Blog 38

Thinking about feedback in translation terms


Agnes Whitfield, Department of English, LA&PS

This text follows up on some of the thoughtful suggestions made in the sCoop Blog 28 “Giving feedback that encourages a growth mindset.”

My change in thinking about feedback started in the late 1990s. I began to see that students had increasing difficulty in understanding and integrating common feedback comments. They could agree that a passage was too wordy, or that a concept was not defined clearly, but they struggled with translating this perception into concrete measures to correct the situation.

I came to conceptualize this (rightly or wrongly) as a change in the internalized bank of expressions, sentence and paragraph patterns available for students. In other words, if they could not translate my comments into an action, it was because they did not have a relevant ‘data bank’ of textual and verbal patterns to draw on.

The situation is similar, although usually less drastic, to that of students writing in a second-language context, or better still that of students translating from their first language into a second language that they do not know as well. In these contexts, students can consult dictionaries, but their understanding of how the second (or third) language functions is by force limited. Important information about context, patterns of usage and word associations or connotations, and common formulations of logical relationships in argumentation, is not part of their linguistic data bank.  They can’t draw on their experience as readers and speakers to find answers. Often, the same applies to their conceptual data bank.

As a result, I started to change the way I commented on student’s work. In literary studies, Percy Lubbock made a perceptive comment that in fiction ‘showing’ was usually more effective than ‘telling.’ I remembered my own experience starting out writing my MA thesis in French under Québécois novelist and critic Gérard Bessette. The first chapter drafts came back covered in red ink. Bessette literally reworked my sentences, reorganizing units in the sentences for better logical flow, integrating common literary formulations for introducing new topics or highlighting arguments, and even circling entire sentences and moving them to anther paragraph. These concrete revisions made a tremendous difference to my writing in French, by ‘showing’ me how to articulate ideas clearly in my second language.

In a similar manner, rather than making abstract and analytically oriented comments, I began to use the text markup function in Word to ‘show’ students how (often simple) changes in structuring or formulating their sentences and ideas could enhance the effectiveness of their essay. I use the comment function to explain briefly the issues the revisions were seeking to resolve and to make suggestions about the kind of information the student could add to the paragraph to round out their argument. The feedback became a way to help students ‘translate’ their ideas into academic discourse and build a richer and more accessible linguistic and conceptual ‘data bank.’

In 2010, to complete the process-oriented dimension of the feedback, I started to offer students an opportunity to revise their work, by integrating the changes suggested and responding to any suggestions for added detail, and to resubmit it to improve their mark. Students have responded very positively to the feedback-revision process. Anywhere from a third to a half of the class will choose to revise their assignment, and of these, the overwhelming majority will improve their grade by at least one, and often more, letter grade category (i.e. C to B, B to B+, B+ to A). On course teaching evaluations students consistently comment positively on the revision option, often noting that the feedback revision process has improved their essay-writing skills in other courses.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for the instructor? There are some unexpected practical advantages. In a course where TAs are doing marking, revisions enable me as instructor to harmonize the pedagogical approach and grading, beyond providing detailed instructions for providing feedback. As a result, there are no requests for reevaluating grades. All students have an opportunity to revise their work, and they know that the revision will be graded by me as the instructor.

Assessing revisions does take some extra time, but I find that this can be reduced considerably through some small organizational techniques. Whether I or a TA marks the initial assignment, the student receives a marked-up version with comments and suggested edits through Moodle.  It’s quite simple to upload these documents into a separate file under the course number. Then, as I review the revisions, it’s easy to call up the first version and comments, view both initial and revised text side-by-side on the screen and assess to what extent the student has grasped the concepts underlying the comments.

Equally importantly, allowing students to revise their work enables me to revise my own feedback style, as I see what kinds of comments were most effective in helping students improve their text. Most of all, I can observe how the student’s writing style improves, and that is a reward in itself.

The view of a student:


For a student, receiving feedback from respected professors is the utmost satisfactory experience, and contributes positively to self-confidence and knowledge acquisition in a learning environment. Students work hard to produce their best work, and the possibility for revision and re-submission is a great way to learn more about the writing process and how to improve our writing skills. The detailed feedback and the chance to improve on an assignment helped me re-evaluate my work, develop new writing techniques and expand my writing horizons. I recall how fixing a sentence led me to develop a new idea for my paper and include it in the re-submission. This motivated me to think more about the concepts and themes of my paper, and find more interesting connections between the literary works being analyzed. I feel I learned much more about my own skills as a result. I was encouraged to engage in deeper and more critical thinking, all while receiving a better mark, which was an amazing motivator for my progression.
Faith Balshin
Example of text:


The following articles look in more detail at the relationship between feedback and the effectiveness of the revision process:

Riddell, Jessica. “Performance, Feedback, and Revision: Metacognitive Approaches to Undergraduate Essay Writing.” Celt (Collective Essays on Learning and Teaching), VIII, 2015.

Yi Song and Ralph P. Ferretti. “Teaching critical questions about argumentation through the revising process: effects of strategy instruction on college students’ argumentative essays.”  Reading and Writing 26 (2013):67–90.

Anish M. Dave and David R. Russell, “Drafting and Revision Using Word Processing by Undergraduate Student Writers: Changing Conceptions and Practices.” Research in the Teaching of English 44: 4 (May 2010): 406-434.

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