If you’re like me, assignment feedback can depress the heck out of you! Sometimes I want to throw it away and never look at it again.
If you’re like me, you’ll also probably look first at your grade and everything else matters less: the feedback is far less important to you than your overall grade.
Top students see negative feedback on a paper as a good thing. It’s another opportunity to get ahead.
In this post, I outline how to use feedback on your paper to grow your mark and get ahead.
If you use the following thirteen steps, you can bring substantial improvements to your own assignments in the future.
What’s the point of Feedback?
Assignment feedback isn’t a chance for your teacher to be mean or rank you against your peers.
Feedback is not about being judged or talked down to. Feedback is all about YOU and no one else.
Feedback is the opportunity you get to check yourself, see how you’re going, and look for opportunities to improve.
Assignment feedback is about personal growth.
How to Use Assignment Feedback
1. Start with a Growth Mindset
Having a growth mindset means that you believe you have the ability to improve. People with a growth mindset think that they are in control of their own future and actively go about achieving their goals.
If you approach assignment feedback with a growth mindset you’ll be on track to improving.
If you approach feedback with a sense that improving is out of your control, you’re never going to improve.
Here are three simple thoughts you need to put out of your mind right away:
- I’m not good enough. Did I ever tell you how average a student I was in my undergraduate degree? If I can go from average student to Ph.D. at 24, so can you. Believe in yourself.
- The teacher’s a jerk. This might be true. But, let’s face it, unless you got the top mark in the class, you didn’t get the maximum grade your teacher gives out. That means that you’ve got room for improvement. So don’t blame the teacher. Improvement is in your hands.
- I don’t want to think about it. I get it. Burnout sucks. So feel free to forget about that feedback for a little while. But at some point, you’ve got to tackle it. So get in a positive mindset: I’m here to improve. Come at me, world.
Want some motivation? Check out this awesome and inspiring YouTube video about growth mindsets from Khan Academy:
2. Figure out your Teacher’s Pet Peeves
All teachers have something that is a huge pet peeve. Some have many.
For me, one pet peeve is apostrophes. A misplaced apostrophe jumps off the page at me and makes me think: Poor editing. Sloppy.”
I had a colleague once who couldn’t stand when a paper didn’t use the correct margin sizes. Seriously! He would flip out and cut students’ marks. Personally, I couldn’t care less about the margins!
When looking over your teacher’s feedback, take note of what little things they really seemed overly picky about. Was it the referencing style? The fact that you used first-person language? Your over-use of a certain word?
Take note. If your teacher has given you strong feedback on something that no other teacher has bothered to mention, you’ll need to adjust your writing style for that teacher.
Feedback is your opportunity to read your teacher and find out what you need to do in order to avoid their pet peeves in the future.
3. Read it. Then Forget it. For a while.
I hate assignment feedback.
My Ph.D. supervisor would give me my work back with red marks all through it. It would be so depressing. I’d be mad at her for days and days. I worked my tail off on that work! I took on all your feedback and it’s still not good enough!?
I developed a strategy:
Check the grade. Read the feedback. All of it. Then put it away for at least two days.
Don’t email your teacher yet. Don’t bitch about her to your friends. Just forget about it.
You’ll find that when you come back to the feedback two days later the emotion is gone. You’ll not look at the mark but look through the feedback to see what you can pick out of it that you can use in the future.
Be very careful about contacting your teacher about the feedback. You want to take those two days to let it soak in before sending out an email.
You have no idea how many emotional emails I get from students that probably have been much more carefully (and professionally!) worded if they’d only taken a few days to sit on the marks and let the emotions settle a little.
4. Make a Table
Tables are amazing for working through assignment feedback. They help you to sort out your thoughts and consider ways in which you can improve your work.
I follow a very simple format that I’ve used for years with great success. Whenever I write an academic paper for publication in journals I use this method – and let me tell you, the feedback in peer review is brutal!
Here’s a simple example of a feedback table:
|Your paragraphs are confusing||1. Read a blog post on writing paragraphs|
2. Focus on using clearer words
3. Use an ethical editing company to help edit (not write!) my next essay
|You need to show more depth||1. Read a blog post to find out what depth means in essays.|
2. Focus on using examples and explanations in my paragraphs
|You need to use more academic references||1. Attend a library workshop seminar on academic references.|
2. Make sure I cite more of the assigned readings for my next assignment
The key to your table is to list all the assignment feedback you received on the left and provide space on the right for you to fill in how you’d like to improve on that work for next time.
Brainstorm ways you can improve on the points your teacher wants you to improve on, and list all the ways you think you can do this. Aim also to link these changes to the next assessment, i.e: “In future assessments, I will…”
In this way, you’re turning feedback into feed-forward.
