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winning essay 2008

“Effective feedback – what has worked for you and why?”

To begin, I wish to quote a recent Pixar Animations Studios release, which on discussion of food criticism, a character makes the following comment: ‘in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so’ 1 . Feedback is undeniably a valuable and indispensable area of academic life, although it is important that we retain some perspective. We must remember that those pieces of work which we hand in, which although may only acquire an average grade accompanied by derogatory comments about structure and language, still took far more time and effort than the time taken by the reader to grade it or provide their commentary. This is not to devalue their remarks but to retain the value of our efforts as students and the work we produce in this ultimately demoralising and frustrating world of academic feedback.

Feedback of essays is probably one of the universal forms of feedback within undergraduate study. It is relatively unique, in that the feedback provided usually serves not to help you improve that particular assignment, rather to help you improve your next piece of work. Unfortunately the result tends to be a form of frustration that the advice given, can essentially be advice on how to re-write an essay you did not plan to even look at again, let alone re-write. What would improve this current system of feedback is a first draft marking so that the student has the potential to improve the given assignment in order to achieve the desired grade. From experience, this system is already in use by some tutors and usually produces a higher calibre of essay, a satisfied student and a contented tutor. Another beneficial exercise is to sit down with a tutor, post grading, to discuss the reasons for a given grade. I experienced this with a piece of work which was graded at one mark below a first. Imagine the frustration! However, on studying the work with the tutor and seeing it through their eyes, I was able to accept that the grade was justified. If students have any doubts about a grade they have been given, they do not have to contest it, all guns blazing, but they should be able to request an explanation.

Within a Film Studies degree, essay feedback is not all that a student will receive. Firstly, there is feedback on student films. This, unlike essay feedback, is occasionally given in tutorial format before the submission deadline enabling the student to improve the work before it is graded. With this form of feedback, constructive feedback is essential. However, occasionally it is important for a filmmaker to test their work on an audience before the final cut is made. This can be a torturous ordeal. Especially when one discovers that 85% of the audience did not empathise with your main protagonist, 20% fell asleep and 50% didn’t know what the film was about let alone what message you were trying to convey. Secondly, there is editorial criticism on journalistic writing. This too, requires adjustment to yet another style of feedback. It can be quite demoralising seeing your work covered in red pen. However, usually the work is treated as a piece of copy in the real publishing world and this form of professional feedback is a great learning curve for a student hoping to venture into this field beyond graduation. Thirdly, there is feedback in relation to screenwriting. This, again, has its own specialist form of feedback. Although similar to feedback of narrative film, with opinion and advice on storyline and characters, much of the feedback is loaded with personal opinion. I can verify this from personal experience where equally qualified, experienced tutors have given conflicting advice on a certain character or plot line. This is always to be expected in this field and unfortunately it is ultimately the student’s choice which route to follow, if indeed either. What has to be considered in these circumstances is a negotiated third path which incorporates the advice of both tutors but also meets the students own given criteria and adheres to his or her original creative vision.

One of the main issues with pre-deadline feedback, is although you may disagree with a tutor’s opinions, it is usually them that ultimately grades the work. You are put between doing what you feel is right and benefits your artistic creation whether a screenplay, a piece of journalism or a film and doing what makes the grade based on your tutor’s personal opinion. The feedback which really benefits a student is that which gives them options. The tutor puts forward their opinion yet sets out to understand and incorporate the opinions and intentions of the student.

As film students we have also benefited from the opportunity to have our films and screenplay treatments criticised by industry professionals who are external to the institution. The unique experience with one film director and producer was that as a cohort of Film Students we were approached to give feedback on their work. For gratitude they in turn provided feedback on our own productions. Unlike academic criticism which is given in relation to assessment criteria, this was being given from professional filmmakers with very different agendas and was eye opening and insightful. As for the treatment criticism, this too was exciting. Having pitched the initial proposals a few weeks previous and been given a very warm and encouraging response, we were then confronted with the harsh realities of the faults of our work and little recognition of the assets. I could only describe the tact as ‘Hollywood tough love’. It was unexpected and gave myself and my peers a reality check on what the real world would really be like in this field.

In conclusion, for feedback to be truly effective, the student needs to converse with the tutor. Some students will merely sit and absorb feedback like a silent sponge. I say encourage them to be a talking and debating sponge! When they receive a negative response about something, they should defend it and explain why they feel it works. This way a path to follow is negotiated. It is clear and not overgrown with prickly undergrowth and complicated junctions. The tutor should be there to help students pick the right routes and clear the path to a successful and satisfying piece of work and ultimately a well-rounded degree with the grade they deserve so that the time and effort they spend is well rewarded.

1 Ratatouille. Dir. Brad Bird. Buena Vista International. 2007.

Joanna Beard
BA (hons) Film Studies
Year 3
University College Falmouth