International students: Using feedback

Understanding lecturer feedback

When your essay is returned to you the lecturer will usually give you some feedback, which answers questions like:

How good is this essay?

Have I done what the lecturer wanted?

Which parts could be improved?

Feedback includes the marks and the comments which the lecturer writes about your essay. It is not always clear what lecturers mean when they give you feedback. Here are some tips to understand what is meant.

What is said? What is not said?

In reading the comments, keep in mind that markers do not like to be unkind when they believe a student has tried hard. Because of this you may need to 'read between the lines' to find out what is suggested as well as what is actually said. Here are some examples.

Comment 1

You have given an adequate introduction to this topic based on your reading.

The word 'adequate' means 'good enough'. The marker may be saying that what you have written is fine but not great.

Comment 2

The essay fits in with the word length and keeps to the topic.

The marker says that the essay is the right length and on the topic. There is nothing about the quality of the essay.

Recognising praise

Some comments, like the following, are helpful because they tell students exactly what they did well. Occasionally students say they didn't even realise they were doing that well.

You have completed another highly competent essay, starting with a very clear overview of the topic and moving then to the specifics.

An essay does not have to be all good or all weak. Markers may tell you some particular thing which you have done well as in this example, which praises parts of the essay, the student's writing and use of references.

The introduction and conclusion are well organised. You have a highly readable style and, in most parts of the essay, material is synthesised from a number of sources into a coherent whole.

synthesised = put together

a number of sources = many different books or articles

a coherent whole = a piece of writing that reads well

Here is another comment with some praise as well as a suggestion:

Your summary of the various sources is thorough. Ideally you would integrate these more, rather than referring to the various people one by one in each section. You start to do this towards the end of the essay.

Recognising criticisms

Look for criticisms as well as for praise in the comments. Words like 'weakness' and 'problem' are frequent signs of criticism as in this example.

One weakness, though, is in the extent of your reading.

Sometimes, though, criticism is not so clear. Notice the word 'almost' in this next comment.

You write well in a clear, academic style, following the conventions in almost every respect.

academic style = university writing

in almost every respect = most of the time

Here is another example where the criticism is not so clear. Read it and see if you can notice what is not said.

The strength of this essay is in the second part, where you provide your own examples and in the readability of your style.

The marker is praising the second half by saying this is the strong part. That could mean that the first half is not so strong.

The most helpful comments include advice and examples of the problem, as in this one.

You need to master the conventions of university essay writing. Do you realise that you have used direct quotes without acknowledging them? This is a definite NO in any kind of academic writing.

the conventions = what you are supposed to do

direct quotes = someone else's words

Even more helpful is the feedback which tells you what to do about the problem, as in the following three examples.

I recommend a Student Learning Centre workshop.

Keep in touch with other students via the discussions on-line and any other groups they are forming. This will help you with the concepts as well as with accessing more reading material.

The style will come as you read more and more.

Most markers do not proof-read your essay for you. In other words, there may be some language mistakes still waiting for you to find. For example, in the following comment there is one general criticism, one example, and one suggestion of what to do about it.

Remember to leave time for proof-reading. One or two little slips would have been seen if you had had time. e.g. the list is not in alphabetical order.

Look for the criticism which is joined to the essay requirements as in this example.

For this essay students were asked to 'review the literature'. Your review is based almost entirely on two sources. Although you list other sources on P.9 these do not have a mention in the essay.

Evaluating your work

One way of finding out about your writing is to 'judge' it yourself. This is called self-assessment or self-evaluation. The best time to do an evaluation is before you hand the essay in. Here is an example of a check sheet:

1. Check yourself

  • Check your assignment to see where your marks came from.

2. The topic

  • Does your title match the title given? yes / no / partly
  • Does the rest of the essay keep to the topic? all the time / mostly

3. The overall expression and shape

  • Can you read your essay aloud and understand it? yes / no
  • Does your essay follow a clear pattern? yes / no

4. The introduction

  • Is there an argument thesis statement? yes / no
  • Have you stated any reasons? yes / no
  • Have you announced the essay pattern? yes / no

5. The body

  • Which pattern did you follow? parallel? linear?
  • How many arguments did you make? …….
  • How many counter arguments? …….
  • How many times did you refute these? …….

6. The conclusion

  • Did you summarise the points briefly? yes / no
  • Did you vary the words slightly? yes / no
  • Is the thesis statement reframed? yes / no

There is not just one answer to this. Try doing it with some friends and talk about the different answers you had before looking at the one possible way of doing this below.

Solution: Language learners can help themselves

  • Introduction
  • Reasons for self-help
  • Range of informal and formal opportunities
  • Short comparison between formal and informal learning
  • Announcement of essay plan

Formal learning settings

  • Choosing the right course
  • Finding the right level Making the most of class time
  • Using textbooks out of class

Informal learning settings

  • Examples of informal settings
  • Ways of learning informally
  • Listening to the radio
  • Finding opportunities to talk

Problems and overcoming them

  • Shortage of time
  • Time management
  • Shyness


  • Summary of learners’ roles.

For further advice, see Chapter 8 of Studying in English, by Hayo Reinders, Linh Phung and Marilyn Lewis.