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UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students

What is feedback?

discussion with two people at a tableFeedback is any kind of information that someone gives you about your performance, skills and/or understanding, and can represent one of the best opportunities for improving. Feedback could be a grade on your essay, or comments given to you verbally or in writing. It might come from your supervisors, but might also come from friends, family, or even from yourself.

With the Cambridge supervision system, you will receive feedback on your work on a weekly basis. However, many students don’t take notice of their feedback. This can be for many reasons, but it’s very difficult to improve without getting any input on what to do differently, and how. Ignoring your feedback makes it difficult to do better next time. So receiving feedback is not the important thing. Instead, it is what you do with it that counts.

The resources on this page have been informed by and adapted from the Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit, Higher Education Academy, 2016.

How do you feel about the feedback? - click on the box title to find out more

Because you have done well, you presumably will want to ensure you do just as well next time – your feedback will help you to understand why you did so well and this shows what you should do again in future. Also, maybe you could do even better next time - it is likely that you will still be given ideas on how to improve.
This is understandable! A bad grade can knock your confidence and motivation. But it's important to remember that the feedback is about your work, not about you as a person. It may help to put your feedback aside for a few days before you look at it properly. When you come back to it, it's often easier to absorb and use.

 

Feedback can be instrumental in telling you why you have a disappointing set of comments or mark. If you ignore it, you can't improve. If you need someone to guide you through the feedback, contact whoever marked your work.
Not all feedback is equally constructive and detailed. It may feel uninformative, or maybe you completely disagree with it. Don’t dismiss it! Sometimes the most valuable part of feedback is your reflection upon it. For example, even if you disagree with a suggestion, thinking about why you feel this way can help you clarify your understanding, or realise how you could better justify your arguments. You could also (politely) contact the marker and ask them to discuss it.

Sometimes, the language can be difficult to understand. Your supervisors typically use specific marking schemes to ensure that their marking is consistent and transparent but the terminology may not mean a lot to you unless you ask about the detail.
If you are used to receiving grades, you may well feel frustrated by only receiving comments on your work. If you don't get a mark, it is representative of the fact that supervisions are formative; they are not assessed and as such represent a chance to try out new approaches and ideas or to let you make mistakes in your workings.

 

You will instead receive pointers for improving your work, so don't be disheartened, and take them in a constructive way. If it isn't clear from the comments if you are making good progress, speak to your supervisor. They may not say "it is a 2:1 piece of work" but they can give you an indication as to whether you are on track.

Specific ways to improve

You may see these terms come up in your feedback as headers or specific points may include this vocabulary. Here are some pointers about how you could improve in these areas.

  • Be more critical: When describing studies or theories, ask whether what you’ve learned about them is necessarily true – are the conclusions questionable? If so, why? Does the evidence actually support the ideas it claims to support?
  • Improve your structure: The best way to improve structure is to plan your work well before you start writing. What exactly do you want to say? What does the marker need to understand first, before they can understand the rest? How can you make each section of your work flow nicely into the rest, so that the marker won’t get lost?
  • Clearer use of evidence: Sometimes students feel so confident in their understanding of a topic, that they forget to show evidence to support their claims. Make sure you back up everything you say. Also, it’s always best to read your primary sources carefully, rather than just reading descriptions of those sources - do they actually say what you think they say?
  • Show your workings: demonstrate how you got to your answer in order to get more helpful feedback. If you get the answer wrong but supervisors don't know why, it is difficult for them to help you improve.
  • Improve your writing style: Your writing style can be hard to change so when you read books or articles, don’t just focus on what they say, but also on how they are written. If you find authors that are really clear and easy to understand, keep as examples of the kinds of style you could emulate.
  • More accurate referencing: Using references appropriately is often tricky, but it’s also fairly easy to find out what to do. Check your feedback to see where you often go wrong. Sometimes it’s an aspect of formatting that you didn’t even know about. Look at our section on referencing for more information.

There are many words that academic staff may use to give you pointers on how to improve. However, you may not be familiar with those particular terms. There will be terms which are specific to your discipline but the glossary, linked below, may give you some explanations:

Engaging with feedback

woman holding orange folderFeedback should be a conversation and supervisions give you an excellent opportunity to engage with it. You receive written and verbal feedback and then get a chance to ask questions and explore what that actually means in order to help you improve for next time. Use this time to ask for more specific comments, find out what went wrong so that you can improve.

Away from the face-to-face context, you should then build on what you have heard. You could write out the positive and negative comments on post-it notes and make them visible when you complete your next piece of work to remind you of what went well and what to avoid.

Or you could be more systematic and record feedback to create a 'portfolio' to help you reflect on your work over time. Have a look at these worksheets and think about whether you could build them into your working practices at Cambridge.

lightbulb iconReviewing feedback
Receiving feedback is just the first stage in improving your work. You should engage with it, whether positive or negative, so that you know how you performed and how you can do just as well, or better, next time. Try out the following:
 
  • Find a piece of work from school or college which you received written feedback on.
  • What are the main messages from the marker?
  • Is there anything in the comments that you do not fully understand? If so, what?
  • How does the feedback make you feel?
  • Look at the comments telling you what you have done well. Consider why this was the case. 
  • Look at the comments telling you what you need to do to improve. Consider why the marker has made those comments, and whether you integrated them into your next piece of work.

Content credits

Higher Education Academy (2016)

Image credits

CC0 by Nik MacMillan via Unsplash, CC0 by Icons8 Team via Unsplash