Feedback on Academic Writing: a delicate balance between criticizing constructively & nurturing growth

It was a matter of a few weeks ago that i was teaching on a module on Supervision of Undergraduate Dissertations and Projects that the topic of Academic Writing and Feedback was addressed. The way i was trying to sum up my advice for Feedback was to conjure a picture of how NOT to do it. I didn’t have an appropriate image to show the participants then, but i came across one just this morning.

That type of feedback could break the spirit of an academic, let alone an Undergraduate student. It is unreasonable to expect Undergraduate students to be accomplished writers. Some just need general guidance and others may need more granular attention. In order to gauge what type of student you as an academic are dealing with, you can get the students to write in a few different levels.

They can show you any of the following types of writing (the list is not exhaustive):

  • notes
  • early drafts
  • brief summaries of the literature
  • seminar presentations
  • conference posters
  • academic papers
  • chapters

The next step would be to identify the areas of writing that need improvement and tailor the feedback to the student’s needs and abilities, but doing it in a measured way, in manageable chunks that the student can learn from without having their soul crushed!

You can choose whether you want to address first the micro-level, such as

Spell checking and proof-reading

Checking facts and references

Or the meso level, such as


Structure and flow

What’s missing

Or the macro level, such as

Commenting on argument and logic

Level of critical thinking

A significant stumbling block to this approach to Feedback is ‘Time’.

We do live in a Space-Time continuum, and as academics we have seen new roles and duties added to our job description which need to be carried out in the same amount of time (a topic that deserves a post or series of posts… tbc), and moreover, some academics may have to deal with a few students at a time while others with a dozen or more. It would be unrealistic to expect all academics to be able to take this advice on board. As I - increasingly apparently - say, “one size does not fit all”.

However, whatever Feedback strategy you adopt, key thigs to consider are that it needs to be timely, in order to be more effective, and that unhelpful Feedback does actually exist (not a myth). Just think back to the time you got feedback along the lines of,

“This needs work”

“Not at the standard”

“A bit unclear”

or my personal favourite “?????”, which I’m guilty of doing!!!.

This type of Feedback, leaves the reader confused, frustrated and not knowing how to proceed. So put yourselves in the student’s shoes and be more specific, give examples and where possible give notes on a paragraph or two or a page, so they have something concrete to work with.

In fact, what you would be doing then is not ‘Feedback’ but rather ‘Feedforward’, giving students the tools they need to improve their writing instead of telling them how to do it or doing it for them.

Empowering students to take control and ownership of their learning.

A good teacher does not teach facts, (they) teach enthusiasm, open-mindedness and values— Gian-Carlo Rota/