Providing feedback on writing in engineering: a resource for supervisors

11 Jul 19 ARH away tiny
Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes writes: Today’s post focuses on engineering writing in a research writing. In my work, I get to see a good deal of feedback from supervisors. The quality varies hugely. Much of it is conscientious. Most of it is professional — though some of it can be rather grumpy.

Overall, however, much of the feedback I see is concerning. Specifically, the ratio between (a) time spent by the supervisor and (b) likelihood of improvement by the student is all wrong.

Supervisors often lament how much time has, it seems, to be invested in providing feedback. And the anticipation of such a workload sometimes leads to procrastination.

And then, despite all that time invested, students often tell me that they can’t really tell what they should be doing to improve.

The mismatch between (a) and (b) above is, I think, tragic for both parties.

 

What goes wrong

Here are the most common problem areas:

  1. Once the student has finished a draft, so that it’s ready for review, the student plays no further part in the process other than to submit the draft to the supervisor.
  2. The feedback is strong on content but weak on presentation (by which I mean such things as style and structure of the piece)
  3. The feedback identifies errors and weaknesses but does not identify good practice.
  4. The supervisor makes interventions (for example, using tracked changes) that show how the piece should look, but not why it should look that way.
  5. The feedback is only that — feedback. There’s a lack of feedforward: what should the student do differently in future?

A variant of (5) is to provide feedforward that is hopelessly vague. For example, I recently read the following comment: ‘Rewrite this paragraph’. That was it. No clue as to how or why.

 

What to do about it: solutions general and specific

The first step is a very general one, namely to recognise a fundamental principle of communication, which runs as follows: “The only value in a piece of communication lies in what the receiver (here, the reader) takes from that communication”.

So if you’re spending hours covering a student’s piece of work with all kinds of squiggles and corrections that they then fail to learn from, you are wasting your time. Full stop.

A corollary is that the value of feedback (and -forward) is not determined by  the length of time invested by the supervisor. Rather, it is determined by how smart the feedback/forward is.

A second step is to consider the ethics — by which I really mean courtesy — involved. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a pretty good ethic to work by. If you submitted a journal paper and it was reviewed in line with the practice identified above (for example, with no recognition of strengths), you would, understandably, feel hard done by.

Then come a series of specific steps that I present below, in the form of a resource. the resource may be downloaded as a Word document here: 10 Sep 19 Review.

 

Resource for reviewing a piece of student’s writing productively

  1. Seek to agree the aim of the review. In particular, to what extent is the aim
    1. to produce a piece of writing that is correct?
    2. to develop the student’s ability to write acceptably?
  2. Insist that the student writes a self-review before you assess it. See Appendix A.
  3. To structure your review, use Appendix B.
  4. Use the student’s self-review to provide cues for your review. For example: (a) avoid investing much time in things the student knows already; and (b) focus on places where the student’s review is wide of the mark.
  5. In addition, select a sample passage from the piece of writing in question. Perhaps a page or two. Insert # symbols to indicate the beginning and end of the passage. In the passage, use tracked changes (and, if required insert comments) to indicate precisely how the passage could be improved.
  6. Ideally, allow time for dialogue once the student has read your review.

 

Appendix A: Student’s self-review

  1. In terms of your knowledge and understanding of content, what do you consider to be the main strengths of this piece?
  1. Again in relation to the content, what might be the main weaknesses in this piece?
  1. In terms of the presentation, what do you consider to be the main strengths of this piece? Note that presentation may include such things as:
    1. Style
    2. Structure
    3. Referencing
    4. Use of figures and tables
  1. Again in terms of presentation, what might be the main weaknesses?
  1. When it comes to writing comparable pieces in future, what would you most like to learn about how to improve?

 

Appendix B: Supervisor’s review

  1. In terms of your knowledge and understanding of content, what do you consider to be the main strengths of this piece?
  1. Again in relation to the content, what are the main weaknesses in this piece?
  1. In terms of the presentation (for example, your style, the structure of the piece, referencing, and the use of figures and tables), what do you consider to be the main strengths of this piece?
  1. Again in terms of presentation, what are the main weaknesses?
  1. When it comes to the student writing comparable pieces in future, what should the student do to improve?

 

 

 

 

 

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