Feedback – From the student up the back, on the left

It’s been a while since we heard from the Student up the Back on the Left – the alter ego of RMIT teaching and learning advisor Ruth Mueller (who actually taught me how to teach, long ago). This time the Student up the Back on the Left has a few words to say about the feedback you gave them on their essay last semester.

Come to think about it – this student has good advice for your supervisor too… if yours seems to be struggling, add this one to the photocopy you made of the other post from the Research Supervisor’s friend

Dear Tutors

Hi, its me again, the Student from up the back on the left, I am writing to you this time because I want to talk to you about the feedback I get on my assignments.

Before I start though, I would like to say how happy I was to receive your positive response to my last post, that fact that you now start on time rather than waiting for “just a few more people” has been greatly appreciated by those of us who manage to get there on time.  The other thing was using those daggy, but useful name plates, now I actually know the name of those in my tute and don’t have to pretend I do.

Now to the thing I want to talk to you about this time. I have recently received my essay back and I have to say, ”Not happy!”. A mark/grade, a couple of comments like “so?” and “good” and then we move on to the next thing, what am I supposed to do with that?

I am guessing that feedback is supposed to like food, providing me with sustenance and nutrition, letting me know how I am going (sustenance) and give me some ideas for next time (nutrition).  Having been a student for a while, I have some observations on the feedback diets that are around and some ideas, you could even call it ‘feedback’’ that could help you for next time.

Top 5 Feedback diets

Maccas Diet

Poor quality, not sustaining, you want something else 10 minutes after you have eaten. Here I have experienced two options: the short, sharp “Credit. Good!*” or the pages covered in tutor scrawl that, although plentiful, is overwhelming and unfocussed.  What am I supposed to do with that?

I need meaningful comments and suggestions that can I can implement. A way you can do this is, as a summary, identify three positive aspects and 2 suggestions for improvement – this would be both sustaining and nutritious.

*Note: I have been told – never having experienced it myself – that “HD Well done” is equally frustrating as it doesn’t say what was good, so how do I know what I have done right and how I can improve/extend? –HD students like to know this stuff. Apparently.

High protein/low carb

Focus on one thing, and limit or totally eliminate the other.  This is the type of feedback that is either totally positive or overwhelmingly negative. I have had both and although warming to the soul, feedback that solely focuses on the positive, doesn’t tell me how I can improve, or develop for next time. Yes it’s nice but I need something I can use, not just warm strokes.

As for totally negative… do you know how demoralising it is, and how hard it is to know where to start to improve things? Balance, like in all things is the key here. See above.


Abit of everything. I have had work returned that looks like a graffitied train, lots of comments, ticks, crosses question marks, but then what? I am sure you are trying to be helpful, showing interest in my work, that you have engaged with the whole lot, I appreciate that, but it is overwhelming and confusing. I even have a friend who finds it offensive that you are ‘defacing’ their work (something to think about).

My suggestion here is clarity, what are the key things you are trying to tell me – and please present them in a way I can appreciate.

Jenny Craig

Controlled portions.  This isn’t bad, but it is about control and limitations and is best characterised by the use of “tick and flick” sheets, rubrics and other tools that give precise but limited information.

I know when you have 200 students this mode makes sense but it is limiting and as a diet, I am not going to thrive.  The key to this feedback diet is well structured and balanced ingredients: meaningful criteria and clear grade descriptions. Theses let me know what is required and the standard. This then allows me to focus on the important things and not try to anticipate what is required, and potentially guess wrong

Some ideas to add spice to this diet are: a space for individualised comments at the end, discussing feedback in class. You could get me to clarify the comments with a partner and then general discussion, or provide a summary of positives and areas for improvement that is discussed with the whole class to help for next time.

Mediterranean Diet

Well balanced, fresh and diverse.  As we know, this is the type of diet that we should all aim for and in terms of feeding students, it provides me with what I need to thrive.

Well balanced in terms of looking at the whole work and not focussing on certain elements or pet issues. Fresh can mean timely feedback but it could also mean informal feedback, as I go along, not just at the end, when mistakes and poor practice can be imbedded. Diverse isn’t just about what is commented on but who does the commenting. I know some tutors use peer feedback, we can review and comment on each other’s work, helps us to grow as we have to apply what we’ve learnt. It could also mean reflection, feedback on my own work and learning.

Finally, a couple of final points on the feedback diet:


I was telling a fellow student about this post and she (Amie from #shutupandwrite) offered the idea of ‘cravings’.  As a PhD student, when she meets with her supervisor, sometimes she wants to focus on a particular aspect, but her supervisor wants to look at something else and this leads to a level of frustration.  Sometimes we want just one thing to satisfy us, not a healthy option. When there is a craving for chocolate, a salad will not suffice! The same with feedback, when I am focussed on analysing my data, commenting on the  layout is not helpful; we can come back to that another day.


Here I’m not talking about ‘roids’ but taking supplements to address nutrition deficiencies.  In our work this could be where to get advice on referencing, help with my grammar, technical support eg (  This means that as a tutor, you encourage us to seek specialist advice on particular issues.  As with vitamins, we don’t all need to take them but they have their place in helping with address individual deficits.

