Agony aunt

October 27, 2000

Howard G. Allen Emeritus professor of structural engineering University of Southampton

A : Students want to perform well but worry about what is expected of them. Most welcome useful advice. But for comments to be taken seriously, students must believe that you are engaging them on a personal level.

They need to be told if they have misunderstood concepts on which they may be examined and they also need advice that they can feed into future assignments. Resist the temptation to focus solely on factual mistakes. This will be of little use to students moving swiftly between different units.

Do not assume that the academic language underpinning general comments is easily understood. Clarify your comments with reference to examples from the student's text. "You could have been more critical," is insufficient. Better to say: "You have supported your argument well with the views of X and Y, but you need to be more critical by exploring the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the ideas you draw on."

What of that personal touch? Students should not feel that your comments have been plucked out of the air. Use the first person. Do not patronise and avoid sarcasm. Feedback should and can be a constructive and supportive dialogue between tutor and student.

Richard Higgins Learning and Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University

A : It is not so much a matter of striking a balance as doing the best you can in the time available. If you allow 15 minutes per project, for example (which may mean two days' work, excluding interruptions), then you cannot afford to be verbose.

It is important to try to imagine the thought processes of the student. If a mistake is made because the student has misunderstood some principle or procedure, the misunderstanding must be cleared up. If the student's work is disorganised, then show how it could be arranged more effectively. If the student does not explain the work with sufficient clarity, then show how the explanation could be improved, preferably by example. And so on.

For each single piece of work, spend the available marking time on providing useful comments on perhaps two or three issues, rather than trying to make a short (but not very helpful) comment on every single error. For example, it is not uncommon to find a technical essay or report riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. To correct every single error is tedious and time-consuming, and some academics do not consider this to be their job. In any case, the student is not likely to reflect on the significance of each correction. It is more constructive to talk to the student and discuss ways in which a few sample paragraphs could be improved.

When a weak student misunderstands a basic principle or procedure and this leads to errors, you will be saying, in effect, "Go back a stage and study the principle more carefully along the lines suggested." The student may be saying to him/herself "Don't bother me with such irrelevancies; just tell me how to get the answer right." What you consider to be the most effective remedy can appear to the student to be off the point. I have not found an answer to this.

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