Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students use my feedback to improve their work?

U.S. instructor, CMU program overseas

I’ve always given my students a lot of written feedback on their work, especially in the first few weeks of class. My students in the U.S. appreciated this and generally showed improvement on subsequent assignments. I continued to provide extensive feedback when I began teaching abroad, but I realized after a few weeks that it wasn’t having the desired effect: students continued to make the same mistakes and struggle with the same problems I’d already commented on. At first, I thought they simply weren’t reading my feedback, but when I asked them if this was the case, they told me that they often didn’t understand my comments or know how to use my feedback to improve their work.

I decided then to take some time out of a class session and go through the comments on a few of the papers students had submitted (after getting the students’ approval, of course). I explained what I meant by each comment and showed them strategies and possible revisions that would have made the paper stronger. After doing this a few times, I found that almost all my students were better able to act on the feedback I provided.

Other strategies

  • Make sure you use clear, simple language in your comments. Keep them as short as possible, and limit your feedback to one or two of the most important issues, so students know where to focus their attention.
  • When students receive and read comments, ask them what revisions they’d make on a second draft or (if there is no second draft) what they’d do differently if they were starting again. Alternatively, when students turn in a second draft, require them to also submit a paragraph or two explaining their revision decisions. These sorts of reflective exercises require students to process your feedback and reflect on how to translate it into action.
  • Pay attention to patterns of error across the entire class (e.g., poor organization, grandiose topic sentences, conclusions that replicate the thesis paragraph verbatim) and spend some time in class discussing these problems.
  • Note instances where students misinterpret your feedback, and reflect on how to communicate with them more effectively. You might want to ask a colleague or TA to read through some of your comments on student work and tell you if your feedback is clear.
  • Take advantage of peer review as another source of feedback for students. Peer review provides student writers with feedback from a more diverse group of readers. Moreover, student reviewers often get better at diagnosing problems in their own writing by assessing others ’ work. Remember, however, that peer review is not automatically helpful: for the feedback to be effective, students must clearly understand the assessment criteria and learn how to give feedback constructively.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.