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WriteCast Episode 15: What To Do With Negative Feedback on Your Writing

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© Walden University Writing Center 2014

 

[Introduction music]

 

[TEASER:] DR. BROWN: And I hear it as well. I hear it from students at all levels here at Walden: undergraduates, graduate students, students in the doctoral program.

 

NIK: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I'm Nikolas Nadeau.

 

BRITTANY: And I'm Brittany Kallman Arneson.

 

NIK: In today’s episode, we have a special guest who’s going to talk with us about getting the most out of faculty feedback.

 

BRITTANY: So Nick, recently at residencies especially, but also through student e-mails and other correspondence with students, I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of student feedback about being frustrated with feedback that they’re getting from their instructors in their courses--and not necessarily that they feel that the feedback is unfair, but just that they’re a little bit discouraged about that feedback, or they don’t quite know what to do with it. It seems like a lot of time students are overwhelmed by either the amount of feedback, or sometimes the feedback maybe is vague. They don’t quite know how to create action steps out of that feedback. It’s a challenge for Walden students, definitely.

 

NIK: Fortunately, we actually have someone in the studio today that will be an extraordinary resource for you during this episode. She’s the Associate Director of the Writing Center and Manager of Writing Initiatives. She’s also a Walden faculty member. Dr. Melanie Brown, welcome to our episode.

 

DR. BROWN: Hi, Nik, thank you. It’s so great to be here with you and Brittany today to talk about how students receive faculty feedback on their writing, and what they can do with that.

You were mentioning--you and Brittany were mentioning that you’ve heard students talk about this topic at residencies, and in reviews here in the Writing Center, and I hear it as well. I hear it from students at all levels here at Walden: undergraduate, graduate students, students in the doctoral program, wondering what to do with faculty feedback, and often feeling initially, kind of, how do I get over my feelings about this faculty feedback? Some students can be angry. Some students can feel discouraged or despondent. It can shake their confidence as writers, and so I do have plenty of suggestions for how students can tackle that feedback in the way you, Brittany, described it as “action steps”.

 

BRITTANY: Melanie, thank you so much. That’s so great. I think it’s helpful for students to be able to hear this from somebody in a leadership role here in the Writing Center, and somebody who has experience as a faculty member themselves.

So, in terms of action steps, what can or should students do when they get negative feedback, or what they perceive as negative feedback on their writing?

 

DR. BROWN: Well, that’s a great question, Brittany, and I would say the first action step, really, is to take a deep breath. Step back from the feedback on your paper and think about what makes it negative. Is it negative because it’s not a straight-A? Is it negative because there are suggestions for improvement? Is it negative because of tone? One action step is to think about your faculty member writing that feedback. I know when I give feedback to students, I try really hard to think about their feelings, while also recognizing, you know, I might have some tough news to deliver here. Your writing isn’t perfect right now; nobody’s writing is. Here in the Writing Center we see really good writing, a real range of writing, but even the strong writing needs support.

 

NIK: Well, Melanie, that’s so interesting because, you know, as someone who has, yourself, reviewed a lot of students’ writing, and also someone who’s worked as a faculty member, you see both sides. So what are things that you wish students could know from a faculty perspective if they could just, kind of, have that conversation over coffee, so to speak?

 

DR. BROWN: Sure. Well, what I wish as a faculty member that students could know is that I’m interested in seeing their writing improve over time. We’re only together for a few weeks in our course, or perhaps over the course of a few months working together on the dissertation, but I want to be able to help you make concrete changes in your writing, and to improve in writing takes practice and it takes time. So as a faculty member, I would like to know that students are incorporating my feedback, that they’re reading through that feedback and thinking systematically about how to make those changes in their future drafts. I think one great way to do that, although again it takes time, is to go through comments that you receive on a paper, and make some notes if you’re a spreadsheet-type of person. If you like to organize your ideas into spreadsheets or lists, go ahead and write some headings for topics that your instructor has asked you to improve upon: organization, paragraphing, paraphrasing, citing sources. And as you receive feedback on more and more papers, take out that list, and you might very well find that your faculty, even across courses, are giving you suggestions that fall into patterns. You might say, “Wow, my instructor told me last term that I needed to work on my paragraphing, and I didn’t realize that.” But you took these notes and now you can easily go back to see what your faculty members across your different courses have been suggesting that you change. So as a faculty member, I would love to know that students are reading that feedback, and that they’re really engaging with it and trying to make changes.

I would also love it, as a faculty member, if students went ahead and contacted me, sent me an e-mail and said, “You know, you’ve been telling me the last couple of papers I need to improve my organization, and I’m wondering what you mean by that?” Because sometimes, as a faculty member, it’s true, I can be vague. You might just not know what I mean, and then I might read my comment and I might not know what I meant, and so I want to be able to take some time and explain, “Well, here’s an example of what I meant by organizing your sources.”

