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Diary of a History TA: The Value of Feedback

Posted by Neal Adolph
9 April 2013 - 12:50pm

   I’m never sure how to offer writing feedback to my students.

  I am fortunate to work at a school that has a seminar structure. It gives me a chance to model good answers and reinforce expectations. I use my seminars, the questions I ask my students, and the follow-up questions to their responses, as opportunities to show them how to answer complex historical questions well. And then I tell them that I am doing that. Students are very good at forgetting when they are learning skills unless they are told, explicitly, that they are being developed. (The reality is that we all are quite bad at this, but I am trying to talk about students here). Students are also good at disconnecting their in-class experience from their writing experience. Though I, as a teacher, imagine that the feedback I’m offering in seminars about their answers is being logged away somewhere in a general folder about how to effectively answer a question (in my class), it is likely that the folder is more specifically connected with answering questions effectively during seminars and there is no note to also see the folder on writing good answers.

            So good writing feedback must look different.

  I used to think that good writing feedback was long. A paragraph of exposition on how to improve in the future if, in the future, you find yourself somehow writing a similar paper. Heck, maybe you’d get two paragraphs if I really thought I would have to explain myself to you (make no mistake, my feedback is intended to explain the mark a student received so that I don’t have to respond to a large body of complaints). But this takes time. And the more I assist for teachers that are more interested in final products than writing processes, the more I realize that this feedback seems like a slap in the face in the end. The student responds, “what do you mean I got a C? I didn’t even know how to get an A, and you’re going to give me a C?” I wish that providing a marking rubric at the beginning of class were enough to solve this problem, but, sadly, telling a student to look at a rubric is efficient but ultimately useless if they have never been shown how to decipher what it means and apply it to their own writing.

  And, ultimately, that is my job. Decipher the arbitrary, confusing, and inconsistent codes locked in academic expectations and apply them to students in a high-stakes game of education. I’m getting anxious just thinking about it and I’m not even writing the darn paper. But after I’ve deciphered and applied my understanding of the rubric, I have to explain my understanding to each student. And that takes a lot of time; I guard my time carefully. Thankfully, I am fortunate to work at a school that also has office hours built into my contract. And I sit, very alone, in my office, for two hours a week, waiting for students to come and entertain me.

 This is when I give good feedback. To encourage students to come, I limit myself on written feedback. I’m discovering students barely read it more than once, and it is only a cursory glance to see if we found some of the flaws that they were hoping to get away with in their papers. So now students get nothing more than three short sentences. Usually I’m concerned about clarity. So I make my statements clear and declarative. Sometimes I’m concerned about style so I make my statements clear and declarative. Occasionally there is a concern arising from their conclusions. Writing short, clear, declarative feedback has drastically improved its quality.

And it has also had more students coming to my office hours to get more assistance on how to write a paper. They believe that I understand this arbitrary art of writing. Their grade is no longer a product of hocus pocus explained in a paragraph that sounds like an excuse rather than a explanation. It is reasonable. They can make sense of it. I don’t solve their writing problems for them. I point some of them out. At most, I point out a gentle number of three (though I often try to butter them into the feedback with a compliment or affirmation to start off). And, as a result, more students are coming to me for more than when I was writing long feedback that took up more of my time. And fewer are attempting to contest their marks.

I often sit alone in my office. But, earlier this semester I had a student come to me worried about her midterm. She didn’t do well. I asked her why she didn’t do well, and she restated my short sentences, and then went into more detail. I was impressed. I asked her how she structured her argument - this was a major issue. She looked confused. I asked, “How do you structure an essay?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had to think about that before. I’ve never had to write one before.” I should remind you that many of my students are coming from the People’s Republic of China, where the art of writing the essay is less frequently taught. I suspected this would be her answer.

I worked through her midterm with her and showed her what was good. There was a lot to it that was good - enough to muster a solid C-grade. I then showed her what pieces were missing that are essential to a better, essay-formatted response. An introduction, a thesis, a body, a conclusion. Argument. Evidence. Weaving narrative and analysis together carefully and precisely. A skill that even professional historians struggle with - that few master. She stayed for 30 minutes and we worked together. We played around with her answer and figured out how to make it a good B-grade answer based solely on structuring her work better. And then I gave her more feedback on how to make it an A-grade answer.

I don’t think she had ever previously received such dedicated feedback on her writing. I don’t think I ever received such dedicated feedback on my writing during my undergraduate degrees because I didn’t take advantage of office hours. But it came out of offering minimal feedback on a high-stakes assignment that she did poorly on. “You have a clear knowledge base of the content. There is not enough analysis of the information you present. As such, there is no clear or convincing thesis presented.” When it was handed back to her (and her classmates received theirs as well), I reminded them of my office hours. I want them to come visit me. I want to explain things to them. And I will do that during my office hours, when I’m sitting alone in my office waiting for somebody to come and seek assistance rather than taking time to write a paragraph that won’t satisfy them in the end.

