Improving feedback on written assignments in a large economics unit

Good writing skills are a key job market attribute of university graduates. However, most junior units of study in economics do not provide writing feedback during the semester. One of the main reasons is that class sizes tend to be too large (400 in this case study) to add additional assignments to be graded and that the core of the subjects tends to be more mathematically orientated.

While writing skills might not be so important in the first year, it takes time and practice to improve and it is definitely too late to start incorporating feedback in smaller senior classes.

Moreover, regardless of the year, students do not tend to pay much attention to the feedback provided in a final essay or exam because they have no incentives as they cannot improve their grade in a subsequent assessment.

For all these reasons, with the additional grading support of the School of Economics, I introduced an experimental mini-essay (200 words) in ECON1001 in semester 2, 2017, to be submitted half way through the semester. The aim of the mini-essay was to provide students with feedback on their writing in a timely manner so that they could use this feedback and incorporate it into a final essay at the end of the semester. The format of the mini-essay was very similar to the final essay, just shorter and focused on the content of the first few weeks of the semester. While the mini-essay required them to apply one of the concepts seen in class to an everyday anecdote in 200 words, the final essay asked them to write down three anecdotes in 600 words. Please refer to the attached assignment instructions for details on both assessments.

Feedback to students

Personalised feedback was provided in three ways. First, individual e-mails to students with scores on the individual aspects of the essay were sent via the Student Relationship Engagement System (SRES). The rubric was built into the SRES and marking was performed there, allowing these data to be easily used to personalise emails. In-line feedback was provided via Turnitin. The format of the emails was:

Dear $preferred_name$,

I hope this e-mail finds you well. You can access the feedback and notes of the mini-essay in Canvas [a link was provided directly to the Canvas assignment]. Please read all the feedback carefully as this was a mere exercise for you to get a better mark in your final essay. 

The grade was out of 5. You scored $total_score$:

– Analysis and content: $score$ (out of 3)
– Originality: $score$ (out of 1)
– Presentation: $score$ (out of 1)

The instructions of the long essay will be released at the end of this week but the flavour of the essay would be the same and re-reading the previous instructions in the meantime will be useful. 

Best regards, 


Many students replied to this personalised e-mail appreciating the feedback and stating that they would take it into account when writing the final essay.

Second, detailed written feedback was added in Turnitin together with the total grade. The personalised email contained a link straight to Turnitin. Finally, with the students’ consent, the best mini-essays were distributed as examples for the rest of the class.


The mini-essay only counted towards 5% of their grade but that did not dissuade most of students from submitting the assignment. Consistency in grading both assignments was key. The lecturer graded all the mini-assignments and the final essay grader had to refer to the lecturer’s feedback to consider whether students had incorporated the relevant feedback. Students were warned that the mini-essay grading would be relatively strict with the aim of taking the feedback seriously and improving their performance in the final essay.

While it is obviously more taxing to provide detailed feedback on more assignments and during the semester, the total word count was the same as the previous years’ final assignment (800 words). The grader and I saw a significant improvement in the performance of students in the final assignment terms of their understanding of the aim of the assignment, following instructions as well as improving their writing quality.

Students’ feedback

At the end of the semester, a question in the Unit of Study Survey was included to evaluate whether the increase in grading costs of including a mini-essay might have been valued by students. In particular, to the question, “The initiative to write a mini-essay before the submission of the long essay has had a positive impact on my learning experience”, 76% of students agreed or strongly agreed (mean 4.08, n=117).

To the more general question, “I have been guided by helpful feedback on my learning”, 74% of students agreed or strongly agreed (mean 3.94, n=119), which was a substantial improvement from the previous year (67% agree and strongly agree).

Specific comments from students about the mini-essay highlighted how the early and personalised feedback helped them to improve for subsequent assessments.

“I appreciate how the mini-essay was a way for us to get feedback and prepare for the longer essay. This provided me with a clearer idea on how to approach the longer essay, which was a greater weighting on my overall grade.”

“The essay prompts were very good because they encouraged us to apply the material in whatever way we would like. I definitely enjoyed the writing process.”

“The idea of having students submit a mini-essay early in the semester in preparation for an essay with a greater weight added to it was incredibly beneficial. It allowed me to understand what I should be writing about and what I should include in my final essay.”

“Feedback on all assignments and midterms helped in improvement.”

“Honing in on a specific assessment task, the mini-essay allowed me to express greater creativity in an otherwise very structured unit of study.”

“Like the Mini Essay, the feedback was very useful for next essay”

“Received very helpful and personalised feedback on my mini essay.’

“Too many people in the theatre to answer all questions, but great feedback on my essay.”

“Feedback on the essay was helpful but grading was a little harsh…”


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