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Feedback Decoder: Study Skills

A guide to help you understand, track and use feedback on your assignments

Overview of using feedback

You’ve received a poor mark for a written assignment and the feedback is crushing. So, what are you going to do? Lock yourself away? Ignore it? Tempting, perhaps, but not the answer!

Getting feedback is an essential part of university life, and learning how to deal with it is crucial. It’s obviously good to receive positive feedback, but we learn a lot more from constructive criticism. Being proactive and working with any negative feedback, and not against it, can get you moving in the right direction. This is known as ‘feeding forward.’

It’s also important to reflect on positive feedback. You may have received a top grade, but being aware of the mechanics of writing, such as structure and style, is crucial to achieving consistency.

Guide contents

The tabs of this guide will support you in better understanding the feedback you receive and using it to grow as a student. The sections are organised as follows:

  • Making sense of feedback - Confused by what a marker's comments mean? Here, we break down some common marking phrases.
  • Types of feedback - Learn the difference between formative and summative feedback.
  • Methods of feedback - Explore different ways that feedback might come to you as a student, such as written/verbal feedback from instructors or peer review commentary.

What does it actually mean...?

The marking sheet included on the Methods of Feedback tab shows examples of comments markers might make as a way of communicating what is good about the assignment and what needs improvement. Being proactive with these comments is the only way to learn and grow.

However, you need to be confident with interpreting the feedback provided. This does get easier with experience, but we appreciate that markers' comments can feel vague or confusing. Below, we will break down some common feedback phrases, explaining what they mean and what you can do to improve.

Click through the dropdown headings to start decoding your feedback!

Feedback decoder: written assessments

  • 'Too descriptive'
  • 'Need to be more critical'
  • 'Why does this matter?'
  • 'Summary, not analysis.'
  • 'Needs more depth.'

One of the most important skills to master at university is critical thinking. Depending on the assignment, markers are often looking for more than mere description. Instead, they want you to engage with a range of evidence, evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and consider the topic in depth. These comments above indicate a lack of depth, suggesting that the marker is looking for a greater level of engagement with the evidence and the topic. Description is a necessary means of providing context, but an overly descriptive piece of writing is going to prevent you from achieving the higher marks that you want.

Put another way, you need to answer not just the 'what,' but the 'so what?'

Make sure the reader understands what is relevant about the discussion you are crafting: its implications, why the claims matter, how the available evidence/literature/data supports your thesis statement.

Top tip: In your rough draft, include some sentences that begin with 'This matters because' and/or 'The relevance of this is [...].' You might cut those starter phrases from your final submission, but using them in the rough draft will remind you to move beyond summary/description.

Our 'Critical Writing' workshop (embedded below) will provide you with strategies to improve the depth and clarity of analysis in your work.

  • 'Read beyond the lectures' or 'Need to conduct additional reading.'
  • 'You have cited the mandatory texts, but where is the independent/further research?'
  • 'Can you make this point using a more reliable source / piece of literature?'
  • 'Is this a trustworthy source?' or 'Needs better quality citation / reference.'

Above, the comments shown in the first two bullet points indicate a lack of independent reading. This means you are relying too heavily on sources supplied directly by your instructor (for example, 'essential texts' on the module reading list). These sources are of course great to reference, but unless the assessment brief says otherwise, the expectation exists that you will also use the library catalog and appropriate databases to discover (and reference) relevant articles, books, data sets, etc. beyond those your instructor recommends.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to university is getting your head around a diverse range of ideas. This requires patience, curiosity and plenty of reading. Academic sources, such as books and articles, are the building blocks of a typical academic assignment. They help you to explore and develop ideas, and the more depth you can achieve in your assignments, the higher your marks are likely to be.

Explore the training options available for finding information to develop your skills in this area.

Comments such as those in the third and fourth bullet points, above, suggest a problem with the quality of your evidence/references rather than the quantity. Citing Wikipedia, for example, is almost never a good idea! Similarly, rather than citing a news article that summarises a scientific or healthcare breakthrough, you should instead find the original scholarly article/report on which the news article is based: going to the original academic source is considered more reliable, as a news report might accidentally misrepresent or overstate nuanced findings.

The training resources linked above will help build your skills in searching for reliable evidence and using databases. Additionally, the CRAAP framework (video below) provides a quick way to evaluate evidence if this concept is new to you.

  • 'Writing is jumpy' or 'This feels scattered.'
  • 'Abrupt' or 'Change of topic is sudden.'
  • 'How did you get from here to here?'
  • 'Work on how one idea flows to the next.'

