'F' for 'effort'

Harriet Jones, Kay Yeoman and Helen James offer their insights into the dos and don'ts of feedback terminology

February 17, 2011

As lecturers, we put a lot of time and effort into devising assignments for our students, and students likewise spend a lot of time and effort completing them. We want the work given to us to show that the students have extended themselves and learned from the experience. Getting feedback right, therefore, is essential.

For students who have not tried their best, for whatever reason, feedback is even more important in motivating them to try harder next time.

It is generally perceived as good practice to start and end with positive comments, so that students can take on board criticism within a constructive framework.

Trying to find something positive to say about a poor piece of work is not always easy, but it is crucial if we want to avoid students becoming demoralised by negative comments, and instead to apply themselves to subsequent assignments. For those students who have genuinely exerted themselves but still failed to reach an adequate standard, acknowledging their hard work is particularly important.

The word "effort" is an easy solution, and one that most of us often resort to. If the work is poor, but we want to write something positive, we tend to write, "This is a reasonable effort. Nevertheless..." or "I can see you have put some effort in here, however...".

If a student has clearly worked hard but somehow missed the point, we could say, "This shows a really good effort, but...". If a student has done really well, we could say, "What a fantastic effort! Well done."

Chambers's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language defines effort as a "Putting forth of strength; exertion; attempt; struggle". As lecturers we use the word "effort" in the "putting forth of strength" meaning of the term.

But our experience shows us that students, on the other hand, appear to see only the "struggle" aspect, and as such detest the word "effort" in their feedback.

This little word, "effort", so useful to the marker, actually leaves the student feeling very uninspired. A group of biosciences undergraduates from UEA were asked what they felt about the word "effort" and the immediate reaction was quite startling. Some laughed, others expressed abhorrence. It turned out that some third-year undergraduates actually treated the word as a joke when they saw it in their feedback.

They didn't see it as something positive; some saw it as dumbed-down criticism, reminding them of their school experience, where effort was praised with a sticker or a gold star.

Others interpreted "effort" as a patronising comment, making light of the work that went into producing the assignment.

Feedback is a major problem for staff and students alike. We spend too long on it, while students can't get enough of it. The government's National Student Survey highlights feedback as an issue about which students are unhappy.

So getting the details right, beginning with useful and constructive language, is crucial. If we are writing the word "effort" in our feedback with the intention of praising and motivating but it actually has the opposite effect, all the time and care we put into marking pieces of work and writing something positive evaporates in a single word.

So what can we write instead? It is crucial to begin with some positive comment to motivate the students and praise their efforts. The word "attempt" is slightly better, and apparently more acceptable to the students.

For good students there is no problem: just get straight to the point, telling them,"This is a great essay...". But for those who produce work that clearly isn't very good, "This is a mediocre essay..." clearly would not be a useful comment. "This has been printed on lovely paper..." may be the only way to begin with a really poor piece of work.

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