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Getting good feedback

How can I get food feedback from my supervisor? How do I ensure that feedback on written work is honest and helpful?

In the first instance, communicate openly and honestly with your supervisors and be considerate of their time and effort.

Remember, it is a partnership.

For example, when you give your supervisor a piece of work to read, it is important that you explicitly indicate to your supervisor the stage that you believe you are in relation to the draft and the sort of feedback you're seeking.

It is pointless to have your supervisor spend hours correcting the English expression when you have not even done your own editing task and all you want is a general indication whether you are in the right direction, such as whether your ideas are acceptable, whether the argument is plausible, whether the content has possibilities. If you are planning to look at the expression at a later date, say so!

When you hand in a draft of work - Define the stage you believe it to be and your needs in relation to this piece of work. Use your time efficiently and show consideration for your supervisor's time and effort.

Not hearing from a supervisor for many weeks can cause anxiety, and some students may even draw the conclusion that their work is not good enough, and that that is the reason for the delay. When you hand in a draft, try to determine with your supervisor roughly how long it will take before you can get the draft returned, and whether this will be done electronically, in person, or by mail.

Your Supervisor returns your written draft

When your supervisor returns a draft of your work, he or she may have provided detailed and constructive comments about what was worthwhile and where there were problems. In this case you will be clear how to focus your work and energies.

However, you may not have been given enough critical appraisal, direction or validation, or you may not understand your supervisor's comments.3 In this case, you may not know how to continue, you may not understand where to put your efforts or you may feel discouraged and unmotivated. If you are not clear how to proceed in your work, it is a good idea to go back to your supervisor, personally or via telephone or email and ask particular questions to elicit useful advice.

How well am I doing?

When your supervisor returns a draft of your written work, you'd be best advised to draw on all your resources as a project manager and communicator and ask for the necessary clarification. You want to know what is good and what is not - It may not be clearly stated and you may need to ask what is good about the work. Knowing what is worthwhile in the work can be very motivating and gives you a good idea of where you are succeeding.

Students want and need validation from a supervisor- don't be embarrassed to ask for it. You may like to define your own questions in order to elecit the response you need at each point in time.

For example:

  • What will I need to do to improve my work?
  • What aspects of my work are worthwhile?
  • Where should I concentrate my efforts right now? Is there additional reading that I should be doing?
  • Is it the content that I need to look at?
  • Is my argument plausible/clear/weak? Right through or just in particular parts?
  • What are the weaknesses in the language ( punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, flow) or the structure of the work?

In asking appropriate and focussed questions you will elicit helpful feedback. You will also give your supervisor 'permission' to be honest and critical.

Remember, it is not always eay for a supervisor to communicate a critical and negative assessment about a piece of work.

Conquer anxiety about seeking help from your supervisor

  • You may not understand exactly what your supervisor has said or written on your work. In that case you will need to ask for clarification.
  • Many students feel timid about asking their supervisor to explain his or her comments. This is an understandable anxiety. Students worry about looking uninformed to their supervisor, particularly when they're trying to create a good academic impression.
  • However, it is critical to understand what your supervisors tell you - their comments and guidance. When something is not clear or apparent, you MUST ask relevant questions - you must get clarification. Don't wait, and waste a lot of precious time that could otherwise be used productively. Explanation and clarification of a comment, a word, an expression or a technical term can often be critical to the advancement of your project. Don't let inhibition stand in your way.
  • It is important, therefore, to develop a comfortable relationship where you can communicate at ease with your supervisor, and then you will be able to ask for an explanation - and even for validation or encouragement!

Peter, a supervisor, shared his annoyance:

I have spent a week working on John's draft of chapter three and correcting it meticulously. It was pretty jumbled and there were lots of language errors which made it arduous to read. I knew that he was keen to get it back quickly so that he could progress, so I put other matters aside to enable me to tackle this. Because I've been ill and had other personal issues, it was quite difficult for me to devote this time and focus.

I rang John yesterday to tell him I'd completed this appraisal and he said, 'Don't worry about it, I've already redrafted this piece of work a few times since I gave it to you'.

Ask your supervisor to indicate an approximate time that it will take to look at the draft and return it.

Peter, my supervisor, did not return my draft of Chapter Two for twelve weeks! I was so anxious, and started to believe that the work was such poor quality and that was the reason for the delay. When I finally plucked up the courage to ring him to ask about getting back this work, he said he had been really busy and had not yet had a chance to look at it!
—PhD Student, Jill)

Here are a few student reactions on getting back written drafts of work:

I just got back a draft of my work - and all there was was a tick at the end- I worked very hard on this and I don't know what my supervisor really thinks or how I need to improve this. I would like to understand exactly what is good and where it is not
—Shelly
My supervisor returned my work and said it is not good enough. I don't know how to go about improving it.
—Sam
John looked at my work and said 'just carry on'. Writing a thesis is a lonely exercise and I would like him to actually tell me if this is good enough. It would be helpful if I know when I produce good work.
—Jenny

Don't be intimidated- Ask for further clarification!

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