Giving and receiving feedback

There are a number of policies to ensure students are formally assessed and receive feedback. For instance, the termly supervision reports (through the Graduate Student System – GSS) provide regular feedback on progress. The transfer examination is required within four terms and, later, the Confirmation of Status. These are important opportunities for students to gain perspective on their progress.

In addition to these formal mechanisms, students expect and value more direct feedback from supervisors in respect of their doctoral work. Recent responses from students at Oxford show 88% are satisfied with the detailed written and oral feedback on their work/helpful feedback on their progress received from supervisors, and 87% are satisified with the promptness of feedback on their work.

Regular and concrete feedback is central to learning and development and thus to successful completion of the DPhil. Feedback should both acknowledge progress and name areas for improvement.

General guidelines for giving and receiving feedback

These are general principles that both supervisors and students can apply in any contexts where feedback is being given and received. See Guidelines for giving and receiving feedback. The following sections address feedback related specifically to the DPhil.

Overall progress

While students can work, and enjoy working, independently, many experience a desire for and welcome feedback on their overall progress on an ongoing basis, as this student recounts. This is because they lack a broader perspective on institutional expectations and disciplinary norms of progress, so need the supervisor to provide that information.

In November, I reworked my model, wrote about some results, and met my supervisor; I wanted a progress check after not seeing him for a month. In December, I had a long meeting with him to discuss my progress as I hadn’t seen him for four weeks; it was productive confirming that what I had done for three months was good research. We also talked about how to finish the section of the thesis in the next three months. I didn’t see him again until February as he was away ... [by then] I really wanted to check my progress with him. (Doctoral Student, Social Sciences)
One of the things that I had grossly underestimated when I began on the PhD was how different writing is in the academic environment versus the business environment. I’ve found it very, very challenging to adapt my style to accommodate what’s required in an academic environment. And I’m very pleased to say that my supervisors recognised that and have pushed me to continuously tackle writing challenges and increase the amount of practice I get doing it and give useful feedback on what I’ve done, and I’m pleased to say I think I have improved over the time. (Doctoral Student, STEM)

Regular discussion of progress in relation to university guidelines may be particularly useful.

Doing research: plans and processes

Students at Oxford, regardless of discipline, reported needing the supervisor's help not just for planning and designing the inquiry but also when things went wrong during the process, for example:

  • "errors in my data analysis and the need to recalculate"
  • "unexpected results"
  • "settling for less than good data"
  • "field sites resistant to access"

Being able to get feedback on how to handle these unexpected research difficulties was much valued by students. Research at Oxford suggests that supervisors can be particularly important in this regard during the actual research process (document review, data collection and analysis, etc.), when students can experience unexpected, but not uncommon, glitches, for instance, in managing databases, failure of equipment, and access to research sites.

They also, of course, valued feedback about their developing research plans, as this student makes clear in relation to his experience of transfer.

My transfer was perhaps much more gruelling than I had anticipated. My supervisors were instrumental in making this a positive experience because I feel that they were supportive of me but also helped to facilitate the process of applying the very sound criticisms that the assessors had into my working model for my research. (Doctoral Student, Social Sciences)

Providing feedback on research plans and processes, particularly research difficulties, on a regular basis can be helpful for the student and will enable the supervisor too to gain a concrete sense of progress.

Writing

Five aspects of writing are addressed here: feedback on writing as learning, preparation for discussion of feedback, following up feedback, range of types of writing feedback, and level of supervisory editing.

Feedback as learning

While some students may view feedback as 'error correction' supervisors generally see it as a teaching/ learning process, hence supervisors can encourage students to view feedback in this more active and positive way. This student clearly understands the value of such criticism.

My supervisors were able to give me critical feedback in a way that other colleagues/ friends wouldn’t have. I managed to do quite a lot of writing this week but didn’t feel happy with the quality or cohesiveness, and it was good (if not necessarily fun) to hear this from my supervisors and get some critical suggestions on how to move forward. So, ironically, by suffering a set-back personally in terms of the potential value of the work that I’ve done this week, I think I feel more confident and focused now than I was a week ago. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Asking a student to describe what has been learned from the discussion can help to highlight this feature of feedback.

Preparation for discussion of feedback

Preparing well for any discussion of feedback can help students and supervisors to stay on track, stick to the issues and hope to arrive at clarity about what is being said. These supervisors outline similar approaches.

Usually, I just get the work, I would say, a week in advance of a meeting, and then I’ll read it through. I type up my comments and usually send them … to the student … a day before the meeting. So they’ll come – I’ll have their paper in front of me, and the comments; they’ll have the paper and the comments; and then we’ll sit down and just sort of systematically go through, page by page. (New supervisor, Humanities)
One simple strategy … is to ask students to email or send their writing e.g. draft chapter, review of an article … etc a week before meeting them. I encourage students to write in full text form rather than note form so that they gain practice in the sort of writing they will be undertaking in their dissertation… I place all my comments on the side of their chapters using the editing tools, especially "Insert Comment". I try to return their chapters a few days before we meet so students have a chance to read them and think of how to address them and/ or prepare themselves to discuss their point of view vis-à-vis mine. (Piera Carroli, Australian National University, Research Supervision @ ANU)

