Providing Good Feedback

Jenn Kepka

Think about the most helpful feedback you’ve ever received from a teacher, a coach, a parent, or a friend. What did they tell you? How did they phrase it? Why did you believe what they were saying?

In general, we accept feedback best from people we trust because we believe they have our best interests at heart. In a college class where the faces around you change frequently, it’s hard to develop that level of trust. So in peer review, we have to create credibility — that’s trustworthiness — through a process of Restating, Praising, and Criticizing.

Restating

The first step in providing good peer feedback is to prove to your peer that you’ve actually read and tried to understand her writing. If you’ve ever been through peer review before, you know that receiving feedback where the reader has completely missed your point is discourgaing; it’s also hard when someone else doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to what you’re saying.

To show a writer that we’re on her side, we can restate her main idea (also known as her thesis or topic sentence). This will show that we’ve read the piece and tried our best to understand what the writer wanted to say — not what we wanted to hear, but what she was trying to say.

To provide a good restatement of the piece, follow these steps:

  1. Read the piece at least twice.
    • On your first read, don’t pause to highlight or make notes or mark mistakes — just read to see what’s going on.
    • On the second read, start to mark places where you have questions, places that you particularly like, or places where you’re sure some fix is needed.
  2. After you’ve read the piece, get a separate piece of paper and, without looking, write down a sentence or two that sums up what you think is the author’s main point.
    • Try to complete this sentence: I thought your major point was _______________.
    • Sometimes, in an early draft, it can be hard to nail down a precise main point. In this case, try to put yourself in the writer’s shoes, and think, “What do I think they most want to say in this whole thing?” Then fill in this sentence: The point I think you want to make here is ___________, though you also spend time saying _____________ and/or _______________.

You may need to complete this process more than once just to feel secure that you understand what the piece is saying. That’s great! That means you really are working with the paper, and your peer will appreciate your efforts.

If you provide peer feedback in person, this is also a valuable place to start. Think how much nicer it would be to have someone say, “What I thought you were writing about was _________” rather than just having him jump in with criticism.

Giving Positive Feedback (Praise, or What’s Working)

We tend to focus on what’s going wrong in a paper because, as writers and students, we want to know what to fix as we go through the revision process. However, most good feedback will include a section on what’s actually working in a paper, too. Positive feedback encourages a writer in a couple of ways:

  • It shows him/her that the reviewer isn’t just “out to get me.”
  • It can demonstrate some patterns or habits that are worth repeating. For example, if someone says, “I thought your transitions were well done,” you can be prepared to add more and use them more confidently in the next paper.
  • It builds credibility for the reviewer by providing feedback a reader is more likely to agree with before providing critical comments.

However, positive feedback is only useful if it’s specific. Think how nice it is to see “Good job!” written on top of a paper — and then think about how useless that comment is if you really want to fix the paper. What do I do when I get a “good work!” comment? I probably just turn the paper in without any more revision.

Good, positive feedback should give the writer somewhere to go. It should encourage by making clear points about what’s working, where, and why. So instead of saying, “I thought this was funny!”, a good comment might say, “The way you turn the words around in the second paragraph so it’s almost like a tongue-twister was funny, and the dialogue in the third paragraph made me laugh out loud.” The writer can look at these and go, a-ha! I’m funny. I should add more like those two.

To provide useful positive feedback:

  1. Number the paragraphs (in a longer work) or sentences (in a one-paragraph or one-page work) in the piece you’re reading so you can refer to them easily.
  2. Provide two or three one-sentence comments that point out things the writer has done that were interesting, clever, funny, surprising, smart, or lovely.
    • Don’t just look for funny jokes or big words (although complimenting the vocabulary of a section is a good piece of feedback!). Also consider how the writer uses detail, whether the story is believable (and why or how), if the title is informative, if the overall question being answered is creative, if the answer the student gives to the question of the assignment is unexpected, if the organization is clear, and if the introduction and/or conclusion are particularly strong.
  3. Always keep your focus on the idea of helpful feedback. Letting someone know they’ve chosen a nice font isn’t helpful, but letting her know that you like the places she’s chosen to break up her paragraphs will be!

Giving Negative Feedback (Constructive Criticism)

Some writers struggle with giving negative feedback at all; others want to dive right in and provide only criticism. A balance of these two instincts is necessary in order to give useful feedback.

Think, again, about helpful feedback you’ve received in the past; now, think of a time when you received criticism that wasn’t helpful. Generally, writers respond to bad, negative feedback in one of two ways: 1). “How DARE you insult my beloved work? I’m not listening to ANYTHING you have to say!” or 2). “You’re sooooo right, it’s terrible, it’s all trash, I’m throwing the whole thing away and starting over, or maybe I’ll just give up!”

The results are the same: no revision is completed. Since the entire point of getting peer feedback is to get good ideas to help you revise, bad feedback is bad for the process.

To give the best critical feedback, then, reviewers must remember that the writer should be able to act on whatever you say. That means no bland, vague statements. If someone writes, “I just didn’t like it,” on a paper, there’s not much I (the writer) can do with that, other than cry or plot revenge. If, instead, someone writes, “I didn’t like paragraph 2 because it felt like the voice changed completely from the rest of the story,” then I can act on that. I can look at paragraph 2 and make changes.

Here are a few tips for providing good critical feedback:

  1. Be specific. State where problems are found by line number or paragraph number. Quote or re-write sentences that need to be edited and show the problems clearly.
  2. Ask questions. There’s a huge difference between saying “I got lost in paragraph 2” and “What did you mean by ____ in paragraph 2?” The second one gives the writer something to do — she can answer that question and fix the paragraph.
  3. Limit yourself to a reasonable number of critical comments. Aim for an equal ratio of negative to positive feedback.
    • This isn’t just an ego-saver! If a paper is in such an early draft that you can only find 2 positive things to say, the author probably doesn’t need a pile of criticism yet.
  4. Be aware of the goals the writer had for the piece. Make sure you aren’t trying to get him/her to say something you like instead of letting him/her say what s/he likes.
  5. Don’t critique spelling, grammar, or punctuation unless you are an expert.
    • Colleges provide resources to help with mechanical errors, so don’t pretend to be an expert in commas if you aren’t one. It’s easier to get someone else more confused than it is to be really helpful.
    • Also, remember the writer may still need to rewrite and to do a final edit, so picking out every single spelling mistake might not be the best use of your time (unless the writer asks you to).

Finally, as a general guideline, don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to the writer face-to-face. Always sign your name to anything you write on, as well, so that the writer can follow up if she has questions.

Providing Good Feedback by Jenn Kepka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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