Giving feedback on student drafts

This post was written by my fellow blogger Dr Geof Hill a.k.a The Research Supervisor’s friend. It was written to help supervisors give better feedback, but I asked Geof if I could publish it here. Complaints about quality of feedback from supervisors are common. If your supervisor could do with some pointers, perhaps you could print this out and accidentally on purpose leave it lying in their office…

Given that most research is assessed by means of a written research report or dissertation, it is essential for research students to develop the appropriate strategies in academic writing that help them to signify the rigour and quality of their research writing.

Without necessarily being conscious of it, research supervisors have different agendas when they provide feedback. Being aware of these agendas can help a research supervisor improve the overall quality of feedback they provide for their research students.

1. Correcting errors.

As with any written document, despite the technological advances of spell check, there can still be spelling errors in the text. In the case of academic text, the bar is lifted with the sometimes complex rules for citation. Both create opportunities for errors and inconsistencies. The idea of an inconsistency is that while a word or phrase may be technically spelt correctly, in the context of the broader dissertation, the multiple correct spellings may be inconsistent, either in spelling, font or writing style.

Drawing attention to errors may involve simply highlighting the error, drawing the research student’s attention to the citation rules, or pointing out the instances of inconsistency. With citation, it helps if the supervisor and student are using a common publication manual and then the research supervisor can alert the research student to the appropriate page in the manual which illuminates the particular citation rule.

2. Alerting students to genre requirements.

The research dissertation, research proposal, literature review and even journal articles are all variations in the genre of academic writing. In any writing genre there are rules of expression. These rules can vary discipline to discipline. When you alert a student to a particular rule, they have the choice to either adhere to the rule, or to mount a challenge against the application of the rule in their writing. Understanding the reason for the rule allows them to argue against it more convincingly.

A good case in point is the use of the third person in research reports. This usually conveys a sense of objectivity to the issue under investigation. In recent years, because the notion of objectivity within research has been challenged, this rule is seen as a much more flexible. For certain research methods, such as action research, there are now well established arguments for writing in the first person (Somekh, 1995).

3. Raise critical reflection

The skill of critical reflection is paramount in academic writing. Critical reflection is itself a disputed term. I understand it to mean reflecting in such a way as to become aware of your own beliefs. Providing feedback to stimulate critical reflection requires drawing attention to the nuances of the writing such as definitions and consistency of terms throughout the broader dissertation.

In this type of feedback you are not so much indicating a problem but stimulating the research student to deeper consideration of what they have written in the hope of developing a more rigorous discussion.

4. Draw attention to the broader issues across the full dissertation document

The dissertation is an extended argument. It argues for

  1. How a given issue or topic can be understood
  2. How, given that understanding, the given issue or topic can be investigated.
  3. How to make sense of the data collected in the pursuit of the investigation
  4. What the data contributes to an understanding of the original issue or topic

The supervisor can provide feedback related to how well the argument has been articulated and whether as a result of the extended argument there appears to be inconsistencies within the argument itself. You should note the page of the inconsistency and where, earlier in the text there appears to be a contradiction.

The best example I can think of this is one I have occasionally identified in theses I examine – a lack of alignment between what has been written in the abstract about what a reader can expect in the dissertation and what the reader actually encounters in the dissertation.

Another example, also from my examining experience, is where the description of the methodology does not match what actually took place in gathering the data. This in itself is not a problem as investigations may often fall out differently from what was intended, and what was described. What is problematic is when a student fails to acknowledge this discrepancy.

Canny research students can use the discrepancy between what was planned and what happened to demonstrate their problem solving in the research process.

5. Help the research student think about how an examiner might read their work.

Although universities send dissertation examiners a list of the criteria by which they want the dissertation evaluated, these are often general. Many examiners have their own ideas about what constitutes a good dissertation and these tend to rule them more than the criteria provided by the university. This is a dilemma that I and my colleagues commented on when we wrote about dissertation examiners needing training (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005).

Mindful of this dilemma, research supervisors can provide feedback to their research students for ways to write their dissertation that scaffold the content for the reader/examiner and hence improves the readability of the dissertation.

A good example of scaffolded writing often appears in the introductory chapter of the dissertation when the research student outlines the subsequent chapters of their dissertation and explains how the chapters fit together to produce the dissertation argument.

Another scaffolded writing choice can appear at the beginning of each chapter, explaining how the chapter fits into the sequence with the previous chapter. Similarly, at the end of a chapter, the content can be summarised and the subsequent chapter foreshadowed to show how it will progress the argument.

Sankaran, S., Swepson, P. and Author. (2005) Do Research Thesis Examiners Need Training? Practitioner stories. The Qualitative Report 10(4): 817-835.

Somekh, B. (1995). The Contribution of Research to Development of Social Endeavours: A position paper on action research methodology. British Education Research Journal 21(3): 339-355.

Related Posts

5 ways to fai your PhD

The literature review – knowing where to stop

8 thoughts on “Giving feedback on student drafts

  1. Note also that supervisors who sit on drafts for months before returning them with comments are drastically cutting into the time that students have to re-write. This in turn makes for a less polished final product.

    • Oh yes i so agree… its so frustrating… as much as i can understand the workload of Supervisors… but if you keep a draft for 4 weeks and longer at least have a look at it and give some good feedback! It would really help with the planing.

      • yes, that was top of my list to!!! 8 weeks sitting on the final draft is damned annoying. Ive only got 4 more weeks now before notification to submit.
        Please dont blame me for this:
        Ive sent emails, updated the dropbox editions, left messages via skype.
        In the absence of feedback i am not sitting here doing nothing, I’m editing.
        Patience is wearing thin.
        I have not over-used my supervisors.
        I have associate supervisors i had not used at all up to this point valuing their fresh reading of it… just wish they would.

  2. That’s just uncool. Is there a line manager you can ask to push the process on? I know it might cause waves, but you need that feedback with sufficient time to action it.

    • It is frustrating that you have to do it this way, but I started to hand drafts of papers to my prof with the words “I’ll submit this on [arbitrary deadline] if you want to change anything let me know”. Presumptuous, maybe a little rude, but “supervisor wrangling” is an important skill for a researcher. You’re competing for the time of a typically very busy person and if you don’t give them a deadline/schedule to work to you’ll forever be on a back burner. To be fair though, I had a very good relationship with my supervisors, so I can’t say it works for all.

  3. Great post, TW. I really hope supervisors will have a read of this post.
    I have had similar experiences to the above. I started giving chapters to Sups Nov last year, and whole thesis 3 months ago. Even though we had ‘agreed timelines’, I am sitting around most of the time waiting for revisions. Then, I often get ‘needs more x’, ‘this is wrong’ and no constructive examples of how to improve. I find it very very frustrating. I have tried to explain this to my Sups, as well as tease out of them what they mean, as well as try to work on timelines, but it is so hard. Usually they pull the ‘I know best card’. Seeing other people in the Department to get help with Sups just makes things worse. I’d love to hear from readers on some constructive ways to deal with thesis comments and getting most from Supervisor comments and working on shared timelines.

  4. Pingback: Feedback – From the student up the back, on the left « The Thesis Whisperer

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