 Ultimately, the vast majority of my students will not come to me for this assistance. They won’t realize that deep down there is a magic to writing well and that the wand can be theirs if they learn what they should be critical about in their own writing. I would hope that many of them go elsewhere for aid if they are not coming to me. There are many better writers than I in this world. They are everywhere in my department, and they can surely help my students out in better communicating ideas than I can. But for those who don’t seek out assistance, I assume they will be satisfied with the feedback I offer them - all three sentences of it. For those that do, I offer all of the knowledge and expertise I can in a way that is neither apologetic nor an exposition of a previous excuse. I am a Teaching Assistant, and I teach skills. Writing is important, and so I teach that. But I do that best through good, personal, face-to-face feedback.

What are your feedback strategies?



This is really interesting! 

This is really interesting!  I agree that one-on-one teaching is the most effective when it comes to basic skills like essay writing. However, although as TAs we may be sitting alone wasting away our office hours, it's important to remember that not all students have access to that free time. In fact, I think that it is often the students who are swamped with work, school, childcare, health issues etc. that are the ones who need our help and guidance the most- and they are the ones who are likely to not be able to come to office hours. I think it is a bit harsh to assume the students who don't (or often, can't) meet us one-on-one are satisfied with the limited feedback you intentionally give then on their written work. I don't have a lot of solutions- but there must be other ways to provide similar help to those who may only be on campus for the lectures/course schedule.

Thanks Patricia! I'm glad you

Thanks Patricia! I'm glad you got something out of it, and thanks for the response. Professional development as a TA (or educator in general) is best done with others... so here are some ideas for us to ponder.

You are definitely right insofar as my assumption that students who don't ask for more feedback are satisfied with the feedback that they are receiving. There are a couple solutions available to TAs that I can provide, though I do so with some commentary (see the end for that).

First, it is important to offer students your flexibility to their own limitations. My students are told at several points in the semester that I am able to meet, within reason and provided they aren't able to meet during my office hours, at any time that I am not otherwise occupied. Appointments are welcome. 

Second, it is also possible to offer some in-class generalized feedback. I've had this work to great success in the past, but it is entirely dependent on the level of engagement that students have (or feign having) with the development of their writing skills. I still have all of my essays from my undergrad on hand, so I often will take one with my to a class and spend twenty minutes talking about what is good and what is bad. Modeling good writing is immensely important and is a great way to offer feedback.

Third, it is possible to send students to the campus writing centre, provided your school has one. This isn't necessarily a solution for time-strapped students, but it may be that their hours of operation are more agreeable to the student's available hours for education. That said, I only ever do this with hesitation or if the student is struggling with basic english language structure; I find the writing centre at my university rarely provides strong guidance or good critical feedback that can lead the students to consider the clarity with which they are sharing their ideas.

Fourth - and this is the least advisable - is e-mail. It is always possible to have this kind of experience through e-mail. I have never managed to do so successfully. Ever. But I imagine it is possible. Somehow, though, e-mail always leads to misunderstandings and a reluctance to ask for confirmation of understanding from either parties, leading to differing interpretations (please note that this same risk exists by producing longer written feedback on assignments). In a relationship in which one holds power over another, such as a TA-to-student relationship, this is dangerous to both parties. Misinterpretation is best responded to with clarity, and often writing more leads to confusion.

My commentary is this - nobody will protect you as a TA except for yourself. Teaching is a noble job - and it is one that we can always justify putting more time into. And, in my experience, people want you to put more time into their education than you can afford to do so; time that goes above and beyond your contract hours. It is also easy to jump into the project of educating and assume that by putting more hours into something you will have more success in reaching your students. These are two foundational motivations held by most public educators - and, to some extent, provided you are healthy and creative and a particularly skilled person in assessing the needs of your students (which is difficult to do in 13 contact hours), you may just manage to do this. But I'm not sure it is possible as a TA who is using this position to acquire some post-secondary teaching experience while also managing to barely pay most of the bills that pile up while attending grad school; and this is an important point. My primary occupation at the moment is student - not teacher. My school knows this. My advisor knows this. And it is important that I remember my time is better - and perhaps more selfishly - spent doing things necessary for my own project so that I can move to the next project of my life. Any hour I spend on my teaching duties above and beyond my contract hours is an hour I should be spending on a great multitude of other things; providing students limited written feedback is merely one of my methods of protecting myself while encouraging students to come and receive much more comprehensive and valuable feedback in dialogue format. Indeed, the importance lies in this dialogue that develops between student and teacher (as you clearly know) - and this isn't possible in written format.