Giving Students Feedback that Inspires

Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

During one failed attempt to empty my university email inbox, I came across a few emails dating back to 2014, the year in which I changed my undergraduate major to anthropology. These few emails were one huge reason for my decision to change majors. These were feedback emails that one of my anthropology professors sent me after every major assignment. While many (student) readers might now associate feedback emails with racing heart beats, stress, uncertainty, regret, or bitterness, these feedback emails never landed in my inbox without the widest smile on my face, skyrocketing self-esteem, elevated confidence, and an urge to write more, read more, and become a better anthropologist. At that time, the decision was to simply become an anthropologist. Looking at these emails nine years later, the decision is to become a better anthropologistperhaps partly through writing profound and unforgettable student feedback.

A few weeks back, I headed back to the American University in Cairo, from which I graduated with a Bachelor's degree and a Master’s degree in Anthropology, to meet my mentor Ramy Aly and dissect his feedback formulas and routines at more depth. Ramy is an assistant professor in the department of Sociology, Egyptology, and Anthropology and has been teaching there since 2013. As a current PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and part-time adjunct in the American University in Cairo, I have been looking for resources for and seeking guidance on providing useful feedback to undergraduate students. In most cases, many of these students are not anthropology majors and the challenge in providing them feedback is to strike a balance between guidance, flexibility, and inspiration. Since Ramy has been striking this balance intricately for ten years, I asked him to share some of the principles guiding his feedback routine.

The Pursuit of an Anthropological Sensibility

Over coffee in his office, Ramy explained that what he is always looking for in every written assignment is a balanced piece of writing, one that includes an ethnographic/empirical component or reflection and an engagement with theory, existing literature, or course readings. For non-anthropology students, this is often an unfamiliar form of writing. While undergraduates are often required to take courses in English rhetoric, the mode of writing they learn in these courses only teaches them how to make an argument, defend it, and perhaps make every possible effort to “win” the argument and convince their readers. While these are helpful skills, they are insufficient in an anthropology course. By contrast, Ramy eloquently shares that the main skill that students should learn in his classes is an anthropological sensibility. Throughout the term, students read a wide range of ethnographic accounts on a given theme or set of themes that the course tackles. In their written assignments, students should be able to practice and sharpen what they have learned from these texts as well as class lectures and discussions, culminating in an anthropological sensibility that students hopefully never forget, undo, or unsee. To be able to assess this sensibility, Ramy breaks it down into three main components:

  1. The capacity to describe, explain, and appreciate cultural practices without reducing them to moral good or bad.
  2. The ability to observe, analyze, and dissect power without normalizing its presence or workings.
  3. The competence to understand human phenomena through social theory.

In providing students with feedback, Ramy assesses each of these components and writes his feedback accordingly. While he does not explicitly tell his students in class that he is looking for an anthropological sensibility in their written assignments, he insists that student feedback (emails/comments) is an important teaching tool through which students learn to sharpen this sensibility. In fact, Ramy himself picked up this teaching tool more than a decade ago, when he was a (graduate) student himself.

"When Students write, you must write back to them"--Ramy Aly

Student Feedback as a Pedagogical Commitment

When Ramy was a PhD candidate at Sussex University in 2007, he worked as a teaching assistant for his dissertation supervisor Filippo Osella. As a TA for an undergraduate course titled “The Allure of Things,” Ramy began observing Filippo’s teaching skills and pedagogical decisions. Ramy was specifically fascinated by the extensive feedback that Filippo always provided to all of his students, although the class had around sixty students per term. In all his assignments, Filippo believed that there is always room for improvement. In his feedback, Filippo would identify and explain in detail all the different areas in which the written assignment could have been stronger.

In the following term, Ramy taught the course and took up Filippo’s extensive feedback routine. While Ramy agreed that it is indeed time-consuming and laborious to write personalized feedback emails or comments especially in large class sizes, he shared that this practice reflects a pedagogical commitment that he learnt from Filippo. This is a commitment to helping students learn how to articulate themselves better. While indeed not all students are “born” writers and will not necessarily choose anthropology as their major, an anthropological sensibility equips students with more sensitive, critical, and culturally attuned writing skills.

