Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Undergraduate writing & academic feedback

At last: I’ve spent far too many days marking student essays and seminar participation, and now I have finished. A quick check reveals that for the fifty ‘ish essays I’ve marked, I’ve written over 12,000 words of feedback. Hopefully, it will be useful for my students, who’ve been a really good bunch this year.

Apropos of this, I was chatting about feedback with a colleague earlier today; specifically the kind of responses to poor feedback that academics get from their students. I suspect that all academics will be used to the odd angry and baffled email from a student who has had a bad mark, or some feedback that they disagree with. I dread those accusatory emails, especially when they’re from a good student who I know should have done much better, and there are always one or two of those. Interestingly, I recently got a rather snippy response to my comments as an anonymous peer reviewer – so I guess not all academics eventually learn to take criticism entirely on the chin.

Anyway, our chat concerned how different the undergraduate writing experience is to the process they’ll go through if they go further in academia. For the undergraduate, the process is a solitary one – they receive an essay title, write their essay alone, submit, receive a mark and some feedback, and then that’s the end of it. However, for academics, the writing process often seems collaborative (well, it does for me anyway), and the initial feedback is only the beginning. We write something (often after a discussion with colleagues), present it at a seminar or conference, respond to audience comments, rewrite, repeat, submit to a journal, receive horrible feedback, rewrite, resubmit, receive more feedback, and then (if we’re lucky) finalise our paper and publish.

Now, the sensible undergraduate student will send an essay plan to their tutor, maybe talk through it with them, and email them questions – it’s just a shame that more don’t do this. They may even get a better taste of how academics write if they do a dissertation. But, it seems to me that the way undergraduates write – the way the structures we set in place shape how they write – is probably not the way that will benefit them the most either in terms of experience or learning. So, this evening I’ve found myself thinking about how we can make writing more collaborative for undergraduates, whilst also being able to assess them easily. I have some ideas: like undergraduate peer review of weekly tutorial questions, but suggestions from others would be gratefully received! How would you engage students in collaborative writing,is it a terrible idea?