“The idea behind feedback is that it should make the revision process more strategic and ultimately improve the final paper.” (p. 64) However, as many faculty who have provided feedback on students' written work have discovered, that objective isn't accomplished as often as it should be. The authors of the article referenced below wondered whether the failure to act on feedback in subsequent drafts or writing assignments might be that “students ... lack an organizational system that allows them to process and reflect on the feedback provided.” (p. 65)
“The idea behind feedback is that it should make the revision process more strategic and ultimately improve the final paper.” (p. 64) However, as many faculty who have provided feedback on students' written work have discovered, that objective isn't accomplished as often as it should be. After feedback on drafts or on multiple papers of the same genre, say, critical essays, the next round of papers are submitted with the same errors or without the suggested improvements having been made. It's disappointing, especially given the time and effort teachers devote to providing helpful feedback.
The authors of the article referenced below wondered whether the failure to act on feedback in subsequent drafts or writing assignments might be that “students ... lack an organizational system that allows them to process and reflect on the feedback provided.” (p. 65) The authors decided to test that possibility in psychology research methods courses at two different universities. A major assignment in these courses involved writing an APA-style research paper. Students submitted the four major sections of the paper (introduction, method, results, and discussion) separately and received teacher feedback on each. The feedback they received “explicitly noted problems, including the rationale and/or suggestions for changes.” (p. 65)
That was what students in the two control sections got before submitting their final papers at the end of the course. In the two experimental sections, students had to write a cover letter addressed to the instructor in which they addressed how that earlier feedback had been implemented in the final paper.
To ascertain whether preparation of the cover letter resulted in higher scores on the final paper, the authors developed a system that enabled them to standardize scores across the two different institutions and two instructors. The system is explained in the article. In addition to grading papers from their own sections, each instructor also graded papers from the other instructor's sections without knowing the grade or feedback that had been provided.
Writing a cover letter did make a difference. “Students who wrote cover letters articulating how they incorporated feedback from their drafts tended to have higher improvement scores than students who did not write the cover letters.” (p. 66) Having to write the letter forced students to look carefully at the feedback and decide what they should do about it. The authors observe that “Participating in the reflection aspect of the writing cycle may be the most beneficial for student learning but may often be ignored.” (p. 66) Teacher feedback, especially feedback provided on graded work, seems like water under the bridge. That assignment is done, over. Students often don't realize that writing mistakes and problems tend to be repeated until they are recognized and addressed.
As these authors note, having students write cover letters is “a relatively easy addition” to assignments like this. In fact, those letters may help instructors do the final grading more quickly and efficiently. But students are the real beneficiaries of this activity. Writing the letter makes students accountable. They can't write the letter without looking at the feedback and saying what they did about it. These benefits accrue whether students write the letter before or after preparing the final version of the paper. Written before, the letter helps them decide how they will revise the paper. It shouldn't be submitted before the revisions have been made. Or, as was the case here, they can write it after they have reviewed the feedback and revised the paper.
It's another of those great strategies, a creative idea that can make a significant difference in the quality of students' work. And writing the letter might finally show students the value of teacher feedback. If they act on it, their writing improves and so does their grade.
Reference: Daniel, F., Gaze, C. M., and Braasch, J. L. G. (2015). Writing cover letters that address instructor feedback improves final papers in a research methods course. Teaching of Psychology, 42 (1), 64-68.