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Leveraging Feedback to Your Advantage

Negative feedback stings. Whether it’s a lower-than-expected grade on a test or a hefty critique on a writing assignment, getting the news that you haven’t performed as well as hoped can strike a blow to confidence and self-esteem. But if you take control of that feedback, you can learn from it and emerge stronger than before.

Graded work gives professors an opportunity to assess your understanding of the material in the course. Though it’s never fun to focus on what went wrong, careful analysis of exams and other graded work can help you figure out how to learn better and show what you know.

One note: Just like the general population, Northwestern instructors reflect a range of feedback styles.  If you receive feedback that discourages you, consider setting up a conversation with an advisor or an ASLA staff member to talk through the feedback together.

If you didn't do as well as you'd hoped on an exam or quiz

When we're disappointed with our performance, it's important to analyze our work, rather than (as much as we might like to!) discarding it after a quick glance at the results. This is an opportunity to diagnose what happened and create a plan for how we'd like to approach things the next time around. There are a number of situations that might interfere with performance on a class assessment:

Knowing the material but having difficulty applying it in the test

If you learn a concept or skill in only one context, it can be hard to know how to apply that knowledge in a different one. When you study, try to mix things up as much as you can. If you are solving problems, practice with a number of different problem types. If you are working with a concept, be sure you understand it well enough to explain it to somebody (rather than simply being able to recite a definition). This will help you develop the agility to work through new contextual information your instructor might present you with on a test.

Having studied but being surprised by what's on the test

Performing well on exams at Northwestern requires a significant level of independent learning and understanding. Professors expect you to apply concepts discussed in class to novel situations, and it takes hard work and practice to get good at this. Your exam provides a concrete way to explore what you know and don’t know, and what the professor wants you to understand. To help get a better sense of what your instructors’ goals are for you, take advantage of office hours so that you can talk with your professor and/or TAs.

The learning objectives for the course are an indicator of what will be prioritized on exams. Clues to this can be found in lectures, handouts, problem sets (if your course has those), readings, and above all, your course syllabus. Be sure to familiarize yourself with it!

You may also need to spend time honing your approaches to studying. Discuss concepts with classmates and practice showing your knowledge in writing or out loud – this can help cement your knowledge and illuminate gaps in understanding. ASLA programs can help you improve your study strategies in ways that will help you learn more effectively.

Feeling confused about what a test question means

If you are unsure what a question means, ask, if you are in a situation where you can do that. If you are confused, others may be, too, so asking can point out potentially unclear instructions to the professor.

Rushing, or running out of time

When you sit down to take a test, take a look through it first, rather than jumping in right away with the first problem/question. You don't necessarily need to start with the first question. Scan the exam before you begin so that you have a sense of how much work there is to do in the time available. Get a sense of the complexity or difficulty of the various questions. You might find that there are some questions you can answer easily, and you can do those first. Try not to leave anything entirely blank: Even if you can’t finish the problem, you may get partial credit for the work you show. At the same time, if you encounter a problem or question that you really feel stuck on, it's often best to leave it and go on to other questions. You can always come back to it. 

It's also worth taking a moment to check your work for “reasonableness" — this can help you find and correct errors you might have made while rushing. When you are working on numeric problems, for instance, you can often tell whether the answer “makes sense” by thinking about the units, the size of the number, or the way a graph looks.

And make practice part of your study routine. Just like with any other skill, practice taking a test will improve your overall performance and probably your speed. Use practice tests if your instructor makes them available, or you can use textbook problems, and try to mimic the test conditions as best you can. Doing a few practice runs can increase your confidence in a timed situation, which can in turn help you work through a test more efficiently.

Having trouble focusing

There are many reasons you might have trouble focusing, but getting enough sleep and using solid stress-management techniques can help. Research shows that getting enough sleep will help you learn at your best and help keep your body’s production of stress hormones at an optimal level. Optimal stress means you are motivated and focused when you perform on an exam, but not feeling so stressed that you can’t perform at your best.

There are many different reasons students don't get as much sleep as they should. A busy schedule, stress or mental health concerns, work commitments, family or personal obligations, and other factors can play a role. If you are getting less sleep than you'd like to, think about what is getting in the way. Are there things you can do to limit your commitments, or modify your schedule? Are there issues that you need some support with, from an advisor, counselor, or other trusted person? Campus resources to be aware of include CAPS, Religious & Spiritual Life, and Health Promotion & Wellness. Also consider trying some proven strategies for sleeping well.

Feeling nervous or experiencing test anxiety

If you feel like you understood the material, but anxiety interfered with your ability to show that in the exam, there are several techniques as well as campus resources you can consider:

Develop a plan ahead of time for how you will approach the exam. For example, you can list steps you apply to each problem (What are they asking? What do I know? What is my first step?) so that you don’t have to figure out those steps during the exam.

If you feel yourself starting to panic during an exam, a breathing exercise may help. Also consider other approaches to calming test anxiety.

If anxiety or panic persist, know that many Northwestern students experience this, and  consider reaching out to CAPS.

Remember, the more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll feel going into an exam. Develop a study plan that gives you confidence, and practice doing the work your exam will require under conditions as close to the testing conditions as you can – including limiting time and access to notes and other materials.

If you think there may be a grading error

If you think there has been a grading error, first check the syllabus to see whether the professor has policy on this. Email the professor or TA with a clear and succinct explanation of why you think a mistake was made. Instructors know that sometimes they do make mistakes. Be polite in making your case, and try to be open to the instructor’s point of view if they do not agree that there was an error.

If you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped on a written assignment

Written feedback can be hard to interpret, and it’s easy to take it to heart, especially when it’s on a product you have created. Remember that your instructor is giving you feedback because they believe you can progress and strengthen your skills and understanding. When you receive written comments on your work, try to think about what the underlying suggestion for action is. For example:

When you get a "This paper needs more focus" kind of comment

A comment like this may be telling you that a system for organizing your ideas – like a concept map or an outline – will help you make your points more clearly. Or it might suggest that you are trying to include too many different ideas in your work, and that selecting fewer and developing those fully will help you create stronger arguments.

When you get a "Proofreading needed" kind of comment

A comment along these lines may suggest that taking the time to do one more review before submitting an assignment will help you turn in a polished product – and this may also mean starting a little earlier so that you have time for that final read. Or it might suggest that having a friend read over your work will help you catch typos or grammatical issues or clarify your points

When you get an "Arguments need more support" kind of comment

This kind of comment doesn’t necessarily mean that the claims you are making are invalid, but rather that stronger evidence will help you present them in a more convincing way. That evidence might come in the form of fuller explanation of the foundations of your claims or of references to readings or other sources.

If you don't understand the feedback

If you’ve received feedback that you’d like to understand better, don’t hesitate to talk with your instructor. Ask them to pinpoint areas in your assignment/paper that could use revision and how they might revise, and to help you understand how you can strengthen your work.

A visit to the Writing Place can also help you organize and find optimal ways to express your ideas.

If you did well

If you got a great grade or excellent feedback on an assignment, celebrate!  Nice job!  Then, take some time to think about what went right. How did you prepare? How far in advance did you start working or studying? Consider both your approach to the work and what you did outside of the work itself (sleep, exercise, taking time to relax, etc.). Knowing what worked this time can help you repeat your good performance in the future.

Additional resources on leveraging feedback