To put it simply, Ramy eloquently shared, “when students write something, you must write back to them.” Ramy situated this commitment to writing back to students in the broader academic world that professors should train students to understand and navigate. He asked me whether anything would have ever been published had reviewers and editors never written back to authors. Unironically, Ramy’s feedback emails were the main push behind my first publishing attempt. Because one of his feedback emails suggested that I work on some areas of an essay and consider publishing it, I took up Ramy’s advice and redrafted the essay and sent it for publication. This took a few more rounds of redrafting, after which the essay was accepted. In this sense, providing student feedback provides students with the skill of redrafting, editing, improving their work, and perhaps considering publication at a later point. Through this process, students understand that redrafting is a process, that writing anthropologically is a skill, and publishing is ultimately a journey of redrafting that all anthropologists and writers go through.

Students often finish reading these feedback emails and leave with a conviction that writing is not so difficult, that anthropology is not so challenging, and that feedback and grades are not always heartbreaking.

Ramy’s Formula for Student Feedback

While a commitment to student learning is an excellent motivation to write back to students, one must note that writing back is a time-consuming and laborious process. For example, Ramy shares that his average total word count of feedback for around seventy students per assignment is around thirteen thousand words. After every major writing assignment, Ramy blocks a few days just for writing student feedback. Along with providing feedback, he also allows students (whose grades are B- or lower) to resubmit the assignment. While some professors prefer to annotate papers with comments in the margins or on software like Turnitin or Blackboard, Ramy prefers a summative paragraph that he sends to each student, one which clearly identifies areas of strengths and areas of improvement. Each paragraph addresses the student’s essay or assignment and is thus completely personalized. He promised that one gets better and faster at it with time and practice, but I asked him to share his “formula” for providing feedback, which is shared generously below:

1. What is working well or strongly in this essay?

Begin by identifying areas of strength in the essay, such as essay structure, quality of writing, engagement with existing literature, author’s voice, or ethnographic depth.

2. What could be improved?

Move to providing a few areas of improvement that the student could work on (either for resubmission or just for their own knowledge and future assignments). This component explains why the student received the grade they got. These can/often include bodies of theory or literature that are relevant to the subject matter and that the student did not cite or use. For other students, their own voice or providing empirical examples might be what is lacking.

3. How to engage with theory and ethnography?

Conclude with a note on how students should engage with theory and ethnography simultaneously. In other words, bring this back to the anthropological sensibility by pointing out how the student did on weaving together theory and ethnography and how this could be improvedor if the student did it well, highlight that.

Reminder: Rubrics Are Key

With that formula in mind, Ramy emphasized that it is important to include a detailed rubric for written assignments in the course syllabus. This would help students know what to expect and structure their writing accordingly. On another level, since it is often challengingespecially in large classesto write personalized emails to each and every student, this rubric provides a key guide to help professors proceed with these feedback emails quickly and efficiently. In Ramy’s rubric for an introduction to anthropology course, for example, there are six main components that dictate the overall grade:

  1. Knowledge and understanding
  2. Breadth and depth of reading
  3. Analytical skills and critical thinking
  4. Use of relevant examples, case studies, and ethnographies
  5. Writing skills
  6. Accurate referencing and citation

As Ramy explained, with practice and through the help of the detailed rubric, reading one student essay and writing their feedback email takes an average of fifteen minutes. The rubric thus functions as an inside code that helps both students and professors speak in one language while discussing every submission.

As a student, reading these feedback emails provided all the joy and motivation I needed throughout the term. Especially because they begin with areas of strength, these emails really push students with a confidence boost that assures them that they are on the right track. Whether resubmitting or not, students often finish reading these emails and leave with a conviction that writing is not so difficult, that anthropology is not so challenging, and that feedback and grades are not always heartbreaking. In this case, feedback is often heart melting and leaves students with gratitude and much-needed confidence. As for me, I always cite Ramy’s feedback emails as one of the main reasons for changing my major to anthropology. It is this feedback that assured me that anthropology is inviting, and that I can become an anthropologist if I work on a given set of skills and areas. Taken seriously and written with commitment and intention, student feedback inspires, pushes students to improve their writing, and potentially transforms lives/career plans.