Feedback matters. An essential part of the academic process, it can mean the difference between a good paper and a great one.
Effective feedback can clarify muddled thinking, highlight gaps, challenge weak assumptions and improve intelligibility. By taking the time to give it, you’re investing in the personal development of the recipient and, ultimately, the quality of research available to the academy.
It can also go badly wrong. Unclear, insufficient or poorly-delivered feedback can crush a person and sour a working relationship.
Given the nature of the HE sector, the recipient of your feedback is likely to be aiming very high – and with that stretch comes vulnerability. Exposing the fruit of countless hours’ work to feedback can be a deeply unsettling and emotionally challenging experience. Many people are already struggling silently with a negative, confidence-sapping inner voice. With mental disorders nearly twice as prevalent amongst academics as amongst the general population, it’s perhaps more important than ever to tread considerately.
So what’s the best way to go about getting it right? Here are our top do’s – and don’ts.
1. Prepare well. Clarify the areas your feedback is being sought for. Don’t copy-edit if the paper is going to a professional editor before publication.
2. Give yourself time. Ring-fence some space to read and digest fully, and then to structure your feedback clearly. However frequent an activity giving feedback may be for you, hearing it is likely to be a source of considerable anticipation for the recipient, so be as thoughtful as you can. Wherever possible, stick to the timeframe you agreed for delivering your comments, and consider diarising follow-up if an iterative process is advisable.
3. Give your recipient time. Where appropriate, writing your thoughts up and sending them in advance of a discussion can be helpful. This gives the recipient an opportunity to process any emotional reaction they may have, and to reflect on areas they want to clarify or probe further.
4. Be empathetic. The field might be competitive, but it can also be constructive. It’s worth putting yourself in the other person’s position and analysing what has worked in the past when you have received feedback – and what hasn’t. Build trust by highlighting strengths and giving specific encouragement where it’s due. If you’re sharing an observation that might be challenging to your listener, frame it that way: ‘What I’m going to say might be hard to hear…’ and make space to listen attentively to their response.
5. Allow them to weigh what you say and decide what they believe is relevant. Give them latitude by openly acknowledging that they won’t necessarily take all your comments on board. The aim of your feedback is to nudge the recipient’s shaping of their own creation in full recognition of their ownership of it.
1. Use language that makes the other person feel they’re under attack. Repeated use of ‘you’ can appear combative. Instead, dial the pressure down with ‘I’ phrases: ‘I noticed’ / ‘I’m concerned that…’ Be clear, too, to separate the work from the person.
2. Resort to vague or overly broad terms. A gap or weakness that seems obvious from your objective, external perspective is probably far from that to the person who’s spent hour after hour living and breathing their work. So be detailed, specific, and back up your point with evidence. Where you can, order your comments in a methodical way, covering structure, quality of sources, methods of investigation, logical flow, style, tone of voice and lexical choices as appropriate.
3. Make it one-way. Instead, stimulate debate and invite questions. This will serve to further refine the person’s thinking and embed the feedback. Check what they’ve understood and challenge and deepen it where you can.
As an expert in your field, giving feedback to others is likely to be a fundamental part of your role. Investing energy and attention now in developing your effectiveness at it will pay dividends.