Well hopefully I have followed my own advice, been balanced, specific and constructive.

I look forward to talk to you again,

The Student up the Back, on the Left

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9 thoughts on “Feedback – From the student up the back, on the left

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fabulous, something that must be strategically placed for supervisor attention, but will the said supervisor with poor feedback skills acknowledge their limitations?

  2. casual tutor says:

    Dear student – let me tell you something about being a casual tutor at RMIT in the new flash building on swanston st – in the move from 108 tute class sizes are now 30 (they used to be 25 but the architects designed the tute rooms with 30 seats so now they’re 30), I’d love to be able to remember everyone’s name in class, but 30 of you for one hour once a week? The technology is slow – yes I did the building induction in my own time – and sometimes doesn’t work. Tutor’s rooms, well there’s a hot desk somewhere if you can find it but dont expect anyone to help you with the photocopier, so getting stuff ready for class is a bit hit or miss. As for feedback, well I’ve never really been trained in small group teaching but I do get that giving good feedback important. Marking is paid, about $30 an hour, and that means about 3 essays an hour depending on how many words there are, so giving good feedback means giving up more of my own time. And given how many of you students dont bother to do the reading or contribute in class I dont feel that inclined to be putting in extra hours unpaid.
    Its a lovely building I agree, and so nice that you can get coffee on almost every floor… my academic colleagues are great, overworked and doing their best and so am I but its not easy.

    • Lozzz123 says:

      I have to say I agree with casual tutor here. So many students do not bother to pick up their assignments and it gets pretty demoralising putting in extra (unpaid) effort to provide quality feedback that is ignored. That doesn’t mean I don’t bother to provide feedback, just that since we do get paid so little with the expectation that we’ll churn through the assignments quickly it’s hard to please everyone.

      On another note, sometimes I find it hard to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with some essays (a sentiment echoed by many other tutors I’ve talked with). You can just tell that it’s only a ‘pass’ because it’s not as good as most of the others. What can be done in these situations?

      • Kat says:

        When I am stuck for comments I usually run through the main things I mark on – writing, structure, understanding of topic in terms of the subject, research and work out which is weakest. I usually use a marksheet or rubric as well as individual comments and looking at where I have put ticks is often a good indication of where the work could be improved.

        Also I have created a word document with lots of comments in it that I re-use as often students are making very similar mistakes – such as not going beyond the class readings, or not understanding how a paragraph should be formed, etc. I do personalise to the essay but having well written, long comments on common mistakes – especially writing, essay structure and grammar – allows me to give each student much more feedback, which I hope is helpful, without having to spend a lot of time. Agree on the issue of time as a sessional, I find this method helos balance it out.

        Another great tip the first lecturer I worked for gave me was never to mark the person, always the essay, i.e. never write ‘you failed to address the question fully’ instead write ‘this essay failed to address the question fully’.

    • Sessional Academic says:

      I agree with casual tutor. Irrelevant of pay rate (we only just started being paid for marking), we are very time poor. So between the quick turn-around rate that students and the curriculum demand, being HDR students in our own right, having to teach so many tutorials just to pay rent/eat/have a life (scholarship is not something you can live off), we end up with far too many student assignments to mark and far to little time to do it. Especially when multiple units have the same due date! I doubt tutors spend longer than 12 minutes per assignment and that is more time than what is recommended to us/what I’ve heard on the grapevine/what we are even paid to do! If you calculate the hourly pay rate allocated to each subject, we are only PAID to make an assignment for (*let me calculate this*) 6.6 minutes per student per assessment piece. So the quality of our feedback (as a whole) is not going to be great. Also, stats at my university show that 60% of students never pick up their assignments!?!?

      I work off the following principles:
      – If my feedback can directly help them to improve in an upcoming piece of assessment in that unit, then it gets a few words.
      – If the student has been emailing me/seeing me in consultation/turning up to every tutorial, then they will get feedback, based on the increased likelihood of them picking it up to read it.
      – If I have never met the student (i.e. they never came to class), they get nothing.
      – If the comment pertains to spelling/grammar/formatting/referencing then they get a circle around the error or one word summarising their problem.

      Other than that, if a student is unhappy with their level of feedback, they can always seek further information from the tutor. *Rant over*

  3. Environmental PhD says:

    I have to agree with the sentiments expressed here already. I try hard to give good, balanced and constructive feedback. Also, all the courses I have tutored have used a marking sheet (with space for individual comments), and this is helpful for students to see which aspects of their assignment they need to work on (structure, substantive argument, referencing, adequacy of research etc.). However, I get paid to mark a set number of words per hour. To bad if it actually takes longer, you’re working for free out of the goodness of your heart and your desperate need to keep what little work you can get. And it always does take longer once you count in marking, composing useful comments, data entry and all the other small but time consuming bits of administration that go along with the task.

