Picture this: you’ve worked tirelessly for weeks on an essay, spending countless hours researching, writing and editing. You’ve read and re-read it. You’ve perfected the formatting. You’ve proofread it. You’ve printed it. Come submission day, you feel equal measures of pride and relief to hand it in. Two weeks later you get it back, and get a sinking feeling as you look at the grade: 58%. It’s a high 2:2, so it’s not all fail. But it’s a far lower grade than you were expecting. So you look to the marker’s comments and, whilst there is some good constructive feedback, you find yourself feeling two things: first, that this criticism smarts. This is no surprise - it can be hard to receive negative comments about something you’ve worked hard to produce. Second, that you don’t quite know what to do with the feedback. You are unsure exactly how to implement changes going forward.

This is a common occurrence for students. Providing constructive feedback on essays and other assignments, alongside lectures, tutorials, etc., is an integral part of the educative process. Sadly, many assessors can neither afford the time nor resources to provide the level of detail students need for them to truly improve and reach their full potential.

So, it will help you to understand firstly, why markers give the feedback they do, and furthermore, how this benefits you and what you can do to change and improve going forward. We explore these ideas in more detail below.

Why markers give feedback

In summary, markers give students feedback and criticism in order to improve their essay writing skill. In higher education, we write, principally, to display our learning. Essay writing specifically is about much more than this, though. It is more than just about presenting facts and figures. It is about how you have gathered these into context. It is about showing your understanding and your ideas against those of the whole field. It serves to help us develop our communication skills and grow abilities in critical analysis and argument construction. Really, it is an ongoing process and one that, if done well, will help you gain your academic stripes. The feedback students receive is there to guide them towards being able to produce higher-quality academic writing.

Remember, that your marker is an educator and their wish is for you to develop and grow. Some of the reasond they give you feedback include the following:

To recognise good work and behaviours that are desirable

Knowing your strengths is no bad thing. Having these highlighted helps you see the ‘behaviours’ that are important to maintain. In the early days of your studies, it can often feel like you are stumbling around in the dark. You may not realise that, for example, you show skill in critical analysis of research papers. Perhaps you are excellent at creating an introduction that forms the perfect opener to your written work. If you are doing something well, you want to make sure to capitalise on these aspects in any written assignment. How are you to do this if you don’t know what you are already performing well at?

Consider the following example of feedback given in relation to the strengths of an essay:

Strengths of a project feedback example

The author of this essay would then know that they had abilities in forming and maintaining argument, strong and expressive command of language, organisational and critical skill, and that they had covered the content required of the exercise. Reference to this work, and the feedback attached to it, would provide a functional framework from which to build upon in any new assignment.

Aside from the benefits of knowing what you can do, it feels good to receive positive feedback. If you were to only ever hear negatives, you could become demoralised very quickly. Discouraging feedback is something that should be avoided as much as possible.

To encourage and motivate

For feedback to encourage any sort of lasting positive change, it must be delivered in a constructive way. It should motivate you to adopt new writing approaches. The lure of higher grades is enough for some students, but effective lasting change is unlikely to be made if comments do not inspire. Worse still, some feedback can appear overly critical and may even offend. A natural response to harsh criticism is for any advice to be rejected rather than adopted. It is important for the writer to realise that it is their work that is being judged and not them personally. It is, perhaps, more important for the marker to remember this. Any written feedback for students needs to be constructive and this is our aim at Oxbridge Essays.

To notice and discourage bad writing behaviours and errors

Demoralising as it may be to have our flaws pointed out to us, it is a necessary evil if we want to improve the quality of our written work. Often we do not notice the common 'bad writing' behaviours that we display. Typically, these relate to the mechanics of the English language itself. It can seem trivial, petty even, to have all of your spelling and punctuation mistakes highlighted. This can feel especially cruel if your assessor has used the red pen! There is no denying, though, that so much meaning can be lost in an essay if we don’t get our language just right.

Another area that is often noted by markers as problematic is the structure of an essay. Why go to the trouble of expressing your ideas in perfect English if there is no logical flow between them? It is poor practice to force the reader to make these leaps themselves.

There are many ways in which errors can occur. Any problem areas that seem to be embedded in the writer’s style will be flagged up as ones to watch out for. Feedback of this nature will likely be expressed as weaknesses in a marking report. Consider this example:

weaknesses of a project feedback example

Comments such as these can be difficult to digest. Ultimately, they are made to announce changes that will help to improve your work.

To point out mistakes and provide suggestions on how they can be rectified

It is no use knowing where we have made mistakes if we are unclear as to why and how we should resolve them. Here, explanations and examples are most helpful. The best feedback will incorporate suggestions for how mistakes can be rectified. These can run from minor corrections, such as typos (a small example is supplied in a Word doc), to more significant issues related to structure or factual accuracy. Ultimately, these suggestions can be viewed as guidance for what can be done to improve the quality of current, and future, work.

In-line comments can provide some of the most direct feedback available.

example of feedback on submission as a whole

Simple errors can be flagged up to you, such as typos, punctuation mistakes or points of grammar. More complex issues can be highlighted and suggestions for how to deal with them are made. These can be in context (example below) or relate to the work as a whole (example above).

example of feedback on essay context

By providing actionable student feedback examples, your marker can help you turn your mistakes into strengths.

