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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Responding to and using feedback

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

What is feedback?

 Feedback 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 tutors, but might also come from friends, family, or even from yourself.

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.

Obstacles to using feedback

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.
It can be difficult to know what practical steps you could take. Even if you understand the feedback, it’s often the case that you think “Well, what can I do with this?”
It can feel like using feedback is pointless. It may sometimes feel like putting feedback into action doesn’t pay off, perhaps because you have different assignments for different papers/modules, or because you feel like your weaknesses are impossible to change.
It can be difficult to feel motivated. On top of everything else, you may feel quite demotivated by feedback. It can feel like a lot of effort to use feedback.
Is it good or bad? You may be used to receiving grades for your work. Many supervision essays are not marked in this way; you may only receive written or verbal comments.

How do you feel about the feedback?

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 - look out for 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 mark. If you ignore it, you can't improve. If you need someone to guide you through feedback, contact whoever marked your work.
There's always something to gain from feedback, even when it's describing work you will never do again. For example, it may comment on issues that apply to all written assessments, like structure, grammar, or referencing. Or it may comment on other things that you can apply elsewhere, like the quality of your critique, or depth of further reading. If you really can't find anything helpful in your feedback, a meeting with your tutor may help you to find it.
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 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.
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 summative; they are not assessed and as such represent a chance to try out new approaches and ideas. 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.

Reviewing 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 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 you have done these things well. 
  • 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.

Feedback Terminology

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. Different academic staff will use language in different ways but this glossary may give you some explanations:

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.

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?

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?

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. Check our section on referencing for more information.

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?

Your writing style can be hard to change, and the expectations are often much higher at university compared with school or college. When you read papers, don’t just focus on what they say, but also on how they are written. If you find papers that are really clear and easy to understand, keep them as examples of the kinds of style you could emulate.

Engaging with feedback

Feedback should be a conversation and the Cambridge supervision is one of the best examples of that. 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. However, that doesn't mean that you can't engage in other ways.

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.

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