Please always feel free to reach out to your faculty. I would suggest in reaching out to them, though, that first you take that initial step of taking a breath, right? You don’t want to just send an angry e-mail. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of those from students who might say something along the lines of, “Well, how dare you tell me that my writing needs improvement, because I’ve had all As in my past courses.” And I understand that initially frustrating feeling, but I promise you that as a faculty member, I am not trying to must make you do busy work. I want you to succeed. I want you to graduate. Especially, I want your writing to improve, not only here at Walden, but on the job, in your personal writing. You know, when you’re a strong writer, you’re a strong thinker, and a good reader. I want all of that for you. So I promise you, I’m not just making up comments to be a jerk. [Brittany laughs.] You know, I really do want you to improve. Go ahead and reach out to me and we can reach out and have a conversation about ways that you can work on your writing.

 

BRITTANY: I think that’s such important feedback, Melanie, because I know one thing that’s really challenging for us as writing instructors giving more short-term feedback to students in paper reviews is that we have to use the medium of writing in order to communicate about writing, right? So it gets challenging, especially if something gets miscommunicated along the way. And I know one particular anecdote that I like to remember from my graduate school days is that note in a paper that I got from a professor. The note just said, “Interesting.” Now in my mind, because I was sensitive about this piece of writing and I hadn’t been – I hadn’t felt quite as prepared, maybe, as I could have been when I turned it in, I heard that, as sort of a, “Hmm, interesting, I don’t know about this; this is a little bit odd. I’m not…” You know? You know, we sometimes use that word as a piece of negative feedback. And so I brought it to the instructor and I said, you know, “What did I do wrong here? I don’t understand what this means?” And she said, “Well, I just literally thought your ideas were interesting. They were – they interested me.” And so to, kind of, recognize that there’s that possibility of something getting lost in translation, I think is really important for students to remember too. As you said, your faculty member is very likely not out to make you cry or hurt your feelings when they’re giving you feedback.

 

NIK: Well, that’s really relevant, I think, to my next question, which is, you know, how can students work with feedback from faculty that may not be clear right away, or may not be exactly they were looking for? You know, sometimes I see comments from faculty that say something like, “Change this,” or just simply, “APA.” How can students build that relationship with the faculty member that allows students to reach out to them when they need help? Because I think that is the primary underlying issue.

 

DR. BROWN: You know, I’ll take the second part of your question first, Nik. How do you establish a relationship with a faculty member so that you do feel comfortable when feedback comes on your paper to be able to continue a conversation you’ve already started?

One good way, a really practical way, of doing that is to go ahead and send an introductory e-mail to your faculty member at the beginning of each course, and it doesn’t have to be a very long autobiography about yourself. It simply needs to be a note that says, you know, “Hi, Professor So-and-So. I am Melanie Brown, and I’m a, you know, a second year student here at Walden. I’m excited about your class because of this reason. I’m a little nervous because, you know, in the past, instructors have told me this-and-that about my writing, but I’m really looking forward to learning with you this term.” That sort of earnest, heartfelt message, that probably takes, you know, 5 or 10 minutes to write and send off to your faculty member makes such a difference to the faculty member, because so few students take the time to reach out like that. And when I receive an e-mail message from a student at the beginning of the term that isn’t a question, it’s just a “hello,” it really helps me to remember that person of everyone in class. Of course, everybody in class is important to me and I want everyone to succeed, but you come to know some people more than others simply because they’re more engaged, more interactive, and more active in the discussion board. Well then, a few weeks later when I hand back that first round of papers, it is perfectly natural for me to receive an e-mail message from any student, but it totally makes sense if the student with whom I’ve already had e-mail correspondence writes me again, and says, “Oh, you know, thanks for this feedback. I had a question on page 2. Your comment was....,” and then it says, “Oh, could you follow up on that or give me an example of what you meant, because I’m unclear here.” You know, Brittany, like your example of “Interesting.” You know, I could imagine the student saying, “By interesting, did you mean good interesting, or bad interesting? And if it’s bad interesting, what should I do? If it’s good interesting, what made it good?” Because even to get a compliment without an explanation can leave a student thinking, “I wonder what I did that was so good, and how can I do it again if I don’t know what it is in the first place?” So I think it’s great for students to go ahead and reach out to faculty early in their course, and then keep that e-mail conversation going so that that feedback is clear and less confusing.

And Nik, you had a good first part of your question too that I just can’t recall. Sorry about that.

 

NIK: Oh, no, that’s okay, Melanie. The first part of my question is: What can students do concretely with a comment or a set of comments from faculty that might not be clear?

