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How often do most people get the chance for an industry expert to provide thoughtful commentary on their work? It’s probably rare. In your undergraduate programme, you and your peers will have this opportunity regularly, but most will not take full advantage of the occasion. This is unfortunate because real learning occurs from constructive criticism. However, understanding how to learn from (inevitable) mistakes, will help you excel quicker and perform better.

Typically, you will receive some type of written commentary on your assignments and exams. Contrary to what most may think, this feedback communicates more than where you went wrong. In many ways, it reveals how you can get to the next level in your work. What more students need to know is that written comments on an essay or exam should be the starting point of the feedback process, not the finale.

Understanding the Limits of Written Comments

I hope that it’s evident, but I love to help students reach and exceed their academic potential. As a course director and as a TA in a university, I was generous with my time. Again, I love to speak with students about their work and academic interests. However, even with these sincere intentions, students need to understand that written comments are often not complete (sometimes, a professor/TA won’t include comments at all).

For professors and TAs, grading is one of many career priorities that they are juggling. With the need to be thorough, but efficient, it should be obvious why written comments cannot possibly address everything that a student can improve on. If it’s not obvious, consider that some professors/TAs have to mark 50 (or more) papers in a few sittings. Trust me, this is a lot of work and incredibly time consuming. For this reason, written comments always have the potential to be expanded upon.

Additionally, complete feedback is not always best delivered in written form. Having a conversation about the research, planning, or writing process can lead to important suggestions for betterment.

Ask for More Feedback

Irrespective of the grade received, I believe you should schedule a follow-up meeting after completing an assignment or an exam. This will allow you the opportunity to learn more about what you have done well and what you need to improve on. The guidance and expertise shared in these sessions should fast-track your understanding of your professor’s expectations.

Written feedback on university work should start a conversation between students and their professors/TAs. I encourage you to form the healthy habit of following-up on assignment feedback. In one-on-one sessions, you can receive personalized advice regarding where you are, and where you can be. Initial feedback is good, but it’s just a start. Asking for more advice is advantageous and should be part of your academic routine.