Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

How to get better feedback on your work

Many students don't know how to get better. They find themselves in the third or fourth year of their degree, and whilst their writing has become more sophisticated and their ideas have developed, they still find themselves getting second class grades with not much clue as to how to improve.

In other articles I've tried to provide some general tips that might help most students to do a bit better; if the feedback I've gotten on them is indicative, then I think they succeeded in that goal. For some people, just knowing that what they were doing was broadly correct and that they were following the right path was enough to boost their confidence. 

Once you reach a certain point, however, most of your problems will be very individual. If I could, I'd happily write a thousand guides on how to deal with every issue that one could possibly encounter, but I neither have the time nor would I presume to be able to help with most issues that students might encounter. A lot of students find that individual attention and more long-term coaching can help significantly (and this is also something that I do provide), but absent the ability to give that to everyone, the best way to help people get better is to provide the tools for them to do it themselves. After all, you build a man a fire and you keep him warm for an evening; you set a man on fire and you keep him warm for the rest of his life.

With that in mind, here are a number of ways in which you can seek out and be given actionable, useful feedback on your work.

1. Don't be afraid to ask

This might sound trite, but I think it bears repeating as often as possible. In the vast majority of instances, your tutors and lecturers and supervisors will be more than happy to provide additional feedback on whatever work you've submitted.

For the unconvinced - why is this the case? For one, very few students ever actually ask us for feedback, and so when we get one who wants it, we tend to try pretty hard to please them. But also, most of us are doing this job because we - to some extent - enjoy it. People don't go into teaching for the money. That means that we genuinely like helping students to write better words and paragraphs and arguments, and we'll be happy to set aside time to talk to you if you want it.

The other thing here is that we get paid for a limited amount of time to mark your essays, and often office hours are paid on top of that. That means that often markers won't be able to go into depth on an essay without going into unpaid time (which they shouldn't do!), but the same problem doesn't apply for additional feedback. There's also the fact that many students simply don't read a lot of the feedback that they're given, which means it's a waste of time for us to write it in the first place. In sum, that means that you often get less constructive criticism on your essay in the first instance than your tutor would be prepared to give if you asked.

What does this look like? Some academics have office hours (usually the more senior ones who actually have private offices #notbitter) whilst others you'll have to arrange to meet up with. Some might not be able to meet up at all, but will happily provide further feedback by email. Personally, I tend to go with a combination of email and in-person meetings, because each one is capable of conveying different kinds of feedback. Emails will often entail well thought-out, careful articulations of the issues with your work, but they provide little opportunity for back-and-forth or clarification. In-person conversations are much more helpful on that front, but they will often lack the in-depth engagement with individual parts of your work that you get from comments on a screen.

The bottom line here is that if you don't ask, you don't get. 

2. Get a second opinion

Again, for those who are highly experienced this might sound obvious, but the proportion of people who do this is genuinely very low.

If you're unconvinced that your tutor or lecturer has provided - or is capable of providing - the kind of advice you need to improve, it can pay enormous dividends to ask somebody else to help. I've personally had past students come back to me for feedback later on, which I'm more than happy to give. But you might also think about going slightly higher in the foodchain and asking, say, the senior tutor on a course or the course organiser for help. They might not have time to provide it themselves, but in my experience most academics are only too happy to provide advice to students who seek it out from them.

The one word of caution I would provide here is that there are social justice issues you might want to bear in mind. Anecdotally, female tutors and lecturers tend to get more requests for help because they're seen as approachable, or their time as less valuable. Don't let this stop you from asking for help, but do take a moment to think about whose time you're asking for, and whether there might be someone else who is less stretched.

On that note, I provide bespoke academic guidance/coaching on a pay-what-you-can basis. Students I've worked with in the past have found this very helpful, as I'm able to engage with a decent sample of work and locate consistent issues, rather than looking at individual essays in isolation. Some students have, for example, managed to get a first class mark for the first time after we spent some time looking over their work together. If that's something you're interested in, please don't hesitate to contact me. My specialities are history and philosophy of science, and sociology of science/knowledge/technology, but I also teach a variety of subjects in the social sciences and the humanities and I've helped students in e.g. politics and literature.

3. Ask the right questions

Once you've approached someone and got a meeting with them lined up, or you're in an email conversation, the next step is to ensure that you're asking questions that are going to bear fruit.

The thing to bear in mind here is that academics aren't mind-readers. They don't know what kind of process you went through to write your essay, what you read, what ideas you had, and so on. They also don't know what problems you perceive yourself as having, and what decisions you took to form the product you eventually submitted. The only things they know about your work are what was put in front of them to mark.

That means you need to give them that quite vital context when you ask questions. For example, if you really struggled to find references that seemed like they would be helpful in formulating your argument, you should articulate that problem. If you didn't know what it would take to answer the question in front of you, or the particular words in the question seemed ambiguous to you, note that. If you're finding it difficult to get deep into the analytical links in your argument, that might be evident in your essay, but you should flag it nonetheless.

When you provide additional information, that helps in a couple of ways. First, it means that we can get deeper into your writing process and start to look at all of the steps along the way that led to the submission you gave in. From there we can help to steer you in a direction that's going to be more fruitful. In addition, we can start to combine our own conceptions of what you're doing imperfectly with your own. That means that together we can produce a more holistic picture of your academic experience and process, and that's a great jumping off point.

If you're just asking "what can I do better?", you're not going to get optimal results. Don't get me wrong, you might get good results - but you need to come in with some idea as to what might be going wrong in order to get the most out of your feedback. It might well be that you're told that there's something you didn't expect that you can fix, but I think in most instances it's likely you have some idea what's up.

Now go be reflective.

None of this is going to be helpful if you're going through the writing process without thinking about what you're doing. If you're doing all of your essays at 5AM the night before they're due, then you're never going to be producing your best work. You need to take time to reflect on the arguments you're going to formulate, to explore the literature around the subject, and to turn over in your mind what kinds of obstacles you're consistently encountering.

Ultimately, it's on you to become the best scholar you can be. If you're a student right now you probably have a vast amount of time where you can do what you want. Hopefully you enjoy your degree. If that's the case, and you want to be good at it, then take some time to reflect.

I hope you found this explainer helpful. If you did, why not check out my other guides on how to write better essays?

How to Write Better Essays v1

How to Write Better Essays v2

How to Write Better Essays (video edition)

Five Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid

How Many References do you Need in an Essay?

I'm also available for hire! I offer proofreading and editing services, as well as academic guidance on a pay-what-you-can basis.

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