Some pros and cons of ‘track-changes’ feedback on work returned to students electronically

Despite the fact that ‘track-changes’ is normally used in one-to-one editing and feedback (for example on draft theses, dissertations, reports and so on) it seems likely that ‘track-changes’ feedback is already well on the way towards replacing ‘handwritten comments on students’ work in assessment in general. This short discussion is about using the ‘track-changes’ function in word-processing software to give students feedback when marking their work.  This is normally when tutors use the ‘track changes’ facilities to return to students their original word-processed assignments, duly edited with feedback comments which appear on-screen in another colour. The level of feedback can range from comments providing simple qualitative overall feedback on the whole document or on selected paragraphs or sentences, to very detailed feedback on individual words or phrases. This kind of feedback remains very valuable for large-scale work (essays, dissertations, long reports, drafts of articles for publication and so on).

The other side of ‘track-changes’ is where deletions, additions, replaced words or phrases can be suggested, and the original author can accept or reject each change in turn, working towards a ‘final’ version. This is most useful when (for example) supervisors are editing drafts for students to then improve so they can produce a post-feedback edition of their work if they wish (or they can be required to do so as part of the overall assessment process). The ‘track-changes’ function used in this way can give students feedback about their wording, grammar, spelling, punctuation, but the ‘comments’ function is more widely used when the main purpose is feedback rather than working towards a better draft.

The discussion below is essentially about a batch of student work being marked with the feedback sent electronically either stage by stage during the marking or when the marking is completed. For feedback synchronously during students’ work, and for collaborative work where students can comment on each others’ work, ‘Google Docs’ can be a much richer way for sharing comments, and lead all involved towards improved drafts.


  1. Comments and changes using ‘track-changes’ is a way of providing feedback while avoiding defacing students’ work by writing on it.
  2. It is a way of providing the kind of feedback students really want – demonstrably individual feedback on their own particular pieces of work, rather than generic feedback to the whole cohort.
  3. You can distinguish between ‘corrections’ and ‘comments’, as explained above.
  4. With the ‘comments’ function you can highlight a whole section and make broad observations – students then appreciate that you have read/understood the broader aspects, and have not just focussed on the nitty-gritty errors.
  5. You can send the edited work back to any student at any convenient time or place as you’re assessing their work, rather than having to wait till a whole batch of work is returned. (Caution: you may find your assessing develops during a batch of work, so it can be premature to return too early the first pieces of work you mark).
  6. You have the opportunity to edit your feedback before you finally send it – how often have we (when using handwritten feedback) written quite a lot of feedback down, only to find that the student went on to address the point concerned a paragraph or page later!
  7. Students can open the marked work at a time and place when they’re ready, and usually choose to take in your feedback in the relative comfort of privacy.
  8. You can tailor your feedback to individual students’ needs, strengths and weaknesses.
  9. Students can refer back to your feedback again and again.
  10. You can keep track of what feedback you have given to which students by saving the marked-up files (except of course where marking is anonymous, but even then you can keep track of which comments you made on which piece of work).
  11. You can use electronic cut and paste where different students need similar advice, gradually preparing a master copy of a bank of frequently needed comments to select from, and save yourself having to type out such messages more than once.
  12. Students can reply directly to you about your feedback (where marking isn’t anonymous).
  13. Useful evidence of feedback is built up relatively automatically, if needed for external review.
  14. You can revise comments while marking, for example when it becomes clear that a particular difficulty is widespread in the work of different students.
  15. Comments on-screen can be far more legible than handwriting, and can still clearly point to the exact part of the student’s work being discussed.
  16. Using the ‘next’ function, students can work their way systematically through successive changes or comments, seeing where they relate to their original work one at a time, and therefore it is easier (despite the messy overall appearance of loads of comments on the screen) to think about each in turn. They can also back-track to the ‘previous’ comment or changes when they wish to.
  17. Students can choose to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ changes, and can choose to ‘delete’ comments when they wish (though it’s worth cautioning them that it’s best if they don’t delete comments in the heat of the moment if they disagree with them!).
  18. This way of marking means that you don’t have to carry piles of work around with you, and can have the work available online or on a memory stick, and can do some of the marking at any time and at any place when you’re at a computer containing the files. This also means you can tackle marking large batches incrementally, rather than being confined to a single marking place.
  19. Obviously, most of these advantages relate to just ‘marking’ rather than ‘assessing’, and you still face the task of making informed judgements about students’ work, at least partly on the basis of the feedback comments you have provided, and the changes you might have suggested.
  20. When you come to making assessment judgements on the overall piece, you can scroll up and down your comments to remind you about your views of the main trends in the work.


  1. If there are lots of comments and changes, the feedback can look very intimidating and confusing (‘like an overly-critical spider’s web’ is one reaction!).
  2. With ‘changes’  you end up taking responsibility for putting right the student’s minor errors, and they become passive recipients of this, without having to take an active role – the text also looks messier than if you suggested the change on a post-it or in a margin comment and left it up to them to do something (active revision).
  3. Students can only see this feedback when at a computer, and may forget quite a lot of the detail.
  4. With long pieces of work, students can only see a few comments at a time, and can lose track of general themes in the feedback being offered.
  5. Comments are usually in the same size of font, so it is harder to make particular words stand out (as you could have done in handwritten comments). However, you’ve still normally got bold, italic, underline,  and so on to play with, so it is not impossible to make due emphasis apparent when necessary.
  6. It can be quite tiresome marking a large batch of students’ work at a computer.
  7. It is harder to follow up ‘track-changes’ feedback face-to-face with a student, as you both need to be able to see the comments together.
  8. Students (and yourself!) may need a little practice before getting into the swing of using track-changes well.
  9. Some students may be using different software to that which you’re using, or have different versions of the same software. Some students may be using quite different kinds of computer (e.g. Mac versus PC).
  10. Students without their own computers may have limited access to networked computers, and may then be somewhat rushed when they have opportunities to receive your feedback.
  11. Students may not treat your feedback as seriously as if it were face-to-face, or on printed or handwritten paper.
  12. Students are more likely to ‘lose’ emailed feedback than printed or handwritten feedback; in other words they tend to fail to file it and store it systematically.
  13. Although a print-out bearing all the changes and comments is possible as a last resort, this can be very hard on the eye.

Professor Phil Race

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