These marker comments usually suggest that transitions and signposting in your essay are either absent or unclear. If you are receiving many comments along this line, then aim to be direct and assertive in your use of phrases and sentences that guide the reader from one point to the next (e.g. 'Having analysed the financial explanations for protest XYZ, I will now examine mass media's role').

Check out the Manchester Phrasebank's 'Signalling transitions' section to explore transition templates you can incorporate into your writing.

When writing assignments with higher word counts, it is also important to consider how signposts can help the reader follow along from one section to the next.

A signpost lets you either refer back or preview forward.

Here is an example of signposting at the start of a longer essay's third major section: 'The first section of this work analysed contemporaneous explanations of [historical tragedy ABC], whereas the second section examined dominant perspectives in present-day scholarship. The following section will challenge dominant discourse through the application of theoretical lens XYZ, which has been underutilized in the literature to date.' Note how the first sentence refers back to remind the reader of what the essay has achieved thus far; then, the second sentence previews forward to prepare the reader for what comes next.

Top tip: If you are struggling with how to transition and signpost, practice identifying these techniques at play 'in real life' by highlighting any examples you spot when reading academic articles. Observing effective uses of these techniques will build your confidence in where and how to deploy them in your own writing.

  • 'Littered with grammatical errors and awkward phrasing.'
  • 'Don’t know what you mean here' or '???'
  • 'Sentences are clunky / cumbersome / difficult / hard to follow.'
  • 'The writing isn't reader-friendly' or 'Work on smoothness of your writing.'

It can be disheartening to lose marks on grammatical mistakes, typos and awkward phrasing. Markers are eagle-eyed and often pick up on these errors, resulting in comments like the ones above – even the dreaded question mark. More often than not, confusion or incoherence can be avoided by thoroughly editing and proofreading your work. Granted it takes time and patience, but editing your work can focus your attention on the flow, structure and coherence of your writing.

Our Refine Your Writing: Better Proofreading training sequence (embedded below) takes approximately 45 minutes to complete. If you are consistently losing marks because your writing is 'hard to follow' or contains errors, the strategies you will learn via this training should help.

Click here to view the accessible version of this interactive content
  • 'Over-reliant on quotes' or 'Quotation heavy.'
  • 'Absence of your voice.'
  • 'Can you find a way to say this yourself?'

Whilst you’re expected to use lots of academic sources in your writing, you should avoid extensive quotations. This can vary depending on the expectations of your school and/or department and the conventions of your discipline, but over-relying on quotes can undermine your own voice and authority. Establishing your own voice is an important part of developing your own style as a writer. This doesn’t mean ignoring the views of other people, but incorporating them in a coherent way that forms a narrative. Regular quotes can be distracting and disruptive, forcing the reader to move between different styles of writing.

Whilst maintaining the authors’ original views, paraphrasing allows you to maintain a consistent style that binds different voices together. Paraphrasing and summarising in your own words can also help to reduce wordiness by cutting out unnecessary content.

Take a look at our Paraphrasing guide for tips on how to paraphrase.

  • 'What are you actually claiming / asserting / arguing, here?'
  • 'Argument unclear / weak' or 'Unclear claim.'
  • 'Need to back this up' or 'Need more evidence.'
  • 'Demonstrate your reasoning' or 'Clarify your logic.'
  • 'No identifiable stance' or 'Sits on the fence.'

Comments such as these suggest problems with how you are approaching argumentation in your writing. As already established, critical analysis is an essential part of university, and argumentation and analysis go hand in hand.

In an academic assignment, an argument is a position that you forward. The main body of your assignment should work through a range of evidence that persuades your reader towards the cogency of your argument. It’s a good idea, where suitable, to also counter that argument with alternative evidence, but the argument stands at the centre of an assignment and provides a focal point for your reader. When markers refer to a ‘weak’ argument, then it might imply that the analysis, discussion and/or evidence is lacking in support of the argument. Alternatively, a complete absence of an argument can result in an aimless piece of writing – a sure way to disengage your reader.

Most academic essays should feature a clear thesis statement, or central argument, around which the work is developed. Check out our Crafting the Introduction guide to learn more about thesis statements.

Next, you need to make sure the body paragraphs of your essay present logical pairings of claims and relevant evidence.

Comments like 'need to back this up' suggest that a claim was made in the writing, but insufficient facts/literature/data were presented to prove or support the claim. You can improve this issue in future work as you edit and rewrite: as you read through your draft, ask yourself (again and again and again), 'How can I PROVE this point?' Build a solid case using reliable sources!

