The relationship between feedback and evaluation is complicated and highly counter-intuitive. Everybody wants feedback, right? However, a good deal of educational research shows that receiving feedback assists only high-performing learners. In other words, most people don’t benefit from feedback until they are already skilled at something like writing. For everyone else, the process of developing a growth orientation tends to be more helpful. A positive growth orientation is when you feel positive and engaged with a learning process – no matter how poorly skilled you might be. This type of attitude increases motivation; and motivation, in turn, leads to increased skill. So, you may start to see here why I am more focused on helping you find pleasure and enthusiasm in this course than I am on testing and evaluation. It’s not the feedback that will help you; it’s the process of finding joy in the study of this subject. Let’s dive into this a bit.
Most learners are not adept at identifying the limits of their knowledge and expertise. Indeed, in many social and intellectual domains, people are unaware of their incompetence, innocent of their ignorance. Where they lack skill or knowledge, they greatly overestimate their expertise and talent, thinking they are doing just fine when, in fact, they are doing quite poorly. So, if people lack the skills to produce excellent outcomes, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their outcomes (in this case, their writing) – or indeed anyone else’s outcomes – are skilled or not. They often cannot recognize their own problems or see the ways in which others show better skill. In other words: until you have some writing skill, it’s tough to recognize that you don’t have it.
If poor performers had the skills needed to distinguish accuracy from error, or skill from non-skill, they would then possess the ability to avoid poor performance in the first place. They would no longer be poorly skilled. But that’s not what we tend to see. Instead, poorly skilled writers (or musicians, or mathematicians, or whatever) tend to show dramatic overconfidence on tasks about which they have received substantial critical feedback in the past. Poor performers do not learn from feedback even when the feedback specifically indicates how to improve! (This phenomenon has been exhaustively studied and is often known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
Wait, what? Let me say that again: poor performers do not learn from feedback. So, if you are a relatively unskilled writer, and I give you many suggestions about how to improve, this will not lead to you becoming a better writer. And it’s not because you’re being stubborn. This is just how learning works, how people are. We can’t help it. Research demonstrates that often the poorest performers show no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback, that they are doing poorly. As a consequence, they typically provide overly optimistic predictions about how well they are doing.
OK. So what do we do about this? Well, it turns out that metacognitive ability – the capacity to think more widely and deeply – helps to improve levels of skill in almost every area. We can cultivate greater skill just by encouraging self-insight and general learning. How do we approach general learning? By reading. That’s why you have a reading assignment (well, one of the reasons). And how do we further reinforce metacognition? By having a growth mindset.
In this class I work hard to encourage you to develop (or deepen) a mindset that leads to greater excitement about learning and, by extension, greater self-insight. A raft of educational research shows that simply encouraging beliefs in the malleability of traits (in other words, a growth mindset that acknowledges we can get smarter about any subject) leads to a host of behaviors that contribute to more accurate perceptions of one’s abilities. And, in turn, this leads to more accurate self-assessment and improved levels of skill. Students who are taught that intelligence is malleable – that joyful practice makes you smarter – get more excited about learning, become more motivated, and achieve better grades. Thus, teaching individuals that intelligence is malleable leads to more accurate self-assessments, improvements in skill and knowledge, and (bonus!) greater self-insight – which is just good for us in a multitude of ways.
So, in this class I will try to help you better identify your strengths and where you need to improve. But I won’t do that by giving you written feedback on your assignments. It doesn’t help (see above!). Instead, I will encourage you to engage with your own process of discovery, broad-based learning, self-assessment, insight – and, most of all, by helping you to make incremental gains in the quality and depth of the skill that you bring to writing. Your intelligence is malleable: it can move across domains, apply things from one field to another, integrate ideas and practices across the spectrum of your experience. We don’t expand this malleability by doubling down on grammar, spelling, and the mechanics of writing. No, we expand malleability by being open to new creative experiences (like this class), picking up new and broad skills (in our reading), and deepening our self-insight by applying it to a new kind of (creative) writing.
This approach to learning – cross-domain, flexible, discovery-based, insight-focused, personal – is opposite to how a traditional educational system works – domain-specific, rigid, curriculum-based, externally-focused, communal. The contrast between what we do in this course and what you are used to in education can be disorienting and bewildering. It can even be upsetting. I say more about this contrast in various places on these pages, but my main recommendation is simply to try.
If you are interested in learning about the complex relationship between personal development and academic assessment and feedback, you can find more here.
