There is a certain irony in the fact that you might spend all of your time in English classes learning how to analyse texts and yet, nothing seems to be more difficult than making meaning out of the feedback written by your markers. The very natural response to having any assessments returned during our HSC year is to fixate on the result, rather than the reasoning, advice and suggestions provided to us by your markers.

While it might feel impossible to want to continue trying after receiving a mark you are unhappy with, applying your assessment feedback into practice afterwards is essential to elevating your performance in future ones. These are some of the tactics that worked for me and helped me maximise the usefulness of the feedback I received from my markers.

Starting with what you did well

It is vital when you receive your feedback that you recognise what you have done well. Knowing what was successful in your responses is valuable because it allows you to know exactly what to continue doing. If your interpretation of the question was praised, consider having even more interesting judgments that tackle the greater issues surrounding your prescribed text. If you were commended for your engaging expressions, keep searching for newer ways to articulate yourself.

If your feedback celebrates the quality and sophistication of your analysis, see if there are any other techniques that might appear in your texts and present further opportunities for you to develop your ideas further. After any exam, even in university, I have made it a habit to ask myself what I felt went well first before wallowing in regret and despair at what I could have done. What has been done is done and you completing your assessment is something to celebrate first and foremost!

Understanding what you need to work on

Constructive feedback can be confusing to learn from for one of three major reasons; it appears to be too little, it contradicts how you think you went or it simply makes zero sense.In the first instance, go over your assessment and highlight over all the possible areas that you think your marker was referring to. I found that whenever I would receive feedback that had not much to say, it was more than often telling me to recognise the overarching areas in need of improvement in my writing.

For example, I discovered that a lack of depth in my analysis was actually a larger issue than I expected it to be and realised that I had to flesh out my textual evidence more in future responses. This will also help you develop this into a skill that you can apply in your drafting stages for future assessments and keep what you actively need to work on  at the forefront of your mind.

Your feedback might also be hard to register if it goes against what you believed you did well. When it came to creative writing, I was most proud of my descriptions but I received a shocking comment once about how it was too excessive. How I dealt with this was pretending that the feedback was being written by someone I considered to be close, like a friend who was just presenting their honest perspective, as opposed to someone sending me a personal attack. Orienting my thinking this way made me want to take the feedback on and to revisit my response more willingly.

If you are unsure what your areas in need of improvement are or feel that the feedback is unclear, you should ask your classroom teacher or the marker themselves to clarify what they have provided. I remember being confused by some of the suggestions proposed to me in the past and having a polite discussion about them with my markers enabled me to gain a greater understanding of what they were trying to tell me. This can be intimidating to do; you could ask to have a friend that you trust come with you to mediate the conversation and support you.

Ultimately, you should not be leaving any burning questions unanswered and developing a professional relationship built on a common desire to learn more with your teacher and markers can be valuable as you approach the next assessment and the rest of your studies.

Turning feedback into action

Once you know what it is you need to work on, you need to implement it in your future responses to see if there is improvement. Creating a game plan from your feedback and sticking to it will give you a reference point to work from as you move forward in your studies. I am a post-it-notes enthusiast and on my desk during my HSC, I had one which outlined what I wanted to achieve in the next assessment task.

These ranged from tangible aims such as to receive a mark that either matches or is higher than my previous assessment or to be able to write faster, to more personal development goals like wanting to come out of the exam feeling positive and confident in my performance. There is no harm in having a reminder for yourself of what you are striving towards and generating appropriate study plans, timetables and schedules to target your areas in need of improvement.

Moreover, I recommend setting aside at least a day before any assessment to proofread your work if it is a hand-in task or to do a practice response if it is an exam. This can allow you to measure the response up against the feedback you received from the previous assessment and make any final decisions before handing in the task or sitting the paper. Having this routine can also prevent you from leaving the assessment to the last minute and, therefore, increase your chances of success.

Finally, assessments are not the only opportunities for you to achieve feedback. From around Term 2 of the HSC, I wrote a practice response using whatever I could for English over a fortnight, treating it like a mini-assessment on my own. This could range from a 6 marker short answer question comparing an advertisement I saw on YouTube to the poem of the day shared by the Poetry Foundation, to a 1200 word essay for the module I was studying in the term. I would then either submit the drafts to my English teachers or do some peer marking by swapping my responses with my classmates. This meant that I was able to continue learning and found more areas to work on as I progressed throughout the year.

At the end of the day, feedback can be instrumental in your learning and improving your performance in all your subjects but particularly so in an already subjective course like English. It is never too late to start putting your feedback into practice and I hope the strategies are inspiring and helpful!