Following up feedback

Giving and receiving the initial feedback is often only the start of an ongoing dialogue between supervisor and student, as the Humanities supervisor above shows here:

I mean it turns usually out to be the case that what will actually happen in the supervision is I’ll make the case, and then we’ll have a bit of a back and forth, and then it usually ends up that we get to a point where, you know, someone says, “I have to go away and think about that.” Sometimes that’s me, but more often than not, it’s them. Then what I’ll see is, you know, a couple of months later – a revised version, and that will hopefully have the obvious holes patched up, respond to the criticisms, and usually have responses to the criticisms that maybe the student wasn’t in a position to give in the supervision, having only had 24 hours to think about the objection, but that, on a couple of weeks’ reflection, they actually think, well, this is how I actually have to approach this. (New supervisor, Humanities)

Referring back to previous discussions can help students to recognise the progress they have made as well as the aspects of their work that still need attention.

Range of types of writing feedback

Feedback on written work may include reference to a range of issues, e.g., the argument, the structure, the credibility/accuracy of information, the appropriateness of the way language is used. Students have already developed mastery of some of these aspects of writing. Still, there are areas where supervisors can be particularly helpful as these two supervisors note:

In some cases, no one’s ever told them before that they’re …writing in the wrong genre … that they really need to think about this …and it’s difficult …because they have to close down the sort-of free-styling showy undergraduate who remains in all of us! (New supervisor, Humanities)
Graduate students aren’t in a position to know which people in the literature are pushing a barrow and which people are articulating a commonly and widely believed claim. So, in some ways, it’s up to us [supervisors], with a bit more knowledge, to say, 'well, these are the things you should really be concentrating on, and these are the things you shouldn’t be’ (New supervisor, Humanities)

It can be helpful from time to time to review the kinds of feedback being offered to ensure the full range of types is addressed. This can be particularly helpful as a reminder that as supervisors we do not always acknowledge areas where a student is particularly strong.

Level of supervisor editing

These two supervisors have different views on their role in copy-editing student work:

I don’t tend give too much criticism about the writing itself… if I don’t feel I understand things, I’ll just write “unclear” and “this confuses me – what did you really mean?” But I don’t want to turn out prose stylists; I want to turn out people who are, maybe a bit clunky but just clear so people can understand what’s going on. (New supervisor, Humanities)
If you have students …for whom English is not their first language, you do end up as their copy editor as well, to some extent. …They have quite high standards here for what they require of international students coming in, but still, it’s not high enough. Even with British students, you can have bizarre punctuation and all the rest of it. So in terms of commenting on written work…it could include pointing out grammatical problems, but also re-directing, re-focusing an argument, but without actually writing it out for them. (New supervisor, Social Sciences)

What do you view as your responsibility in terms of editing? Have you discussed the distribution of responsibility between you and your students as regards different levels of editing?

. Useful references to help students with their writing include:

For some time now, the research has been clear that students report the importance of supervisory feedback. For instance, Kleuver (1997), drawing on an analysis of ‘all but dissertation’ students and those who had graduated, reported lack of constructive feedback as a hindrance. Students seek different kinds of feedback. Heath (2002) reported students sought supervisory guidance on: a) topic definition, b) research design and data analysis, and c) literature to be reviewed. Zhao et al (2007), in another large study, corroborated the importance of feedback. The students most satisfied with their supervisors were the ones who reported receiving both (a) regular and constructive feedback on research and (b) regular and constructive feedback on progress towards the degree as well as direct assessment of progress. These studies also make the point that essential to the giving of feedback is availability. Finally, students report receiving feedback can be highly emotional and at times frustrating; still, they view feedback as most effective in building their confidence as academic writers when it is a) personalized face-to-face, and b) iterative or ongoing over time (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000).

In looking specifically at writing feedback, there is plenty of evidence that this is an area that supervisors find it difficult to be articulate about (Aitchison et al., 2012). Still, there is growing evidence that students also benefit from peer feedback in writing groups (Li & Vandermensbrugghe, 2011).

The above text is based on:

Aitchison, C., Catterall, J., Ross, P., & Burgin, S. (2012). 'Tough love and tears': Learning doctoral writing in the sciencesHigher Education Research and Development, 31(4), 435-447.

Caffarella, R., & Barnett, B. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiquesStudies in Higher Education, 25(1), 39-52.

Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students' views of supervisionHigher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 41-53.

Kleuver, R. (1997). Students’ attitudes towards the responsibilities and barriers in doctoral studyNew Directions for Higher Education, 99, 47-56.

Kumar, V., & Stracke, E. (2007). An analysis of written feedback on a PhD thesisTeaching in Higher Education, 12, 4, 461-470.

Li, L., & Vandermensbrugghe, J. (2011). Supporting the thesis writing process of international research students through an ongoing writing groupInnovations in education and teaching international, 48(2), 195-205.

Student Barometer, International and Domestic, Autumn 2014.

Wisker, G. (2005) The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

Zhao, C., Golde, C., & McCormick, A. (2007). More than a signature: How advisor choice and advisor behaviour affect student satisfactionJournal of Further and Higher Education, 31(3), 263-281.