feedback were centred on the students’ ability to learn from it and then to apply it to future work, a longitudinal approach was needed. Over the 12 months of their degree programme I interviewed each student four times in order to discuss the impact of feedback from early assignments on later assignments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of what I learned was surprising. Anecdotally, chat with friends and colleagues had certainly revealed that many of us who determine to provide useful, comprehensible advice in feedback comments become frustrated as students appear to ignore what we spend so much time writing. However, my study showed students eager to receive feedback, they would read it keenly, but what they did next revealed the huge gap between the advice received, the advice understood, and the advice applied.

Students’ challenges (1): An easy fix?

Naturally, some students were more concerned than others with understanding – or really, not being able to understand – the purpose of the feedback they received, but the general consensus was that written feedback may be valuable, and therefore it should be read.  However, when they were unable to actually read handwritten comments, as opposed to interpreting them, they would ask their peers for help, not their lecturers.  If they could still not make sense of feedback comments because of handwriting or language issues, it was usually ignored.  These students felt quite strongly that it was a waste of both their and their lecturers’ time that they had to interpret poor handwriting.  There’s an obvious solution to this issue, type feedback or record it (very clearly).

While this might be an obvious first step, of course there is much more behind the effective implementation of feedback by students, and responsibility lies with both teachers and students. For example, my students said that even when a feedback comment could be read, or deciphered, clearly, if its actual meaning was unclear the students would again firstly ask their peers for help in reaching some interpretation of its purpose.  If this didn’t solve the issue, they usually chose to forget the problem. All nine students said they made changes in their approach to writing new essays based on feedback comments received, but four also said they didn’t see how they could use feedback comments to improve their writing of new essays.  For these four students simply reading the feedback, if they were able to, amounted to ‘doing something with it’. Hardly a satisfactory response to the effort made by teachers, but perhaps understandable in view of the students’ perception of their lecturers (more about this later).

Students’ challenges (2): What connections?

The greatest difficulty faced by the majority of the students was the ability to identify the key words in a feedback comment which would allow them to actually understand how a response could be made. Because feedback comments rely entirely on another piece of writing, i.e., students’ academic writing, if the connections between the two are not understood or clearly made, students fail to realise that the most useful feedback is actually ‘feeding forward’.

For example, Anna, one of the nine who successfully gained her degree (three did not), surprised me by asking what this symbol ✓ meant at the end of a paragraph of her writing. She knew it represented ‘something good’, but she thought it may mean that she had used a reference correctly. She also struggled to see the purpose of a question mark put in the margin of her work, “I think if they… teacher hoping we can understand more maybe they can write more.  Just put question mark I can’t know this what he want to show me.” But it was the use of two question marks next to the word ‘firming’ in her essay which revealed the real issue. Anna was unsure whether this meant it was incorrectly spelled, whether it was the wrong word for the context, or whether there was another possible explanation. When we read the sentence together it was clear to me the issue was one of spelling, Anna had written ‘firming’ instead of ‘farming’; rather than two question marks, ‘check spelling’ may have better enabled Anna to see her error. A small point perhaps, but it simply left Anna feeling inadequate; she had spent a long time trying to decide what it meant on her own.

Students’ challenges (3): Searching for answers

Steve, one of the three to fail their degree, wanted to know why a lecturer told him he hadn’t answered the question, but how he articulated this was another surprise. He said, “It doesn’t show where I haven’t answered the question”. Even when I pointed out a feedback comment which said, “not enough information, develop”, Steve responded by saying, “It doesn’t tell me how, it just tell me that I need to do more, but it doesn’t tell me how to do”. When asked how he resolved this sort of problem he simply stated, “It can’t help me because I don’t know where”.

Meanwhile, no matter how many times Joanne received the comment “too descriptive” on her essays, she never made the connection between this and the critical approach her lecturers were looking for. Neither did Sally, Steve, Laura, Karen, or Anna. Richard and Lucy, however, fairly quickly realised this, and Donna had done so by the middle of the course. For Richard it was one of those lightbulb moments in which teachers delight. He had struggled at the beginning of the course to understand the nature of academic learning. One specific feedback comment was the defining moment for him. It said, “Your work is rather heavily reliant on a few references”. He explained that initially he could not see the connection between the number of references he put in his essays and the amount of reading he did and how this connected with the overall content of his essays.  He was concerned that if he read many books or articles he would be influenced in such a way that he would no longer know what his own ideas were. He thought he should only read enough to support his own ideas until… “I found out my thought will be more complete [by reading more broadly] because I realise, oh yes I saw this before but this author agree this, but that one disagrees, so what is my opinion? And what does he disagree with? So I can, you know, to combine all the thinking and then develop my own personal idea.” For Richard, indeed for each of the group, background culture of learning had not prepared him for the new situational context of a Master’s programme in a UK university and he was disappointed that he hadn’t been explicitly guided to this conclusion.

