Why Bother if They Don’t Read the Feedback?

As college instructors whose job it is to teach writing for the workplace, we are duty-bound to show our students where they have erred so they do not replicate their mistakes when they leave our classrooms. To attain this result, we laboriously provide feedback, suggesting edits and providing written reminders about writing strategies we have taught. Yet over and over, students come to us asking what they did “wrong” or turning in subsequent work with the exact same errors. It can be pretty discouraging, leading many of us to wonder, Why bother if they don’t even read the feedback?

However, teaching a concept called feedback literacy may help our students not just read our comments but integrate them into future work and deepen understanding. The purpose of feedback literacy is for a student to understand the contexts and components of feedback and therefore help engender future success in whatever process is being taught.

Behind this concept lies the acknowledgement of problems inherent to instructor-led, one-sided feedback. Such feedback may lack crucial detail, for example, leading to confusion rather than clarity. Some feedback may not consider the way learners interpret criticism, which is often with a reaction of resistance and defensiveness. These responses can lead instructors to view their students as unwilling to change or showing disrespect, creating a loop of misunderstanding and leading to the original impression: They don’t read my feedback! 

Carless and Boud’s 2018 article offers a helpful set of features for creating a student feedback literacy framework, summarized below.

Help students understand and commit to feedback.

Before students learn to absorb feedback, they must understand that they are working on improving a skill. This is especially true for writing. In addition, students need to understand that their instructor is on their side and wants them to do well. However, roadblocks to this goal exist. Many students come to our classrooms with prior experiences that can affect their understanding and uptake of instructor feedback. Some students may think, for example, that they cannot improve as writers or blame the instructor for their inability to grasp a concept. Helping students recognize the importance of feedback and its intent is therefore crucial.

Use models to help students accurately judge their own work.

Students are notorious for judging their work as better than it is. To work around this barrier to their accepting instructor feedback, students should have opportunities to self-evaluate their work and receive feedback on it before the instructor sees it. Peer editing using well-executed models that illustrate where the students’ drafts veer off can help student writers more accurately judge their work.

Create positive student-teacher relationships to foster better acceptance of critiques.

Students often react emotionally to teachers’ judgments of their writing. They are more likely to see those judgments as helpful if they believe their instructor is fair and trustworthy. Discussing how to accept criticism prior to students receiving written feedback can help. (See TakingCriticism: A Student’s Guide, which should be discussed with students prior to returning their first assignment.)

Factor in time for students to act on comments.

As writing instructors, we know rewriting is a critical component to success. Students need to be motivated, have the opportunity, and receive support to take in feedback and then implement it. Timely feedback is integral to this goal.

Evaluating student work is laborious. Yet as writing instructors, we must comment on where our students meet or miss the goal. Teaching feedback literacy may help them accept—and read—our time-consuming input.






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