On the flipside, comments like 'unclear claim' or 'what are you actually arguing' may suggest that you are incorporating facts, data and ideas from external sources, but you aren't articulating how those references connect to and support part of your overall argument. When editing and rewriting, examine the sentences surrounding any paraphrased or quoted material: is the evidence presented alongside a clear claim, or are you leaving the reader to 'fill in the blanks' as to its relevance?

Top tip: Topic sentences and takeaway points help frame the focus of each paragraph, ensuring your argument develops from start to finish in a logical way. See the 'Structure and paragraphs' dropdown for more.

  • 'Paragraphs are unfocused / incoherent' or 'Paragraphs lack clear focus.'
  • 'What is the central idea of this paragraph?'
  • 'You need to think about how one paragraph leads to the next.'
  • 'There's some good content in this paragraph, but what does it add up to?'
  • 'Work on developing better / more coherent / stronger paragraphs.'

When an instructor says a paragraph is 'incoherent,' they mean that its sentences don't add up to a consistent, logical whole.

A paragraph shouldn't jump between too many points of focus.

For example: 'Public surveys indicate a majority of voters support drugs policy reform. Party ABC is more likely to reform drugs policies than Party XYZ. Reforms enacted in Country X demonstrate one shape new laws could take.' While these sentences are each about 'drug policy reform,' broadly, the specific focus pivots much too quickly: 1) public perceptions, 2) domestic policy/parties, and finally 3) an international example. If each of these points is important to the overall argument, the writer should consider devoting a paragraph to each, individually. This would let them develop and engage with the ideas in a focused fashion.

Each paragraph of an essay is like a link in a chain, and you want your paragraphs to be as well-defined and solid as a chain's links. Would you trust a chain if half of its links were misshapen and soft? Probably not! There isn't just one 'right' way to shape a paragraph, but there is a go-to formula you can rely on to craft paragraphs that are coherent and clear:

  • 1) Open with a clear topic sentence that establishes the paragraph's focus. For example: 'Continuing professional development (CPD) in nursing may be offered digitally or face-to-face, with each method having unique merits.' This lets the reader know what to expect: for the rest of the paragraph, the writer will engage in critical comparison of digital vs. face-to-face training/CPD.
  • 2) Develop the body of the paragraph with relevant evidence and discussion. Following the above topic sentence, the writer might cite surveys or data that demonstrate nursing professionals' preferences for learning. The writer could reference academic texts on CPD to discuss where and why face-to-face might prove more effective than online, and vice versa. This is where you present and engage with the evidence!
  • 3) Conclude the paragraph with a takeaway point. This final sentence should 'wrap up' the paragraph, leaving the reader with a sense of what is most relevant. For example: 'Although live training achieves [aims X and Y], it is evident that the further development of asynchronous training options will mitigate [problem Z] and encourage consistency between NHS trusts.' Lean on your own critical reasoning and logical conclusion to craft this takeaway point: it's usually a stronger move to end on YOUR logic than that of an external author.

For a deeper dive into topic sentences, takeaway points, and strong paragraphs, watch our Basics of Structure webinar, below.

Marker feedback related to 'citations' and 'referencing' tends to fall into one of two categories. It's important that you understand which problem your marker is flagging because the solutions are different.

1) Firstly, you might receive comments like these alongside in-text citations or your bibliography entries:

  • 'Check citation format' or 'Formatting?'
  • 'You need to use the style guide.'
  • 'Follow APA / MLA / MHRA / etc. style.'
  • 'Citations are inconsistent / incomplete / wrong.'
  • 'Work on your referencing for future assignments; this is inconsistent / flawed.'

These comments suggest that although you are trying to credit external sources you have used, you aren't following the correct rules for how to cite. The correct way to cite sources varies between disciplines because they use different style guides. For example, if a Psychology student and a Linguistics student each wanted to reference the exact same book, the two students' essays would cite that book using different formats! This is because most Psychology modules follow the APA style guide whereas Linguistics modules follow the Harvard style guide.

Use our citing and referencing page to determine which style guide you should follow in your discipline. You can likely find this information in your course handbook or on Blackboard, too.

Many students lose points due to inconsistent and incomplete citations, but this can be an easy area in which to improve, once you get the hang of it. It does call for strong attention to detail, but unlike most areas of writing, there IS a clear right answer and wrong answer when it comes to citation formatting! Think of citations like those paint-by-number crafts: once you know the style guide to follow and the source type you're referencing, you just need to 'paint in' the correct details. If you do this carefully and accurately, you will receive all possible marks for this part of the rubric.

Use Cite Them Right Online to find tutorials and templates that will let you format, copy and paste accurate references with ease.