Why students feel alienated and overwhelmed

But, how can this type of reaction help teachers provide effective feedback and students better able to implement it?

Clearly what these students did with written feedback was not solely dependent on the content of the written feedback itself, rather any action relied on a number of other factors.  In this way, closely related to lack of understanding, was the enduring reluctance of these students to ask questions of their lecturers. While culture plays a role here, it is far from being the only, or even necessarily the major, factor.  The need to adjust to the new situational context of learning in which they found themselves presented these students with the types of challenges those well enculturated into the academy no longer face, if they ever did.

From the moment these students stepped into their academic department (in this cohort of 95, 92 were international students, of these 36 were Mandarin first speakers), the students began to form their ideas of how they could best achieve their aims and meet the challenges which faced them.  A great number of students felt alienated at the beginning of their course when they were unable to recognise the linguistic vagaries presented to them at the time of their induction. All the students found their first experiences in their academic department to be overwhelming and, for some, this proved to be alienating, certainly in the short term.  This added to their reluctance to discuss with their lecturers the written feedback they received on their essays as they felt inadequate, both in their knowledge of the subject and in their language proficiency.  Certainly, confronting academics who used language beyond the students’ comprehension, both in academic and idiomatic terms, appeared to create an element of apprehension and inadequacy related to the perceptions these students have of UK academics.

Additionally, when the students faced difficulties which may have been highlighted in the written feedback they received, among their first responses was to say they would work harder.  Laura continued to repeat this almost in the manner of a mantra. “Maybe I didn’t work hard.”  “I think I have to work hard.” “Practice more, work harder.” This is an issue which stems from their background culture of learning in which they tend to have a strong belief that working hard is the key to academic success. This belief in academic success based on hard work continued to override these students’ much more urgent need to ask questions; questions which would make them aware of the key words or expressions commonly used in written feedback and which may have facilitated their understanding.  But, while I had found confidence as an undergraduate by asking questions, forming and articulating those questions is not so easy for students who tend to place their lecturers on a proverbial pedestal. As Donna said, “I think have some difficulties with speak direct with teacher. I just kind of afraid to talk with people who have higher status, yes.”

In this way, the situational context of learning appeared to modify the students’ background culture of learning in influencing what they were prepared to do with the written feedback they received.  This was particularly so in the case of developing a critical and analytic approach to their writing, even for those who failed to develop this skill effectively. They began to realise that they needed to read beyond what was advised, and I began to realise that this dawning realisation was the point at which they began to take responsibility for their own learning.

However, this awareness was only raised as a result of our discussions around the students changing understanding of the possibilities written feedback gave them to better understand their lecturers’ requirements. For the students this meant adjusting to a number of different lecturers’ different styles because each lecturer appears to have their own way of providing feedback, choosing different lexis, using shared symbols in different ways, and even in their willingness to discuss its meaning with students. Meanwhile, lecturers continue to claim, despairingly, that students don’t read feedback!

Final thoughts

So, where does this leave us? Recognising written feedback as a specific genre which relies on another genre for its meaning should highlight the need for shared understanding within the discourse community in which it is used. As writing ‘apprentices’ students need the type of guidance with which those established members are already familiar – but for which they have developed their own styles, so that their expectations of responses are implicit. Thus, not only does responding to feedback need to be explicitly taught, providing it does too. Co-ordination among lecturers, and others marking student papers, within departments is a good start.  By comparing each other’s feedback practices, discussing and sharing effective lexis, lecturers may help students to enter and understand the discourse community they have joined earlier in their studies than the students in my study were able to do. A final quote from Richard, the most articulate and forthcoming of the group, reveals his frustration and disillusionment with his experience,

To be honest I just get so I want to have finished and to go home.  This course, yeh I have learned a lot but I just feel a lot of … lecturers can help the foreign student more and they just care to give you a mark, and to be honest I don’t think they care so much about us so … just to pass yeh, that’s ok.”

I don’t think it’s ok. Do you?

Lynda O’Brien began her work as an independent academic advisor after moving back to her native New Zealand in 2015. Before this she worked most recently at the University of Nottingham Ningbo in China. It was here that she established writing groups for PhD students which proved to be a successful addition to the academic support available for all students at the university. At the University of Reading in the UK, which Lynda first joined in 2004 and where she completed her own PhD, she taught on EAP pre-sessional courses and on undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Applied Linguistics. She can be contacted at

Leave a comment