Students Who Seek Feedback, Use Feedback

3 Feb


Reading The Teaching Professor forum “There Could Be Another Reason Why Students Seem to Ignore Your Feedback”  last week, I realized many of the responses were framed around a shared assumption that the feedback we offered as readers of student work did – should, even – spring from our rubrics, our guidelines, our experiences as the assignment makers.  

The online highlights I made while reading the forum posts sent me back the first maxim I heard from my UIowa mentor Cleo Martin: Read and Respond Like a Real Reader.

The images includes a photo of Cleo Martin, a mentor to the blog writer, along with one of her maxim's for composition instructors about to offer feedback to student writers: Read and Respond Like a Real Reader.

It was simultaneously an Aha! and Duh! moment for me when I first I heard Cleo invoke this maxim.

Aha! as in “Of course, if I am asking student writers to write rhetorically – with specific purpose, audience and task in mind, then I have to read and respond as would a real reader in that specified rhetorical context.”

Duh! as in “That’s what the best of my undergraduate and masters degree school teachers did!  They asked us what questions we had about our writing, and that’s why I actually paid attention to feedback from my teachers and classmates when I revised writing, presentations and course syllabi.

Listening to Cleo and talking with the other “new to teaching Rhetoric here” TAs in my cohort, I realized that as an undergraduate writer had made use of feedback only when at least two of three things were in place:

  1. I had asked questions of my readers as part of giving them the drafted writing.
  2. My readers were aware of the targeted audience, purpose and tasks while reading drafted materials.
  3. I was expected to sort out what feedback from readers I would use, or not use – whether the person offering feedback was a peer, a campus newspaper editor, or a teacher.

Luckily, these three factors were embedded in my learning while completing two masters degrees before I arrived in Iowa City for PhD school.  As part of developing each thesis draft, key committee members expected that I would deliver new writing with a memo to address, in part, my specific questions and how I’d acted on any previously offered feedback from committee members or peer readers.

Cleo’s words, my student writing experiences before PhD school, and my teaching practices since working with Cleo in 1986 have combined to convince me that writers who are invited to – even charged to – seek real feedback from their readers actually do make significant revisions in that space between reviewing comments and turning in final polished work.  When students provide their own feedback questions – whether about a piece of writing, a presentation, a performance, a work of art, or a teaching/learning artifact in process  – and are expected to account for how they could or did make use of the feedback, the final work demonstrates revision that goes far beyond correcting red-penciled surface features in an act of revision-by-proofreading.


Based on Carol Dweck's mindset research.

“Mindset” Characteristics, based on Carol Dweck’s research.

How we – teachers and students alike – see learners and learning certainly impacts how we structure feedback processes, what feedback we value, and whether we accept – much less make use of – feedback.  

If we – students and teachers alike – view learning with a fixed mindset as set out in the chart just above, then, really, what is the use of feedback?  The fixed mindset mainly casts feedback as a form of evaluation: This is how you met the assignment, or didn’t. This is the best can do, or just what the teacher thinks.  The teachers I know who operate with a fixed mindset often speak of “grading students” while “marking” student course work.

If we – students and teachers alike – view learning with a growth mindset, then, it seems, we have a place from which to speak with students about how major pieces of work grow from inception to creation to completion.  The growth mindset views feedback as an embedded, on-going, multi-directional part of the learning process: This is the major challenge I’m facing in developing this project, and so here is my question for you.  This is the portion of your project I find most confusing, and so here is an accounting of where/why/how I am confused.  The teachers I work with who operate with a growth mindset often speak of asking students to make an “action plan” based on feedback gathered as part of the learning that’s required in “preparing for class.”

When students play a central role in the seeking – and gathering and analysing and using – of feedback as part of a growth mindset there are at least three benefits to us as teachers:

  1. When we respond to drafted student work, we have cues about where to begin: We’re not called to respond to the whole of the student work nor to address each and every aspect of an assignment rubric.  With the memos and questions students compose, the entry points become very specific.  And, as we read, we have room to notice the additional one or two things that we additionally choose to bring to students attention.
  2. When students have a role in seeking feedback, they’re better motivated to take on a role of analysing the feedback coming their way and of creating an action plan for putting the feedback to use.
  3. When we respond to specific questions, we respond to the people who write the questions as well as the assignment context, and we offer feedback to people in the midst of learning rather than grading those who people our classes.



So, what might a teacher do to engage students in feedback seeking practices?  Again, I offer three starting points when I’m working one-to-one with teachers, and which I draw from adapting the practices to undergraduate courses (small and large) and to graduate seminars and practicum courses. With each of the items below, I’ll note between brackets related example documents, all of which I’ve included in a Google Folder called Feedback Post:

  1. Build the practice of question asking into students regular “preparing for class” assignments.  For example: If they’re completing a pre-class reading quiz, have each student submit a quiz question they’d ask based on the reading.  If you’re wrapping up a class discussion, ask students to write a question they can now answer or now need answering; they could write this on the white board as they leave the classroom, of type it as a response to a Google Form survey.  If students are completing regular short problem-solving assignments, they might compose a question they would ask a topic expert, or that they’d expect someone new to the concept would ask. [In the shared folder:Coaching Students in Writing Questions.  Coaching Students to Seek & Use Feedback.]
  2. Incorporate a self-assessment activity into major course assignments.  For example: John Lowe, offers ideas for making use of short feedback forms to engage students in assessing their exam performance in order to create action plans for next exams.  Or, as is common in many writing-intensive courses, require students to compose a transmittal memo that puts the work into a context that prepares readers for the two questions the student composes for feedback.  [In the shared folder: Assessment that Promotes Learning.  Sample Writer’s Memo. Peter Elbow and Paul Loeb on Ideas for Incorporating Feedback. Course Design Worksheet.]
  3. Make feedback practices – seeking feedback, analysing responses, completing revisions, reflecting on what, why & how of the feedback used in revision, or not – part of the ordinary preparing for class practices, a basic expectation so that students engage in self- and peer-assessment for and as learning.   When “feedback” becomes something that’s graded, completing feedback becomes part of “evaluation” rather than remaining a practice that is integral to the learning process.  [Samples in the shared folder – Feedback Seeking & Gathering, a subfolder of its own. See also examples from Oxford Brookes University in a folder labeled ASKe.]


Cleo made two promises to us as new-to-UIowa Rhetoric teachers: If we invited students to seek feedback as part of the revision process, we – teachers and peers in those classrooms – would find that we genuinely wanted to read and respond to those papers.  When we focused our responses on the writers questions and the couple of related suggestions we could make, students would find that they genuinely wanted to analyse the feedback and revise with those new ideas in mind.

From where I write nearly 30 years later, Cleo told no lies.


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