Welcome to our Feedback Month – for the next few weeks our blog will explore different aspects of feedback on doctoral student writing.  You can receive notification of new posts by pressing the ‘Follow’ tab. We hope you enjoy our first themed month.

By Claire Aitchison

In workshops on feedback I often ask participants to share memorable experiences as givers or receivers of feedback – and boy, have I heard some beauties! Rarely is anyone stuck for something to say, and groups often recoil in shock and laughter as individuals tell their tales. One of my favourite stories comes from a very senior academic colleague who recounted how her doctoral supervisor scrawled all over her near-to-final thesis – ‘Total rubbish!’ ‘Crap!’ ‘Nowhere near ready for submission’ – and so on. After she had recovered from the shock, she consulted with her co-supervisor, decided to ignore the feedback and submitted. She was rewarded with brilliant PhD examiner reports. Stories of bad experiences proliferate; however, there are also wonderful examples of timely, rewarding, satisfying feedback.

No doubt you can tell your own good story – please do. (Be sure to let us know clearly if you want your identity withheld.)

There’s a tonne of information about the emotional, ontological, epistemological and practice dimensions of feedback in higher education (I’ve put some references below). I don’t intend to rehearse those here, but rather I wish to consider what might be particular to feedback on doctoral writing within the student-supervisory relationship.

In an undergraduate context, the tasks, learning goals and assessment criteria are clearly outlined and student and teacher roles more stable, better defined. Feedback occurs when teachers mark student writing, grading it with commentary. For most undergraduates, their primary relationship is with other students; they may have little or no relationship with their teacher marker.

By contrast, in doctoral study the relationship between student and teacher (supervisor) is all-important and often mediated, perhaps even defined, through the processes of giving and receiving feedback on submitted writing. In some cases, doctoral candidates and their supervisors only ever meet in order to discuss the candidate’s progress as monitored and measured through the student’s writing.

Doctoral feedback is unique because it is nested within a set of intimate relationships where relational connections and responsibilities may be ill-defined, and are set to alter over time. Furthermore, this dynamic situation is overlaid by institutional and disciplinary norms, practices and expectations. Oh, and of course, there’s the personal dimension. Individual styles and personality differences infuse and at times can override everything else, and yet, this interrelationship must be sustained – for years. Now, that certainly makes for a high stakes environment!

One of the outcomes of this complex social arrangement is that the whole process of giving and receiving feedback on student writing can carry with it the heavy and additional burden of this interplay of power, responsibility and personality. It goes without saying that soliciting, giving and receiving feedback is difficult anyway, but when this involves changing responsibilities and expectations, additional strains are placed on what is already an emotional space.

Add panel supervision to the mix and there’s potential for a myriad of additional tricky situations requiring high levels of sensitivity and good will, and sophisticated negotiating skills. There’s rarely a single, simple fix to the kinds of issues that arise, but sometimes it helps to think through the possibilities. For example, what would you do in these situations?

What if a student prioritises the feedback of one supervisor over the other – especially if the principal supervisor’s feedback is ignored? How should supervisors act when they hold different views about a student’s work? Should supervisors make allowances when their student feels more humiliated in panel feedback sessions than in private one-on-one meetings? Should supervisors make their disagreements known in front of the student? What if it is one of the supervisors who is the wayward party – guilty of returning work late, cancelling supervision meetings, or giving poor feedback? What if the student regularly fails to submit work, or to act on the feedback? Should co-supervisors be expected to be familiar with the feedback given by other panel members?

Some references

Aitchison, C. and Mowbray, S. (2013). PhD women: Managing emotions, managing doctoral studies Teaching in Higher Education 18 (8), 859-870.

Can, G. and Walker, A. (2011) ‘A model for doctoral students’ perceptions and attitudes toward written feedback for academic writing’, Research in Higher Education, 52(5): 508–536.

Carless, D., Salter, D., Yang, M. and Lam, J. (2011). ‘Developing sustainable feedback practices’, Studies in Higher Education, 36(4): 395–407.

Cotterall, S. (2013). More than just a brain: Emotions and the doctoral experience. Higher Education Research and Development. 32(2), 174-187.  

Guerin, C. & Green, I. (2013) “They’re the bosses”: Feedback in team supervision. Journal of Higher and Further Education.

Paré, A. (2011) Speaking of writing: Supervisory feedback and the dissertation. In Doctoral education: research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators, edited by L. McAlpine & C. Amundsen, 59 – 74. New York: Springer.

Stracke, E. & Kumar, V. (2010) ‘Feedback and self-regulated learning: insights from supervisors’ and PhD examiners’ reports’, Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 11 (1) 17–30.

Sutton, P. (2012) Conceptualizing feedback literacy: knowing, being, and acting, Innovations in education and teaching international 49 (1) 31-40.