Rant of the Week: Cryptic Feedback: An Unhelpful Confusion


Feedback is a universally important part of communication. Whether nobody responds to the survey you spent hours making about your society’s recent event, or a friend stops talking to you without warning, a lack of effective communication through constructive feedback is frustrating and unhelpful. This is especially so at university. When the difference between a 1st and a 2:1 can be responding to and implementing feedback on previous work, we need to be given a realistic idea of why we didn’t do as well as we could to give us the self-awareness needed to improve.

This fundamentality of feedback is why it confused me when I received a piece of work back recently with an item of less-than-clear notation scrawled next to it. No, it wasn’t an issue with handwriting – most of the feedback was clear, articulated and helpful; suggestions for what else to write about and how to better clarify my argument. Yet one addition stood out: a reference had been circled and ‘!?’ scrawled next to it. I think I can be forgiven for my first reaction being to mutter a confused ‘what!?’ under my breath.

I took the initiative, though, and approached my seminar tutor to ask what exactly was meant by this cryptic message. The answer was that I should use a scholarly edition of the source text. Simple. Would that have been difficult to write down in the first place? It really wasn’t the kind of discussion that required me taking up his office hours and, even if it was, a note asking me to come and see him would surely have been more effective.

Regardless, I shrugged this experience off. Our lecturers and tutors are human, after all. However, only a few days later, my friend received feedback on a draft essay he had submitted, and one item of feedback he brought up when talking to me about it, was where an entire sentence had been highlighted, yet the corresponding note read only ‘??’. He went to discuss the draft with his tutor, of course, but the necessity of this was made clear by the parts of the feedback written in words, thus not removing the evident uselessness of the confused annotation in question.

I want to hope that these are just singular instances, and that punctuation in feedback is generally accompanied by some actual words, but if this is not always so, then I think it is a point worth making that feedback such as ‘!?’ and ‘??’ doesn’t help anyone. If there is actually absolutely nothing constructive to be written, then request that the student comes to see you, or write nothing at all. Stray exclamation and question marks are confusing when attached to student work, implying something is so wrong it cannot even be articulated. This (most likely) shouldn’t be the case.


2nd Year English Lit student from Dorset.

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