Students deserve to know what they can improve on and what they did well at when receiving their grades on essays and long-form assignments.
My first grade in college was an essay for Governing Ideas in America by Professor Hockett. He’s slightly infamous in political science for his harsh grading and the detailed analysis that he adds to it. There was red ink on every spare page, and he stapled an extra page to the back to leave further comments. I got a C+.
Professor Hockett, and many professors like him, explains to classes that he doesn’t get paid to give you an A and let you go on your way. He’s preparing you for harder classes and graduate school. He’s challenging you to do better, to write better, to give your best possible arguments.
At first, it was soul-destroying. The lowest essay grade I’d ever gotten before that was a 92%. The notes on my paper looked harsh, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with them, or how to feel about them. A lot of kids here have similar experiences. It can be difficult to understand that a professor isn’t giving an emotional critique, but an academic one. Their comments aren’t often harsh, just honest — and when students go without genuine feedback for too long, they can lose sight of the difference between the two.
I’ve come to see Professor Hockett’s feedback as the gold standard of feedback. Whenever I get a grade from professors, I look at the notes. I see what they hate and what they thought could be improved and what I’ve done well.
It’s helped me knock time off my essay-writing process. When I know what works, I don’t have to spend so much time guessing on what professors want from me, or what will get me the best grade. It’s also made me more aware of the things I need to learn about writing — how to use grammar and punctuation and to follow my own thought until the end, and then restart.
Essay feedback also gives students a sense of fairness. I would never argue with Hockett’s grading because I understand why he gives out the grades he does. It makes sense, even when I wanted to do better. I’ve had professors use code and attach a sheet to the back explaining their system, type up notes or just leave longhand comments. And in every case, I’ve seriously considered their feedback.
It can be difficult for professors to give students serious feedback. They have classes, and grading, and their own research on top of home lives and all the other complications that come with daily life. It can be just as difficult for students to push for additional feedback. No one wants to complain about not knowing why they got a good grade and seem self-serving any more than they want to complain about not knowing in excruciating detail why they got a bad grade. It can be anywhere from embarrassing to downright humiliating to hear genuine criticism on something you’ve worked hard on. That doesn’t make it less important to hear.
Every assignment turned in for a grade deserves serious consideration. If it didn’t, I shouldn’t have to complete the work. And if a professor is expected to evaluate my work, I should know how to do better next time and learn how to evaluate my own work by learning how those who are more educated will go on to evaluate my work. Evaluation and emulation are important steps in the learning process. I don’t learn anything from essays I’ve finished and forgotten about without someone pointing out the ways I could’ve improved. Many professors on campus already provide genuinely helpful feedback. The rest should be encouraged, by both faculty and staff, to provide more precise and insightful feedback, especially before the next essay is due.