Closing the ‘feedback gap’ for international postgraduate students: An embedded writing approach

Dr Martin Brown

Dr. Brown embarked on his teaching journey in the realm of outdoor education during the 1980s before transitioning to teach Geography at the secondary school level. In 2004, he transitioned from the classroom to become an Educational Advisor for Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland), collaborating with various national stakeholders. From 2004 to 2010, he served as a National Assessor for both the General Teaching Council for Scotland and the Chartered Teacher Program. Since 2020, Dr. Brown has been teaching international students in ESW.

Since 2020, I have developed two courses for Academic Skills Support for post graduate international students. In the Autumn Term, I teach student essay writing and in Spring Term, I teach dissertation writing. My aim was to close an identified attainment gap in three MA programmes: International Education and Development (MAIED), Education (MAED) and Childhood and Youth (MACY). These courses are ‘embedded’ in so far as they focus on Social Science research, theories, and concepts and aim to demystify essay writing for assessment by aligning seminar teaching with: national learning outcomes, local assessment criteria and tutor feedback. I model different types of language and student voice in: essays, portfolio submissions, and dissertations. Over ten weeks, I endeavour to build relationships through conversations about writing. I focus my efforts on developing conversations from free writing activities, and I offer technical solutions for improving academic writing in a Social Sciences genre. In this space, I aim to move beyond teaching with slides; instead, I focus on peer conversation, student writing, tutor observation, and tutor feedback.

In my writing workshops, I’m constantly aware of a sort of chronic anxiety among international students. Occasionally I think this type of stress is cultural shock but more often it is, in my view, due to “a lack of predictive information” (Sapolsky, 2004). There is an assumption that postgraduate students have fewer problems in negotiating the learning environment in a university, but this is not true for many international students or older students (like me) who return to study after many years of absence (Brown, 2014). Post graduate students may find difficulty where there is a lack of clarity or consistency in assessment guidelines, or a lack of alignment between learning outcomes, assessment rubrics, and assignment titles (Evans, 2013). My workshops are built on conversations with international students, and we talk about their experience of writing for assessment. Critically, my feedback to them includes my reflections on marking student submissions and the most common problems I see. These feedback exchanges influence my seminar planning and allow me to improve formative writing activities that are designed to address common problems.

One of these common problems is accidental plagiarism, otherwise described as weak paraphrasing and poor citation, although often referred to by markers as a lack of author voice. For me, this problem often demonstrates weak English language skills, but it can also be a lack of self-confidence to offer personal opinions. Accidental plagiarism is most often rooted in excessive description and a failure to move from description to discussion, and unfortunately where students are completely unaware that they have adopted another author’s voice. I offer a space to discuss this problem and to strengthen the international student’s voice through reflective writing. I focus on improving student self-confidence by creating a space to discuss ideas of self and positionality. In other words, I address a known problem, that most post graduate students do not know how to describe themselves or their opinions in an essay. Moreover, they do not know how to reflect on their identity, or justify their beliefs and opinions (Holmes, 2020). To help students to think, talk, and write about themselves, I encourage regular free writing because it removes barriers and fosters self-expression and discovery.

These embedded writing courses give me the opportunity to clarify or demystify assignment guidance for students and narrow “the feedback gap” (Evans, 2013). This is the gap between what tutors say or understand about the feedback they offer and what students say or understand about the feedback they have been given. I do this by describing specific assessment criteria and by interpreting the advice tutors offer about their assignment titles. Once essay assignments have been marked by tutors, I interpret the summative feedback students are given by their assessors. Additionally, I advise students on how to edit their essays for resubmission. These courses also give me the space to offer empathetic and directive solutions to a variety of technical problems, such as: how to write a meaningful essay title, how to structure an essay, how to signpost an argument or citation, how to separate the broad context of an essay from the field of research in the literature review (a problem of breadth), how to demonstrate critical and reflective thinking in a paragraph, how to  speak to the marker and when to use ‘I’, and how to edit an essay for better internal alignment and flow.  

Good teaching is labour intensive in so far as it is about collecting and interpreting evidence to inform teaching and feedback exchanges. However, it is also important to create activities that challenge students as well. To that end, in my writing courses, I offer both cognitive and socio-constructive approaches, with clear instructions, creative tasks, and contextual feedback (Evans, 2013, Brown 2014). This feedback should be about four things (but not all at the same time): explaining how to begin and complete a task, activity, or assignment; describing how the student can look forward to the next task and proceed confidently; giving technical advice about ‘self-regulation’ or metacognitive skills; and describing aspects of ‘self’ in terms of the attributes or capacities of the individual student in relation to the task, activity or assignment (Evans 2013 p72). In this way students can become less stressed about assessment and more confident in their ability to reflect on their learning. In other words, tutor and peer feedback is primarily, “ a crucial way to facilitate student’s development as independent learners who are able to monitor and regulate their own learning” (Ferguson, 2011 in Evans 2013 p72). Overall, an embedded writing approach reduces student academic workload, lowers their stress levels and strengthens their self-efficacy.


Carol Evans (2013)  Making sense of feedback in Higher Education, Review of Educational Research vol 83 no 1, 70-120.

Sally Brown (2014) What are the perceived differences between assessing at master’s level and undergraduate level assessment? Some findings from an NTFS- funded project, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol 51 no 3, 265-276.

Andrew Holmes (2020) Researcher Positionality- A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research- A New Researcher Guide, International Journal of Education, vol 8 no. 4, 1-10.

Black, P. and William, D. (1998) ‘Assessment and Classroom Learning’, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, vol 5 no1, 7-74.

Sapolsky, Robert, M. (2004) Why Zebras don’t get ulcers. 3rd Edition St Martin’s Press: New York.

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