2) Secondly, you might receive feedback that sounds more like this:

  • 'Citations?' or 'References?'
  • 'Needs stronger / higher-quality / better references.'
  • 'Quality of citations is lacking throughout.'
  • 'What can you cite / reference to support this?'
  • 'Some good ideas, but insufficient referencing lets down the essay.'

Here, although the marker is still using the terms 'citation' and 'referencing,' they are pointing to problems much bigger than formatting consistency. The issues in this case have to do with quality of evidence, argumentation, and/or critical analysis.

This can be confusing because you might (understandably!) interpret 'needs better reference' as meaning 'you need to do a better job formatting this reference.' In this case, however, the 'better' likely refers to the reliability and quality of the literature/evidence itself: the marker is saying, 'you need a BETTER piece of literature to support the claim you're making.' The feedback 'quality of citations is lacking throughout' has a similar meaning. The marker isn't just commenting on how you have formatted/proofread the references: they are commenting on your selection of external sources, suggesting there needs to be more academic rigour.

If you are consistently receiving feedback along this line, check the Finding high-quality evidence, literature and/or data dropdown and the Argumentation dropdown for further suggestions.

Finally, the vagueness of marker feedback can make it tough to tell WHICH type of citation/referencing improvement you need to focus on. If in doubt, consider visiting your instructor during their office hours to discuss and clarify how you can improve.

  • 'Interesting, but how does it relate?'
  • 'This isn't what the assignment asked you to do.'
  • 'Check the essay prompt for guidance.'
  • 'Make sure you are addressing the assignment parameters.'
  • 'You haven't answered the question.'

Comments like these can be very disappointing when you felt good about the work you submitted. Bear in mind that in many cases, such comments don't mean your writing was 'bad.' They instead suggest a mismatch between what you produced and the original assignment expectations.

For example, imagine the essay prompt asked you to critically compare two methods for delivering continuing professional development (CPD) in your field. Let's say you did an excellent job identifying and analysing similarities between the two methods. A marker might observe that you didn't entirely fulfil the brief because you neglected to identify and analyse key differences between the methods, despite your good work with the similarities. This is because the assignment verb 'compare' generally implies the need to 'contrast' as well.

Another area where writers sometimes stray from the brief is evidence/literature. You might be asked to use a certain amount of literature; specific theorists or sources; evidence/data of a certain type; etc. You need to pay careful attention to those requirements: it's possible to write a fantastic essay that scores poorly because it builds its arguments using the wrong kind of evidence for the brief.

To improve in this area, remember to engage in frequent reflection throughout the writing process.

Don't just look at the assignment prompt while you're planning: revisit it while you are drafting, rewriting, and proofreading to ensure you have hit the key criteria.

Check out our Understanding the Assignment guide to learn some strategies for dissecting academic prompts and making a positive, focused start on written assessments.

Types of feedback

Feedback comes in different forms depending on the nature of your course. You might receive verbal feedback whilst on placement, or informal feedback from fellow students for a presentation. The most common form of feedback at university, however, is formal written feedback for assignments, which may be either formative or summative.

Formative assessments

  • The term formative describes a formal piece of work for which the mark doesn’t tend to count towards your final mark for the module.
  • Formative assessments provide an opportunity to receive some feedback on your writing. This allows you to identify areas of your writing that need improvement for subsequent assignments.
  • For this reason, formative assessments tend to be positioned early in a module, or midway through.

Summative assessments

  • Unlike formative work, summative assessments do contribute to your final mark for the module.
  • The nature of the assignment can vary, but summative assignments are often similar to formative assignments. For instance, a summative assignment might require you to write about a similar topic covered in the formative assignment, or possibly even the same, but sometimes with a larger word count.
  • Given that the mark for summative assignments counts towards your final grade, it’s important that you use the feedback for formative assessments proactively. This gives you the best chance when it comes to your summative assignments.

Receiving feedback

Throughout university, you will likely receive feedback from instructors in both written and verbal forms. You may also receive feedback from your peers. Continue reading to learn more about these methods.



Written feedback

The way written feedback is presented can vary depending on the conventions of your school or department. Here are some examples of written feedback methods you might encounter:

  • Feedback sheets and/or marking grids (usually uploaded to Blackboard by the marker).
  • Typed comments or annotations in the margins of your document.
  • Emails from your instructor or module lead.
  • Replies on digital discussion boards or journals (in modules that use these features of Blackboard).

Below is a link to a typical example of a feedback sheet where the marker provides their comments. Attached to this is a marking grid which should contextualise the marker’s comments and your overall mark. The marking grid is particularly important because this is what your marker uses to assess and grade your work. Both examples are from Health Sciences.