    Also, yep, most students do not bother to pick up their assignments as they can access their grades online. If I can, I will hand back assignments in tutes, but this is not possible with end of semester assignments. I also make sure I spend plenty of time in the lead up to the assignment due date going over the expectations and direction for the assignment and spending time in tutes answering any questions about it. And I encourage students to make an effort to pick up their assignments because it is useful for them to see the comments, but as they say, you can lead a horse to water but…

    Also, Kat’s idea of a word document is brilliant. One of my office mates uses the same technique and I keep meaning to start my own.

  4. Moira McLoughlin says:

    Thank you Ruth – a good blog and for someone like me who considers themselves fairly experienced now in teaching in Higher Ed ( 16 years after practice) some good highlights for how to make the session better for students – which I thought was what we were here for. I like the suggestion about using name plates/stickers and I do try to know my student names (admittedly in smaller group sessions) and to treat them as adults and as for feedback I spend hours marking and composing my feedback, recently employing the two headers, ‘what you have done well’, ‘what you can improve in future work’ on my feedback sheets. However, recently I have become more and more despondent when I see some feedback on student’s work (that I have supervised and encouraged) and it is similar to how you describe here with negative comments or ticks which mean nothing at all. I am begining to doubt myself now as a supervisor so important for me to know that it happens elsewhere too.

  5. Helen Marshall says:

    I learned from the casual tutors who worked with me that it really helps them if there is a rubric sheet with the criteria for marking. Over time, the sheets took on a generic form with specific additions Just in case anyone wants to copy and paste them, for essays the generics were usually thing like this (they are in my personal priority order):
    Essay shows understanding of the concepts and data used
    Argument is a chain of logically connected claims
    Evidence is well used
    Essay is clearly structured so we can follow your thoughts
    Essay is correctly written with good grammar and spelling
    Essay is formally and correctly referenced making use of at least (insert desired number) of appropriate references.

    I also learned that a word processed sheet of general comments about the assignment WRITTEN BY THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SUBJECT ( tenured me, not the sessional tutors) was appreciated by students (it feels like a whole page of typed comments) and by tutors, who could then make their comments mainly about the things that were good and what could be improved (i.e really personalised.) I would draft the sheet after I had marked my tute group’s essays, and ( ideally but alas not always) circulate it to tutors for finalising. A typical sheet might have comments like those below. It refers to an essay with only one topic available where I was attempting to get students to think about how ‘theory’ linked to professional practice around an issue of their own choice. The longer paras tended to occur in all my general comments. (Again, feel free to copy and paste if any of this is useful to you.)

    “For this essay, you were being asked to… (insert the general aims of the task)

    Here are some of the things that distinguished the good essays:

    Good essays did not get sidetracked into… (insert main ‘side track that could de-rail the essay) .

    Good essays built on ……. (Insert comments)

    Good essays were well-structured and signalled their structure with headings and subheadings or key sentences. They did not jump from point to point in a disconnected fashion. Good writers had edited their work to achieve the best possible structure.

    Good essays were also well written. Good structure and clear writing depend on you knowing what you think. Knowing what you think often comes from writing, and discovering that there are no words for your thoughts, The only cure for this is to research more, write more and think again. So plan to read more than the minimum for each essay and to spend time writing and re-writing. You will become a good writer if you read a lot (so you begin to absorb the rules unconsciously) and write a lot (so you consciously practice using the rules).

    Good essays got the details of referencing correct, not because there is any inherent virtue in using footnotes or the Harvard system, but because those who cannot use at least one referencing system with ease look as if they are not suited to professional life. You obtain referencing skills in the same way as you become a good writer.

    Now, I want to…. (Insert content issues that you think are important)

    This semester….. (insert appropriate personal message)”

    I think this system worked reasonably well- complaints about marking were rare in student evaluations, and I had no trouble retaining sessional tutors. The difficult thing for of course sessionals is pushing the lecturer in charge into writing the generic comments. Sorry, no helpful suggestions here!

  6. Casual Tutor says:

    I think the advice is sound but an hour (at most) per student per semester doesn’t leave time for this. There’s some good remedies in the comments and to which I’ll add: have the students mark their work with ‘FEEDBACK REQUESTED’ and, only in those cases, provide the sort of extensive feedback mentioned in the post. This immediately frees up time because it cuts out all the non-attending students, who are also the ones least likely to desire feedback or read it.

    The best way, of course, to improve student feedback is to reduce the need for it by improving or altering assessment design. As casual tutors, we seem to forget that our unit coordinators are responsible for the management of staff resources and not us. In a perfect world, we’d all scan the tute lists and the unit outlines and say, ‘Yep, this isn’t going to be practical, please do a redesign so I don’t have to grade 80 papers in 10 days, with 15mins per final paper left on the clock.’ If your salaried supervisor is setting 10,000 words + of assessment per student for $30/hour, they’re not doing their job properly.

    So: a firm marking criteria sheet, multiple choice exams (yes, even in the humanities), group work, peer-examination and any other quantifiable assessment means that doesn’t require tutors to work like pack mules.

    Should also point out: I am a unit coordinator. So this isn’t daydreaming.

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