 

DR. BROWN: I think there a couple of ways to go about this. One is to go ahead and contact that faculty member and ask for more explanation. And a second approach is to go ahead and contact the Writing Center. Students often feel like when it comes to scheduling time for a Writing Center paper review that they have to schedule in advance for a paper they have upcoming. Well, sure, that’s fine, but there are so many papers you’ve already written that already have feedback on them from faculty members. You can schedule an appointment to send one of those at any time. It’s not so much to say, “Hey what did my faculty member mean here?” for the Writing Center to translate, but instead, it’s to provide additional feedback and say, you know, for instance if a faculty member were to have highlighted a sentence and then put a comment that said something like, “You need to improve your APA style here.” Well as a student, you might wonder, “Oo, which part of APA do I need to improve? You know, is it word choice, is it use of punctuation or numbers? Is it citation format? I’m not sure what the APA style problem is in this sentence.” The Writing Center sure can help you with that, and so you can seek a review on a past paper and learn an awful lot along the way.

You can also contact the Writing Center via e-mail. You can copy and paste the sentence with the comment, and you might say, “Oh, my instructor said that the APA in this sentence is confusing, but I really don’t know what part of the APA is confusing.” Send that via e-mail and we can reply within 24 hours and let you know: “Well from our perspective, here’s where we see the APA problem. It looks like there’s a hyphenation issue here, and that’s the part that we noticed.” But we’ll also recommend that you go ahead and contact your faculty member so that you can get clearer context from the person who wrote that comment, as well.

 

BRITTANY: So I have a question, Melanie. Let’s say you build this great relationship with your instructor as you’ve been advising, which is wonderful advice, um, you reach out to them at the beginning of the course with your mini-bio. You contact them when you have questions about their feedback on your writing. But then your course ends and you aren’t working with that instructor any more. You begin a new course and you find that the feedback or the grades, or whatever kind of interaction you’re having with the new faculty member doesn’t seem to match up with the person that you’ve established this relationship with. Do you have any advice for students who might find that there’s a lack of consistency between the feedback that they’re getting from different instructors?

 

DR. BROWN: Sure, and you sure will find a lack of consistency. Just as every writer has a different style, so do readers, so do faculty have different approaches to providing feedback on your writing. Now, there are some elements that should remain consistent, right? APA style has rules. Grammar has rules. So there are some elements that should, one hopes, stays consistent from course to course. But, there are other sort of stylistic issues in writing: a person’s voice, sentence length and word choice, paragraph length. There’s no hard and fast rule for something like paragraph length. I know some folks will say there needs to be a minimum of three sentences, but no more than seven. Some people will say, “Well, you should aim for two paragraphs a page, or maybe three, but not four,” you know. And I know as a student when I was in school I’d say, “Well I have no idea. How long do you want my paragraph to be?” And it’s not that easy, right? It’s not that consistent. A paragraph simply needs to be as long as it takes for you to provide that information to your reader--which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

So how do you approach that lack of consistency? You had one relationship with a faculty member last term, now you’re trying to establish a relationship with a faculty member this term, but maybe your styles just don’t mesh as well as your faculty member from the previous class. Well my recommendation first is to stay open-minded about that relationship. Do try to stay in touch with that faculty member and, of course, continue the good practices you’ve started already: e-mailing the faculty member for feedback, seeking out more examples if any feedback is confusing or unclear.

But one way also to address a lack of consistency is, again, to try and be consistent yourself. Try to have that list of topics going that your past faculty have commented on--issues in your writing, and as you grow that list you can say to this new faculty member, “Oh you mentioned that organization is an issue in my writing, and I’ve heard that from faculty in the past, but nobody has ever talked to me about voice before. And I’ve written the Writing Center for feedback and they gave me this link to voice in writing, and I still have a few questions, and I was encouraged by the Writing Center to contact you. And so I wonder if you could give me some feedback on voice in this way?”

And so in a very polite way, even as you’re experiencing what feels like inconsistency in feedback, there are ways that you, yourself, can be consistent in how you respond to that feedback. So even though the relationship with different faculty and the comments from different faculty will change over time, the ways that you respond to those comments will be your own. Those will be your good practices in approaching faculty in helping to improve your writing as you go from course-to-course throughout your program.

 

NIK: Well, before we wrap up, I just wanted to mention that our very own Amber Cook, who’s the Manager of Program Outreach and Faculty Support here at the Walden Writing Center, just posted a blog post recently, on October 21st. It’s called, “Help them Help You: Being Receptive To Faculty Feedback.” To access, just go to our blog, waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.com. That’s waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.com.

Dr. Brown, thanks so much. We can also extend our thanks to you on behalf of our listeners who I think will be very grateful for your tips and advice today.

 

BRITTANY: Yes, thank you so much, Melanie, for being here this morning. It’s been a pleasure.

 

DR. BROWN: Well I was so pleased to join you, and the podcast does so much to support students. I really appreciate all of the important topics on writing that you cover in this series. Thanks again.

 

BRITTANY: All right, thanks everyone.

 

NIK: Thanks, everyone.

 

[Ending Music transition]

 

NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.

 

BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Nik Nadeau; our colleague, Anne Shiell; and special guest, Melanie Brown, associate director and manager of writing initiatives at the Walden University Writing Center.