Most of us know what it feels like to put significant effort into an assignment, and to have it returned with a barrage of red comments cascading down the pages, recommending innumerable changes for improvement. It can feel disheartening and frustrating – and sometimes dampens your motivation to want to try at all to work on a revision!
During my freshman year of college, I proudly handed in my first philosophy paper into which I had put significant time and effort. My graded paper was returned with heavy constructive feedback that challenged my arguments with counterpoints in what I read as a curt, disparaging tone. My professor’s feedback left me feeling hurt, discouraged, and unmotivated about what I had written and led me to question my ability to produce good work moving forward.
I only hear what I’ve done WRONG in my assignment, and that I’ve failed – but what about what I did right?
As I read my graded philosophy paper, the problem was that I only heard what I did wrong, and didn’t feel that I had done anything right. I also took the feedback so personally that I wasn’t able to absorb the golden insights I had been offered. After writing (many) more college essays, I grew to see the true value my professors were giving me with their comments in support of my improvement. In order to do this, however, I had to learn to separate my emotional reactions to feedback and lower my defensiveness so that I could concretely take in their suggestions.
In my experience tutoring students, I’ve witnessed the occurrence of similar misunderstandings in my students’ reception of feedback on their work. Students often come to tutoring sessions frustrated with comments they have received, feeling they have failed in their efforts, at times overcome with confusion about how to move forward with revisions. It seems there is a need for more clarity around the whole process of feedback so that students can better see how professors’ comments function to help, not hinder, their experience of producing work.
What is the POINT of feedback anyways?
In “Responding to Student Writing” Nancy Sommers, a long-time educator and leader in the field of expository writing, argues that teachers write comments in order to scaffold students towards becoming better at conveying the ideas they want to express (Sommers 148). She writes, “we comment on student writing to dramatize the presence of a reader” (Sommers 148), and articulates that a primary aim of feedback is to help students see what they have written from another perspective. Sommers also highlights the powerful potential for feedback to spark a student’s interest in improving their work – “thoughtful comments create the motive for revising” (Sommers 149).
Unfortunately, as many of us know personally, feedback is not always received with the positive intent to help that drives it. Instead, it can lead to feelings of discouragement if taken personally as well as confusion about what is actually being conveyed (Sommers 153). The professor is challenging the student to improve because they believe in their ability to craft an even better piece than what was originally written. The miscommunication in how feedback is received often lies in the specifics of how it is communicated – the tone of the comments, the emphasis on errors found throughout the piece (Sommers 154), the lack of clarity in the language of the feedback itself. Too often, comments end up being detrimental to the student’s confidence in her writing or ideas (Sommers 150) – which is clearly not what any educator intends!
Now that I know this, how do I implement feedback when I:
1.) take it too personally,
2.) don’t understand it, or
3.) feel unmotivated to revise my work?
1.) When you feel like you are taking comments too personally, and this prevents you from hearing the feedback:
Sometimes you may realize you are reacting too sensitively to comments; other times, you may be reacting to a critical or harsh tone that seems to legitimately be coming through. Either way, here are some strategies to get the most out the feedback you’re given.
DON’T take it personally. Remind yourself that it is not personal. Remind yourself that your professor’s comments are there only to challenge you to do better. Read the feedback, implement new changes, and move forward. [This may work sometimes – but maybe not always!]
DO take it personally. But, don't dwell too long on that feeling. If the comments still feel personal, that’s okay, and makes a lot of sense! This is your work into which you have put a great deal of time and energy. In many ways, it is important to remember is that your professor’s feedback is not intended to make you feel bad. They are giving you critical feedback because they want you to keep improving and they believe there are specific ways you can actually do this (see their comments!). While it’s alright to feel hurt, after allowing yourself to feel this frustration, challenge yourself to put those feelings aside and focus on the main point: what the feedback is actually telling you. Use the following steps as a guide:
- Take a deep breath and read the comments fully. Re-read your paper with attention to the comments as a response to the particular elements of your paper they address.
- Step back from the tone, words, or whatever about your professor’s response may feel upsetting. Peel away your frustration, anger, or hurt, or the feeling that you “didn’t get it right” (if that’s how you feel). Acknowledge those feelings. Then put them aside.
- Now, look concretely at what the feedback is saying. What are the comments telling you specifically? What action steps do you see that you can take to improve your work?
- Implement the feedback in your revision, and observe the new piece you’ve created.
2.) When you are ready to revise but don't understand what your professor's comments are actually communicating to you:
First, the content of the comments themselves can be confusing to understand. In “Responding to Student Writing” Nancy Sommers addresses how the language professors use in their feedback can be confusing (153) – they know what they mean, but you may not be quite grasping what they are expressing. This can be anxiety-provoking because you know that interpreting the feedback incorrectly could throw off any changes you decide to implement to improve your work.
Second, if you are working to revise an assignment, the number of comments provided can result in a pile of elements to change but a lack of clarity about how to prioritize what to fix first – “...comments are worded in such a way that it is difficult for students to know what is the most important problem in the text and what problems are of lesser importance” (Sommers 151). This can make it confusing to figure out where to even start when revising a whole piece (Sommers 151)!
Ask for clarification on the feedback.
Meet with the professor, a TA, a peer, or a tutor for a second perspective.
First and foremost, communicate with your professor! Send an email with questions or asking to meet to discuss. Too often I tutor students who are so upset with trying to understand comments that they feel defeated before even starting a revision of a piece. Many students are hesitant to reach out to a professor for clarity on their feedback. However, reaching out to a professor or TA is the most straightforward, concrete way to comprehend what they are expressing in their comments. Your conversation may even offer more ideas or strategies on how to implement the feedback. Additionally, when you reach out with your questions, you are communicating the hard effort you are putting into your work!
If you are not able to meet with the professor for clarification, get a second opinion on the comments from a peer in the class, a friend, or a tutor. A secondary perspective will offer even more insight into how someone else understands what you tried to convey alongside how your professor responded. This alternate perspective may help you identify something in your writing or in the feedback that you did not initially notice, which will help as you approach a revision.
Lastly, when you are pulling apart the feedback, follow these 5 steps:
- Write down all of the suggestions you received on how to improve your piece.
- Look at these comments side by side with your overall assignment and put numbers by the suggested changes in your
list to indicate the order of priority in which you’ll address them.
- Revise your piece according to this order of priority.
- Read your first draft and then your current draft. See how you feel about the changes.
- Implement further changes you may feel are needed.
#3. When you are having trouble getting motivated to make revisions after you understand what you need to do:
It’s not an easy thing to be told that you have done something less than effectively, or that you didn’t quite get to where you were asked to go. However, the important thing is to remember what excited you about this assignment, and to see the great opportunity you have to make your piece even better!
Look at the revision process as an adventure that will take your work somewhere new, different, and better – and which is still unknown!
- Go back to the beginning. Re-read the assignment prompt. Remember what you wanted to communicate, and think about what was really interesting and important you in writing this assignment (Sommers 149). Use this to help drive what you express in your revision.
- Look at the feedback you’ve been offered. Follow the 5 tips in the previous section (section #2, bullet point #3) above on how to prioritize implementing this feedback.
- Give it a shot. Make an honest attempt to make changes. Use your inspiration after re-reading the prompt and remembering what was important to you, to take some risks in your revision. Don’t just think about the grade, but think about how you can actually create something more interesting, that more deeply explores the ideas you are working on.
- Congratulate yourself! Taking risks and putting in the time and effort to revise is not an easy thing. Be proud of the new piece (or draft) you have shaped, and more importantly, of your willingness to hear feedback when it’s offered, and to see it as a pathway to improving your work!