Top tip: If your marker tends to use Word comments or email rather than a structured grid/rubric, consider creating your own grid to organise their feedback. A basic Excel spreadsheet works well: copy/paste their comments in column A, then thematically label them (e.g. Citations, Source Use, Argument, Structure) in column B. Reviewing which themes are most prominent in column B will help you 1) understand where you're excelling, and 2) prioritise any areas for improvement.



Verbal feedback

While marker comments and grading rubrics provide feedback that we can access as needed after the fact, verbal feedback is more fleeting: it gets said, and then it's gone! Thus, it's helpful to 1) anticipate situations where you might receive verbal feedback so you can mentally prepare, and 2) block out time afterwards to record key ideas and write down your thoughts.

So, when and where are you likely to receive verbal feedback? Here are some possible scenarios (which will be more or less relevant depending on your discipline):

  • During your lecturer's office/learning hours in one-to-one conversation, or during meetings with your Personal Academic Tutor (PAT).
  • After giving a presentation, whether within a module, at a conference or elsewhere.
  • During a lab or practical session, when teaching staff or peers might discuss with you how things went.
  • During a creative workshop, where peers and/or your module lead may provide feedback on something you created (e.g. a short story, a painting, a digital cartoon, etc.).
  • During a PhD progression review or oral exam.
  • Following an interview for a job, internship or other opportunity.

Verbal feedback scenarios are great because, in many cases, they invite an opportunity for two-way dialogue. For instance, you can respond to questions, request clarification, or perhaps expand on an earlier point. If the feedback includes areas to improve on, don't be embarrassed: this is part of learning. Try to listen with a growth mindset rather than reacting defensively.

There may be verbal feedback scenarios where you are encouraged to simply listen as others speak. Some creative writing workshops, for example, operate this way: the writer will remain silent as everyone else in the room talks about their work! If you are unsure about the expectations for speaking/listening in a new environment, just ask your module lead. They will be happy to explain how feedback works in their class.

In some verbal feedback scenarios, it will make sense to jot down key notes as you listen. Capture broad strokes or key themes rather than trying to transcribe every word said. Most of us are actually more detached and less engaged when we go into 'transcriber mode,' and you don't want to miss out on the benefits of the discussion. You can sit down after to add smaller details before you forget.

Top tip: Verbal feedback isn't a good fit for some students due to a specific learning difference or other reasons. If you are concerned about processing feedback verbally, speak to your PAT or Student Disability and Inclusion for support and advice.



Peer feedback

You likely think of your instructors first and foremost when you hear 'feedback.' However, your peers can also provide invaluable feedback on the clarity, relevance and depth of your work.

  • Peer feedback is an embedded component of some modules. The process involves both giving and receiving feedback on works-in-progress.
  • When you review (or 'workshop') another student's writing, you will likely be provided with a rubric, checklist or set of questions to guide your comments. For example...
    • 'Is there a clear thesis statement?'
    • 'Highlight examples of strong references/evidence.'
    • 'Circle any phrases that are difficult to follow.'

Peer feedback sessions provide brilliant opportunities to hear multiple perspectives on your writing before you submit. This gives you time to carefully consider the feedback you receive and make edits where you agree with the insights offered.

If your modules don't involve formal peer feedback, you can set up your own peer workshop. This can be with other students on your programme, but it doesn't have to be. Peers from a different discipline offer fresh eyes, and they can still identify where a claim could use evidence to support it, whether a sentence is 'clunky' to read, etc. Here are some tips for setting up your own peer workshop:

  • Search for 'peer review checklist' or 'peer feedback checklist' online and read through a few examples. Pick one, or combine elements of several, to use within your group.
  • Decide if you will provide comments via in-person discussion or digital annotation. Discussion tends to work better for small peer feedback groups (e.g. 3-4 people) than it does larger ones.
  • If your group has 5+ members, agree what is a fair 'work load' (i.e., should each participant annotate just ~2 peer works rather than annotating everyone's drafts?).
  • Important: Providing feedback is not the same as rewriting. You should never rewrite a peer's work as this is academically dishonest.
    • Ethical example: You bracket a paragraph in a peer's essay and include the comment, 'The sentences in this paragraph are all pretty long. It gets tough to follow. Could you mix it up with some simpler/shorter sentences?' [This is honest and academically acceptable because your peer remains 'in charge' of their own writing.]
    • Dishonest example: You think a paragraph in your peer's work is tough to follow. Therefore, you delete the entire paragraph and rewrite all the sentences yourself. Your peer then submits the work as their own. [This violates Academic Responsibility and Conduct (ARC) because you have now 'co-authored' what was meant to be an individually produced work.]