Ultra Vires


Feedback On Assignments Should Be The Rule, Not The Exception

Jeff Couse (3L)

In my experience, feedback has been the exception rather than the rule at U of T Law. Most of my assignments at this law school have been returned with only the words “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” Some were simply never returned. This is unfortunate, because feedback on written assignments is a critical component of legal education.

Written feedback helps students to develop their writing, analysis, and ideas. Sadly, it seems that some members of the faculty are under the impression that evaluating written assignments is simply a matter of ranking papers. I once asked a professor for feedback on a paper, and he responded by explaining the grading system to me (as if I hadn’t been obsessing over it for the past three years). It is obviously important to know where you stand in the class, but it is more important to know how you can improve.

You might be thinking, “Why don’t you just see the professor during office hours?” Simply put, scheduling a meeting with a professor is a poor substitute for written feedback.

First, it places the onus on the student to seek out feedback. By the time grades are released, students are often too busy with second semester schoolwork or their summer jobs to seek out feedback.

Second, some feedback is best communicated in writing. It is more difficult to give tips on how to write in a concise and persuasive manner orally than it is to cross out and replace words on the assignment, for example.

Third, if a student wants to meet with a professor to get additional feedback, the written comments may serve to focus the meeting on areas with which the student needs help most.

Why don’t we receive feedback on assignments? One answer might be that professors are too busy with research and other responsibilities. But if that’s the case, why are some professors able to find time to provide feedback, while others are not? And how is it that a busy practitioner like Bonnie Fish provides detailed, individualized feedback on all three assignments she receives from her class of twenty-five students, while non-practicing professors can only find time to scribble the word “good” next to the letter “P?”

Submitting a paper and receiving only a grade in response can be incredibly alienating. In some courses, a paper is the only work students produce which is meaningfully evaluated. I have spent countless hours on papers—researching my topic, relating my findings to course concepts, writing, painstakingly checking my citations, agonizing over the word count—only to find out that it was better (or worse) than papers I have never read. Never once did I receive an assignment back without written feedback in my undergraduate or graduate studies. Surely professors at U of T Law can do better.

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