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What sort of feedback do PhDs want and need in the future?

Should scribbled notes join pipes and tweed jackets in the back of the wardrobe? Stacy Gillis and Chiara Pellegrini explore how PhD students experience feedback
This article is more than 1 year old

Stacy Gillis is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture at Newcastle University 

Chiara Pellegrini is Associate Lecturer at Newcastle University

​​The pipe-smoking, tweed-suited tutor handing back a sheaf of paper with hand-written notes in the margins is a staple of film and television.

But the reality is that marks and comments for our students are usually delivered via an online platform, and the exchange of feedback is mediated by technology.

This is now broadly commonplace in undergraduate education, and with this comes the attendant investment in plagiarism software and standardised general comments.

The more open plains of PhD supervision, however, are not as well-defined, and there is discrepant practice across the sector.

The challenges produced by Covid-19 in printing off PhD chapters and returning hard copies to students during face-to-face supervision were the basis of a recent study at Newcastle University, supported by funding from NUTELA (Newcastle University Technology Enhanced Learning Advocates) and the School of English Literature, Language & Linguistics.

At the heart of the study was a simple question – how do PhD students experience the feedback they receive on their work and practice, and what would they prefer?

Some practices may have ossified over the career of a supervisor, and may not be appropriate or relevant for a particular student’s circumstances, and the project explored what PhD students felt would best support them.

What’s going on?

When we consulted PGR students, asking them to reflect on how they receive feedback, the most popular forms of feedback were:

  • comments on an electronic document (e.g. Word) to be exchanged as an email attachment
  • tracked changes on an electronic document (e.g. Word) to be exchanged as an email attachment
  • oral discussion in person
  • oral discussion via video (e.g. Zoom)

The least popular forms of feedback were:

  • oral discussion over the phone
  • comments on hard copies or other manually written feedback
  • recorded oral feedback

There was an open comment section asking if other forms of feedback were used – some respondents referred to Slack, Teams, and WhatsApp, as well as mindmaps and creative work on Zoom.

In terms of their preferences, most respondents indicated that a combination of different forms of feedback is what works best for them.

While there are clearly standard practices adopted across the university (such as comments on thesis drafts and regular meetings with oral discussions), what needs further attention in the doctoral supervision space is whether new digital technologies (or new use of existing digital technologies!) can better respond to some researchers’ needs.

There are variations in how multiple supervisors provide feedback – for instance, some students receive thesis comments from different supervisors through different technologies, which raises challenges.

Feeding back the edtech

There is a little scholarly literature on technologies and feedback. Elike Stracke and Vijay Kumar’s Encouraging Dialogue in Doctoral Supervision: The Development of the Feedback Expectation Tool, proposes a Feedback Expectation Tool for encouraging dialogue between students and supervisors. Ritesh Chugh, Stephanie Macht and Bobby Harreveld’s Supervisory Feedback to Postgraduate Research Students: A Literature Review briefly reviews issues with regards to the technologies employed in postgraduate supervision, including that electronic feedback can be hindered by a lack of digital skills.

AdvanceHE has a number of resources on feedback and assessments, but nothing specifically focusing on PGRs – the Feedback Toolkit includes a section called “How can technology enhance my feedback?”, but the focus is undergraduate work. A review of resources from Research Councils showed no specific advice about technologies for feedback in the supervisory process.

Individual universities will, of course, have handbook documents outlining either to students or to supervisors what to expect – but in the university documents we reviewed, there are almost no mentions of the forms that feedback can take, other than that it should be timely, critical, and constructive.

While a focus on timely, critical and constructive feedback is important, it is also vital to consider ways in which this feedback might be given, and what the benefits and limitations of each option might be, particularly for students coming from diverse backgrounds, and whose personal circumstances may change during their doctoral work.

Looking to the future

As a result of the work, we’re looking to make a number of changes:

  • Technologies for receiving feedback and advice should be part of discussion in communications between supervisors and supervisees, particularly at the beginning of the research degree.
  • Supervisors should repeatedly encourage recordings, notes, and other ways of revisiting feedback and advice given in meetings.
  • Post-lockdown, supervisors and supervisees should reassess whether they want to keep any of the changes in technologies for communication that were adopted out of necessity.
  • Supervisors should reflect on whether their feedback practices need to shift.
  • PhD students should be encouraged to speak up about what works for them, rather than taking for granted that supervisors will know which ways of giving feedback will be most effective.

Avenues for discussing good practices and problems around feedback and advice may need to be made more available to individual PGR students.

Discussing technologies for feedback and advice in postgraduate research handbooks will help students and supervisors understand that a conversation needs to happen regularly in regards to their expectations, in terms of what will best support the student.

Scribbled notes may need to join the pipes and tweed jackets in the back of the wardrobe.

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