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Giving feedback on writing

In this text we focus on one specific modality of giving feedback: feedback on writing
A hand holding a pen above a white sheet of paper
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As a supervisor, much of the feedback you give (and possibly the first thing that comes to mind) is feedback on written work. It is important to recognize and keep in mind that giving feedback on written work has two effects: on the one hand it brings an improvement of the output, on the other it results in progressive improvement of a very important skill of the student – the ability to write scientific work and communicate their research.

When reviewing written work your task is not necessarily to edit the work of the student, but to give them pointers so that they can gradually learn the art of writing scientific articles. Another aspect to keep in mind is that written feedback and face-to-face feedback differ significantly. The absence of body language, tone of voice, and immediate reactions of the receiver makes providing such feedback even more challenging.

For this reason, ideally, you should first meet in person with the PhD student to discuss general elements of your feedback, as well as the most significant smaller points. You could wait to send the document with your feedback after such a meeting, inviting them to contact you if your comments are unclear. This is the preferred option particularly when it is the first time you give feedback on writing to your PhD student.

Alternatively, you could mail them the text with your comments and ask them to go through it before the meeting, so that clarification – if need be – can be given then. In this case, it is of utmost importance that you provide a few paragraphs with general feedback (including an explanation of the patterns that you see in the text that need attention), starting with the strong points of the text, then learning points/ points of attention, and third explaining how the text reflects the development of the student. Even when the first version of the written work is very weak it is important to let the student know that creating this version was a very fruitful and necessary step in their learning process and that the feedback you give will help them take the next step and take it to a higher level, so that they can produce a more mature, structured, specific, or nuanced version – whatever is needed.

Seven tips for giving written feedback

  1. Keep it constructive and avoid negative formulations. Not only should you include both positive comments and improvement points, but also the tone of all comments should be such that PhDs do not feel criticized. Keep in mind that your comments can be reread many times and there is no possibility of “damage control.” A good way is to start your feedback with the word “Tip!”, followed by a suggestion on how you would like to see the text improved, rather than where you see the issue. For example, rather than “incomprehensible” you could write “Can you reformulate in simpler terms/ shorter sentences? Tip: start with three bullet points and work out from there.”
  2. Be clear and concise. Your comments should be easy to understand and your main points should be easy to follow.
  3. Do not nitpick. If you notice the same mistake repeated many times, make one general comment suggesting that they should apply this to their whole article.
  4. Ask a question if possible. Statements often sound like you are trying to teach your PhD something new. Questions, in turn, make them engage with the task and the material and help them remain in the self-directed learning trajectory.
  5. Make sure your feedback is tailored to the needs and the level of the PhD. Focusing on what is just above the current level of your students, challenges them to develop, while remaining safe and achievable.
  6. Make sure that the PhD recognizes the weight of the critical remark. They might have trouble recognizing which of your comments are essential for their progress and which are of secondary importance.
  7. If possible, make a short summary of all your feedback. We all know the stress of receiving a paper marked all in red. If there is a preface explaining what was good about it and what needs improvement, it is easier to be open to the comments that follow.

Give it a try!

Next time when giving feedback to your PhD student on a piece of writing, try to follow the tips above. Let the other users know how the feedback cycle went. Also, if you have any practical ways to give focused feedback on writing that is well received by PhD students, please share those with others too.

We have turned the 7 tips into a downloadable pdf for you to store and consult whenever you would like to use it.

© University of Groningen
This article is from the free online

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