5. Find just Three Action Points (and One point for Praise)
Sometimes there’s too much feedback to handle. If you’re looking at a piece of paper with big red marks scribbled up and down the margins, I recommend finding just three key points that you think you can work on – and putting the rest aside for now.
Here are a few major ones to focus on in the beginning:
- Not enough referencing. If your teacher wrote this, it’s an easy one to fix – so start with it. I recommend reading my post on how to find scholarly sources to get started solving this issue.
- Add depth or be more critical. These two often mean the same thing. This is also one of the biggest pieces of assignment feedback teachers give. It’s really cryptic, so I’ve broken down how to address this issue in my post on how to show critical thinking in an essay.
- Write more clearly. Again, this a major one – which is why I formulated my perfect paragraph formula to help you out.
The trick with choosing action points is that you want to find ones that you think you have a realistic chance of working on.
If your negative feedback was on something specific to that previous class that you just finished, you’re better off focusing on the general feedback that you can put into action in the next course.
Remember to celebrate the Positives
While you’re at it, note down one point of praise. Note down something you did well and give yourself a moment to congratulate yourself. Feel good about the fact that you had one little win even in a sea of negative feedback.
6. Forget about the Grade
Feedback and the grade need to be seen as two entirely separate points.
I recommend leaving the assignment feedback aside until you’ve come to terms with your grade. If you attach the feedback to the grade you’ll not be looking at it with clear eyes.
Teachers hate when students email them and say “why did I only get that grade?”
That’s totally the wrong question. This question instantly signifies to the teacher that all you care about is the mark and not whether or not you actually learned anything!
The right questions to ask your teacher are:
- Please explain the feedback
- Please explain one specific point in the feedback
- What advice do you have for improvement?
The next step examines approaching your teacher for feedback in a little more detail.
7. Go to your Teacher
Ensure you’ve left it for two days at least between reading the feedback the first time and contacting your teacher.
Then, email your teacher and either:
- Ask for a one-to-one discussion during open office hours or a convenient time; or
- Provide no more than three questions you want clarification on.
Asking for further details or clarification on feedback is your right. You paid a lot of money to do this degree – make the most of it.
I recommend no more than three questions. If you ask more than three questions in an email you’ll find your teacher gets vague and doesn’t cover all three of them at once. List the three questions in number format and ask the questions in full sentences.
To get the best response, it’s important not to seem defensive. Open the email with a thank you in recognition of their work in providing feedback in the first place. Then, ask the teacher to clarify each point.
You could ask:
- Whether they can point out specific points in your paper where the feedback is relevant to help you get a better understanding;
- To clarify their expectations for the next piece; or
- Ask for any tips on how to achieve their advice (is there a source they recommend that explains this idea they’ve presented to you in their feedback?)
I’ve provided an email for just this very purpose in my free email template booklet, which has email templates for any scenario:
If you’ve asked for a one-to-one discussion, make sure you print the assignment feedback and a copy of your paper when you attend the meeting. There’s nothing worse than a student who attends a meeting without questions and works to show.
8. Show your teacher how you used the feedback to Improve in the Next Assignment
This one’s the clincher. Literally, show them how you used their feedback. Put evidence that you used their feedback right under their nose. I recommend that you meet with the teacher before you submit your next piece and point out how you used their feedback.
When it comes time to show your teacher the draft for your next piece of work, come to the meeting with your table (see step 3) to show how you’ve taken their feedback into account.
Then, point out exactly where in your paper you’ve put their feedback into action.
Because you met with your teacher and showed them how you used their feedback, they will be primed and ready to recognize where and how you put their feedback into action when they mark your work.
If you don’t take the step of meeting with the teacher, there’s a good chance they won’t recognize all the effort you put into using their feedback.
Teachers give a lot of feedback – remember, they’ll probably have 40 to 100 other papers to mark just like yours. Your work gets lost in their memory amongst the jumble of other papers they read that one weekend six weeks ago.
Furthermore, meeting with your teacher to show them how you’ve used their feedback will go down really well in convincing them you’re worthy of top marks.
You’ll surely have gotten your teacher on your side and well and truly ready to give you top marks for your next piece of work.
9. List your Goals for next Term / Semester on a Post-It Note
University summer break is very, very long. We’re talking about up to three months of working, traveling, drinking, partying, or whatever else you have on your plate.
By the time you get back to university, you will likely have forgotten a lot of what you learned last semester.
One trick you should get into the habit of using is the post-it note reminder. All you need to do is list your three actionable goals from Step 5 and leave them on a post-it note on your desk for reflection next semester.
