Grading is one of the tasks in academia where we need to provide feedback, and where good feedback can (potentially) affect not only the recipient’s current product, but his future writing. Some of this feedback is to people we know well, like when we edit a manuscript or grant proposal that a colleague or student has written. Sometimes we give feedback to people we do not know well, like when we grade papers or exams. And sometimes we give feedback to someone we don’t know, or we don’t know if we know, like when we review grant proposals or anonymous manuscripts. Today I want to focus on a specific aspect of providing feedback that is harder to keep in mind the deeper you get into a big stack of papers or the further you get into reviewing or editing a long grant proposal or dissertation. Always provide at least some positive feedback, even – especially – when it’s hard to do so. It takes more time, but it’s important.
You are providing feedback to a real person, who spent (hopefully) many hours on a class paper or a thesis or a manuscript. I know that there are instances where it’s hard to find merits in a particular final product. But keep in mind that the student worked hard to write the final paper, and has feelings too. A low grade is a tiny bit easier to take if the positive aspects are highlighted as well. A rejected manuscript is slightly easier to handle if the reviewer also described the strengths.
If you’re spending time providing feedback, you want the receiver to listen to your feedback (otherwise, why are you writing comments on the paper or reading the draft?). If you only include negative feedback, the author may disregard your feedback, deciding to write you off as angry or clueless about what she wrote. If you include positive feedback as well, the author is more likely to think you understand her paper and to listen to your constructive criticism as well.
I know what you’re thinking. You just read the worst paper ever written, and you can’t think of anything positive to say about it. I’ve literally read thousands of papers in my life, so I hear you. But you can always think of something positive to say. I’m a bit hesitant to give examples of things I do, in case the next time I give feedback to someone who read this post, s/he thinks, “oh no! Eva wrote about that on her blog, is she just placating me?” But I never give feedback I don’t mean. I always look for the strengths, and provide feedback on those strengths. Here are some things I do when it’s not immediately obvious where to give positive feedback:
On the margin of a paper I’m grading, I may physically mark a passage and write a comment like “good point” or “great!” or “interesting.” Again, only if I think it’s a good point or interesting.
In summary feedback for student papers, I try to give as detailed feedback as possible, such as specifics about the way theory was described well or the clear presentation of potential future directions in a research area. I also may use some of the following more general comments (on both stronger and weaker papers), when they’re true:
- Interesting topic
- Writing style is engaging
- Good introductory/concluding sentence
- Generally well written (even if I don’t like the content)
- The structure follows the assignment structure
- Each paragraph is well organized
- Overall structure of paper is well organized
- Off to a good start!
For a manuscript review, I usually start with strengths. If possible, I comment on other strong sections throughout the review (e.g., theory well summarized; methods clearly described; tables easy to follow). The strengths section is obviously hardest when it’s a weak manuscript. No matter how weak, I don’t think I’ve ever written a review without including some strengths. Some go to’s for weaker papers include:
- Strong sample
- Diverse sample
- Design is strong or unique for this area of work (e.g., longitudinal; qualitative; observational)
- Interesting research topic/research questions
- Important topic
- Topic has important implications (e.g., for intervention or policy)
- Potential to make strong contribution to literature
- Section(s) X is well written
Finally, when you’re giving a co-author feedback, before you jump into suggestions for changes, tell your co-author what you liked about the paper. This part of your feedback doesn’t have to be as extensive as the suggestions for change, but it’s equally important, whether providing feedback to your student, your adviser, or a colleague. That’s right – even your adviser wants to know what you liked about his paper. Your co-author will accept your feedback better if you’ve also highlighted the positive aspects, and more generally, you want to maintain a positive working relationship with him. Presumably you like him, and want him to feel good about his hard work so far. I once worked with a student who, every time she sent me feedback on a paper we were writing together, went right into the negative and never said a positive word about it. I finally gently replied to her feedback with a simple comment like, “did you like anything about the paper?” and explained why giving positive feedback is valuable. Ever since then, whenever we collaborate, she includes in her feedback what she liked about my writing, and it makes me feel much better about my writing and about our work together. I hope this advice has improved her collaborations with others as well.
Grading good papers (and writing positive manuscript reviews) is so much less work than providing feedback on ones that are poorly written. It’s easy to rush through, write an A, and be done when there is a big stack waiting for you. But take a moment to write something positive as well. Even in the best papers, you may not reach the Gottman 5:1 magic ratio, but you can include some positive. Sometimes my TAs laugh at me when I write smiley faces next to good exam answers – they argue that it’s the grade, not the feedback, that matters. But I still remember what my undergraduate stats professor wrote at the end of my final exam. It was something like “bellissimo. I’m halfway through grading 50 exams and you’re the only one who has gotten it all right. Treat yourself to something nice.” 25 years later and I still remember that. When I’m grading I remind myself of the long-lasting impact of one positive comment, and I take the time to give everyone the same courtesy.
“The post Providing good feedback: Include the positive first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 5, 2013.”