Asking for Feedback
If you want written feedback, I will be happy to give you some. No problem. However, please be specific about the type of feedback that would be useful to you. Just asking for general feedback is not the best strategy; don’t just send a note that says something like feedback please. instead, take the time to articulate your feedback request in a way that reflects your engagement with the project, your own growth orientation (see above), and your self-assessment about your writing. Here are three considerations (for three different levels of skill development) that might help you bring your own self-assessment capacities to the feedback process in this class:
How would you identify and describe the gap between how you would like to write and how you do write? Where do you see that gap, and what would help you bridge it? This might be your level of self-assessment if you are a beginning writer, if you have struggled to improve at writing, or if you are taking a creative writing class for the first time. Note that self-assessment at this level requires reading first, then writing (so that you have something to compare yourself to!). At this level, simply start with identifying the gap: this is where skill improvement starts. Find the gap by reading.
What new strategies or methods have you attempted in order to improve your writing? Have those strategies been successful? If not, what do you think is not working? Have you shown your attempts or experiments to others? What has been their response? This might be your level of self-assessment if you have been working on improving your writing and you have a regular writing practice. Learners who are in upper-level creative writing classes might be at this level — but it’s just as likely that they are at the previous (Emerging) level. (Neither level is “better” than the other.) At this level, questions about skill become important, as does intentional and specific inquiry about writing as an art and craft.
At this stage, you plan, monitor, and adapt your own strategies to the task at hand. You are essentially self-managing in terms of skill development. You accurately assess how much time and what resources a writing task will require, and you know how to deal with setbacks and unexpected challenges. You are aware of the aspects of your skill that require improvement and you actively work on that improvement with every project. The feedback you request is focused mostly on mentorship (as you already know how to continue developing your writing skill). This might be your level of self-assessment if you are a professional writer who publishes routinely.
At the Emerging and Developing levels of skill development, here are a few (non-prescriptive) examples of the types of specific feedback that you might ask for:
- Is the theme of the project clear? Does the text express that theme effectively? Are there areas where the expression of the theme could be improved?
- Is the composition of the narrative well-crafted and effective? Where does the composition work well? In which areas could the composition be improved? (If you plan to ask about composition, review the skills pages first, then base your feedback request on what you glean from those pages.)
- Does the narrative meet the goals of the author — which is you, the learner? What are those goals, and how does the narrative reflect them? Is this reflection effective?
- Does the narrative effectively implement a specific skill? Which skill (or skills) are you trying to improve, and where in the narrative do these attempts at improvement appear?
- Do the different aspects of the narrative hang together as a cohesive whole?
- Is the narrative meaningful and engaging? Is it uneven or inconsistent in any way?
- (If the project is on the web) does the project work as a web page? What might be improved?
These are examples; they are not intended to be definitive. They are simply illustrations of the types of things you might consider. Your own process will be unique to you. What’s important is that you engage your own skill in self-assessment before asking for feedback from me (re-read from the top of this page if you are unclear about why I do it this way). Then, choose one or two specific aspects of feedback that would be helpful for me to provide and send them along.
Please remember that if you do not ask for feedback, you will not receive feedback (you will receive a grade, of course). Sometimes learners forget to ask for feedback in advance but then ask for it after I have sent back a grade. If this happens early in the semester, I am usually able to send feedback. But as we approach the project deadline — when my efforts are focused on final reviews and grading — I am not usually in a position to add extra reviews and to compose specific feedback. So, please ask for feedback at least 2 weeks before the project deadline. If feedback is important to you, ask for it as soon as you can, ask for it every time, and be specific.
On Feedback and Grades
As outlined above, effective feedback is a reciprocal process that involves both self-inquiry on the part of the learner (asking yourself How might I improve?) and reflective engagement on the part of the instructor (who responds, Based on what I'm seeing about how you think you might improve, here are my thoughts). This type of feedback is a conversation between two people focused on one goal: skill development for the learner. Because this class is taking place in the context of a university where grades are given, grades are often (but not always) an aspect of the feedback conversation. However, simply asking How can I improve my grade? is not useful. Questions like this omit the self-inquiry part of the feedback process and do not lead to improved skill. So, please do not simply ask How can I get an A?, or What should I change to boost my grade?, or Where did I lose marks? Questions like this — of the form Just tell me what to do — are ways of avoiding the self-inquiry and self-development required to improve skill (or achieve expertise) in creative writing or any meaningful domain.
Instead, review the materials in the previous section, think as deeply as you can about what kind of feedback you need, and engage with the feedback process. This is the way.
How to Ask for Feedback?
Send your feedback request via email. Please note that feedback requests must be received at least 2 weeks before the project deadline. Projects received after the project submission deadline will not receive written feedback (they will still be graded, of course, if received before the final deadline).
Not Asking for Feedback
If you do not ask for feedback, you will not receive written feedback on your projects. For some learners, that’s perfectly fine; they just want to know their grade. No problem. Whether you ask for feedback or not, you will receive a grade on each project you submit.