It’s so simple: a 2-minute task that will dramatically improve your chances of growing your grade next semester. It’ll get you back in the game and focused for next semester.
And it’ll remind you what your weaknesses are that you need to work on.
10. Keep your Assignment Feedback for Reflection
You should keep a folder on your computer (or in a drawer, if you’re still getting paper feedback) that has all your assignments and feedback kept in there.
In Step 8 I reinforced the importance of using assignment feedback semester-on-semester.
Even though the post-it trick in Week 8 is effective, it’s not quite enough.
You also need to dig deeper. You need to identify trends in your assignment feedback to see what your true weaknesses are.
If one teacher tells you your writing style is no good, that’s one thing. If five teachers in the past two years have told you your writing style needs work, then you’ve got yourself a real problem.
So, keep your assignment feedback and every now and then, go back to the stack of feedback and try to identify trends.
If you know your weaknesses, you’ll be able to work on them and turn them into strengths.
11. Be Humble.
In my experience, the angriest, obnoxious, self-assured students are often the ones who least deserve the top marks.
If I’m honest, I think I know the reason for this. These are the students who have dug themselves into their own delusions that they deserve the top marks because they’re talented.
The problem here is that these students lack a growth mindset. They never took assignment feedback on board and used it to improve. Ergo, they never improved.
Humility is a skill that will serve you well. Regularly, you are given feedback from teachers reinforcing the fact that your work – your mind – has faults. You’re not perfect. That sucks to hear, but it’s true!
Whenever you get assignment feedback, remember that this is the time for humility and good grace. Even if you disagree with your teacher, approach the situation with the recognition that you still have much to learn.
You might even find that being polite, humble, and genuine about your desire for help will endear you to your teacher and help you convince them to take it easier on you next time around.
12. Turn Negative Feedback into a Talking Point
At some point in your life you’re going to get this question in a job interview: “what is your biggest weakness?”
You can use teacher feedback to answer this question in a way that will move you to the top of the pile.
Your future boss is really asking you this:
- Are you aware of your faults?
- How do you address them?
There is a very easy formula for answering this question. It goes like this:
- Here’s a weakness a mentor identified;
- Here’s how I have worked to overcome it
If you’ve got a piece of feedback that occurs regularly, I recommend turning it into your talking point for showing how you have a growth mentality. Let people know what the weakness is, and what you’re doing to address it.
To really hit this point out of the park, you can give an indication of the progress you have made. Talk about how once you got feedback on your research or writing style (your weakness), and you actively addressed it by booking library workshop seminars.
After taking the seminars, you noticed your grades started to rise! You overcame a weakness!
13. Use the Internet to Improve on your Weaknesses
You’re here. You already took the first big step towards teaching yourself to use the internet.
Even if your teacher is a monster who gives totally useless assignment feedback and is impossible to understand, you still have the power to improve your marks.
Make the most out of free online resources. I’d recommend making it a part of your social media and internet downtime routine to browse around your favorite student support websites for little golden bits of information about how to improve your marks.
If you listen to ‘write more clearly’ as one of your three actionable goals in Point 5, then google “how to write more clearly”. It’s really that easy to get started!
Here are three types of online resources you can use to teach yourself:
- Blogs. Of course, I recommend my blog: Helpfulprofessor.com. But there’s more out there, like Scribendi.com and Grammar Girl that are really useful for learning how to increase your grades.
- Podcasts. My personal favorite resource that I have created is my podcast. I have so many students who don’t, particularly like reading blogs but are happy to listen to me explain my secret strategies for success. If you don’t like my podcast, try Marion Hegarty’s Grammar Girl podcast – it’s sublime.
- YouTube Videos. Use a YouTube search to learn anything you like – like how to paraphrase better, how to use quotes more effectively, or even simple study tips.
Using feedback for self-growth is a secret weapon of top students. While most students hate the frustration of bad assignment feedback and never want to look at it ever again, top students see it as another opportunity to get that little bit further ahead in their pursuit of an amazing degree.
Use your assignment feedback to fuel your desire for top marks.
In this article, I’ve recommended five strategies that top students use to get ahead using assignment feedback. These are:
How to Use Assignment Feedback to Improve your Grades
- Start with a Growth Mindset
- Figure out your Teacher’s Pet Peeves
- Read it. Then Forget it. For a while.
- Make a Table
- Find just Three Action Points (and One point for Praise)
- Forget about the Grade
- Go to your Teacher
- Show your teacher how you used the feedback to Improve in the Next Assignment
- List your Goals for the next Term / Semester on a Post-It Note
- Keep your Feedback for Reflection
- Be Humble.
- Turn Negative Feedback into a Talking Point
- Use the Internet to Improve on your Weaknesses
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.