Anger over ‘sarcastic’ English feedback

Markers’ comments were criticised for being illegible and vague

A number of second and third-year English students have criticised the feedback they were given after receiving the marks for their open exam essays on Wednesday.

Image: Rosie May Bird Smith

Image: Rosie May Bird Smith

Complaints posted on Facebook groups for English students at the University included that the marks they’d received were lower than their average for previous modules and that little feedback was given on the essays.

Many students said feedback that was given was written in illegible handwriting, with some being incorrectly criticised for spelling mistakes or including inaccurate quotations.
Rosie May Bird Smith, a second-year English student, told Nouse: “After getting my essay back that I slaved over for weeks, I was incensed by the feedback I received.

“There were two comments written on my essay, both of which were not only illegible but left me with no knowledge of how to improve. Many of my friends’ comments were also unhelpful and some even demeaning and sarcastic.

“I’m not someone to kick up a fuss, but when I’m paying nine grand a year for my education, on the one piece of written feedback we get all term, I would expect more than a couple of illegible comments and a very vague conclusive line of ‘this essay could benefit from being written from a wider perspective’.

“While the scientific courses are paying the same amount as us and receiving 20-30 hours of contact a week, lab materials [and] books… we get a limited seven hours a week and have to purchase our own books. So surely the one bit of feedback we get should take more than five minutes to write? It makes me wonder what we pay for.”

James Fellows, a second-year student, said: “I didn’t receive any written annotation on my essay. All I got was a circle around where I didn’t reference a quote correctly. The comments from the cover sheet should have been followed up with highlighted examples in the actual essay.”

Some third-year students expressed concern that the low marks would affect their chances of graduating with a first and several students felt that feedback was needlessly sarcastic. A second-year student, who wished to remain anonymous, told Nouse: “I was distraught to see the marker use sarcasm and call my writing style … akin to reading ‘nonsense’.

“Although parts of their marking was fair … the feedback was one-dimensional … and, in addition to reducing me to the verge of tears, has cemented the view that I’m clearly not good enough [for] this degree and the markers clearly don’t care quite enough to give personal and detailed feedback to help this.”

However, other students were satisfied with the marking. Dean Bennell, a second-year student, said: “I agree with my mark and I got really thorough feedback.”

Similarly, Alice Olsson, a third-year student, posted on Facebook: “Overall I can definitely see a consistency in the marking of my work, which has always been very reasonable.”

This is the first time the Department of English and Related Literature has used the new open exam in which period modules are assessed by one 3,000 word essay from a choice of questions, although third-year students have the option to choose their own title.Previously, the modules were assessed by a 1,500 word essay due in Week 5, and a 2,500 word essay due in Week 1 of the following term, both of which students chose their own topics for.

The changes were criticised at the beginning of last term when it emerged that third-year students had not been informed about them due to an administrative error.

Commenting on the recent feedback, Cherelle Johannes, the second-year single subject course representative for English, said: “The student reps as a whole are trying to gauge the level of dissatisfaction, as clearly there are some issues which can’t be ignored. There is a meeting next week where this will be brought up as a matter of urgency. Meanwhile, we need students to let us know their feelings on the assessment.”

The Department of English and Related Literature released a statement saying: “The Department is aware of the complaints, which have been garnered via Facebook. The Department will arrange individual meetings with each complainant to discuss the mark and the feedback that has been given.

“The Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that the assessment students receive is fair and constructive, as well as academically rigorous. We also completely understand students’ anxieties about results in the competitive and challenging world that they will face when they leave university. Final year students will soon receive further information about how their marks relate to the overall grade profile of the Department, and we hope that this will be both useful and reassuring. We wish all our third years well as they enter this crucially important final phase of their degree.”


  1. I wish someone would get a doodle of a wizzard with the words: “You shall not pass!”

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  2. “I’m not someone to kick up a fuss, but when I’m paying nine grand a year for my education…”

    Labour and the Tories have completely changed the nexus between students and universities. It’s really just based on a cash transaction now. I’ve paid a lot of money for this, now give m my education!

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  3. “…So surely the one bit of feedback we get should take more than five minutes to write? It makes me wonder what we pay for.”

    While I completely understand this sentiment, I think it does need to be pointed out that in many cases (although not necessarily this one) you are not paying for someone to mark your work. You might be paying 9,000 pounds a year; but at the same time, tutors are being paid less and less and often marking is not paid for, but rather included in ‘prep’ time. Which often times so many things are covered in said ‘prep’ time that in some cases it can work out to less than minimum wage. Yes, you should absolutely be given feedback and the feedback should be constructive. But the question “what are we paying for” might be better addressed to the administration. More contact time, pay for more detailed marking, and many other student issues that are often directed at their departments or faculty, are issues that are University wide and unfortunately come back to restricted departmental budgets.

    Yes, the fees are 9,000 pounds, but when the fees increased it isn’t as if everyone was given a pay-raise, particularly not those on temporary contracts. In this instance, the students have had to write in total 1,000 words less for this course, but by only having one assignment the staff might possibly be being paid half of what they had been to mark and are marking more words, in a shorter time-frame (this of course is speculation!) If this is indeed the case, it seems as though everyone here is loosing out, and that is indeed a serious cause for anger.

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  4. 18 Feb ’15 at 7:01 pm

    Advice (for the dept and for undergrads studying English)

    I studied English and Related Literature and left last year.

    The issue is that the English dept at York is heavily geared towards research. Its output is world class, and everyone should try to get more involved and recognise this. However, I got the distinct feeling that time and motivation for teaching is low, particularly among PhD student teachers.

    However, my greatest criticism of the department at York is that feedback was often conflicting and rarely gave positive, concrete steps for improvement – only vague, comments in the negative. Trying to pin down issues such as tone (the answer is, I am told, to address your essays to someone intelligent and with some background in English but ignorant of the subject at hand) or pacing (jump straight in, with a very succinct and clear articulation of what your argument is, and stick to it all the way through) was very difficult.

    What is unfortunate is that (at least in my case) most of the stress that comes from writing an essay at York comes not from the concepts or arguments that one is considering, but from trying desperately to understand what the marker wants you to do with it. Examples of good essays would be very helpful, and I don’t understand why the department is so resistant to the idea.

    Rest assured, undergraduates, that you will probably get your head around it by third year – though even then, one is never quite sure if one is doing the right thing. I would suggest making FULL use for open office hours, of which there are dozens every week. From the tutors’ perspective, that is where feedback could/should be given and they don’t understand why so few people go.

    I also suggest booking in to see Paul Mills the writing tutor – his patient advice was more invaluable than anyone else’s.

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