To extend and deepen thinking - to point out 'next steps'

A marker may scribble, “Got any comments about the disagreement between study findings?” on your work. What they really want is to see you extend and deepen your thinking. Their task, then, is to develop this into feedback that helps you develop your processes. General comments would be made relating these issues under the appropriate feedback headings.

For example, under a section about argument and critical thinking we might see the following:

Example of feedback on argument/critical thinking

To turn these comments into ‘next steps’ actions, a marker will make more detailed suggestions for how to improve. For example, the could provide the following:

Bullet point list of suggestions to improve a project

Remember, feedback comments for students will be in the format of guidance. This may look like that above, but can also take a more practical form.

To suggest further reading

A marker will have a broad concept of your subject area. Often, they may be privy to detailed knowledge too. This means that they will be able to identify areas, theories or ideas that have been missed or under-represented in your work. In other words, clumsy as it sounds, they are a source of information sources. Throughout their academic or professional journey, markers have acquired the detective skills needed to sniff out great articles and resources. Aside from helping you find more detail about your essay topic, they can point you towards sources that will help you with the conventions and craft required to produce great essays. They might even slip in the odd blog post from Oxbridge Essays!

To re-explain key concepts

Our markers are knowledgeable in your subject area, are well-read and have firm grounding in the fundamentals of what comprises a great piece of academic writing. If it is apparent that there are issues with an author’s grasp of certain concepts, we will endeavour to re-explain these.

Factual accuracy of content is of obvious importance for your coursework. Where conceptual flaws are found, they will be highlighted and explained. As academics, your markers have the knowledge and skills necessary to provide insight into any concepts that look like they need re-explaining.

If it is apparent that certain elements related to the craft of essay writing are consistently problematic, a marker may provide explanation. This may be a direct explanation of the presenting issues, or we may point to resources that offer excellent, clear explanations in a more general sense. Either way, concept guidance can be provided.

The benefits of feedback from your marker

So, we know how and why a marker gives feedback. There are many reasons why it is in their interests to help you get better at producing quality essays. But what good does having all this information do you? Let’s look at it all from your perspective.

  • It helps you to find your own way on your learning journey
    It would be easy for a marker to simply implement their suggestions for change for you. "Yes!" you cry. But in this instance there would be no learning or growth for you. Feedback will provide you with the guidance to achieve the best result without personally completing the changes for you.
  • It supports and promotes effective learning
    Student feedback examples show you not only what needs fixing, but how to fix it. This sounds very simple. In reality, this may not be so straightforward. This will depend on a number of different factors, including the resources you already have at your disposal. As mentioned, student feedback is part of a process that promotes more effective learning. It requires that you be willing to take the advice on board and to work towards positive change. Feedback can give you the guidance to improve. It is supportive rather than prescriptive.
  • It is a continuous process
    Each assignment you submit should not be thought of as discrete entities, with no relationship to each other. The subject matter of each may differ, but they all form a part of your journey towards effective academic discourse. The same principle applies to feedback. Each nugget of guidance, judgement and wisdom you receive allows you to build up your essay writing armoury. Continuous feedback, throughout your academic life, allows you to see your own progress. As long as you continue to write, you should aim to seek feedback about this writing. Your professors still ask their peers to provide feedback on any papers they write. Acquiring critical feedback is one of the most valuable exercises around.
  • Feedback needs to be suited to individual students' needs
    In the ideal world, you could come face-to-face with your marker and talk over the merits and flaws of your written work. In reality, this is near impossible to achieve within the higher education setting (though it is possible to speak with your marker when you use our essay marking services). That said, a marker can be especially mindful of the stage of learning that a student is at, the nature of their assignment and the subject matter they are dealing with. This allows tailoring of feedback appropriate to you and your work. The underlying view here is that feedback is key in supporting student learning.

General goals of feedback

So, let’s recap. Marking serves a few different purposes. A grade lets us know how we rank, and it lets our educators judge what standard we have reached. Commentary can let us know how the marker justified this grade. The most effective feedback for students provides support and guidance on where and how to implement positive change. It provides fuel for additional learning.

An honest judgement of what the student has done/achieved this time

To use a perhaps tired cliché: honesty is the best policy. If the thought of this terrifies you, rest assured that honest feedback need not be brutal. Judgement of your work helps not only explain the mark you were given but the basis from which to improve. “This time” sets the context of your journey. From one written assignment to the next, you can examine your progress.

What you should be aiming for next time

Feedback, as mentioned, can relate to broad areas of essay writing. It can be focussed on the specific details of your subject matter. A written account of your work, by an objective pair of eyes, lets you really see what is needed to make it greater. A grade can tell you that you might need to do better, while feedback gives you the targets to aim for.

How to go about meeting your goals

This is where practical advice on how to alter any areas of concern is essential. This could be as simple as reminding a student on the correct use of colons and semi-colons. It could be advice on how to prepare a critical review of published research. To provide you with these suggestions is our ultimate aim.

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