Feedback Literacy for Academics

Author: Professor David Carless, Professor, The University of Hong Kong

Feedback literacy represents a set of capacities which enable individuals to make the most of feedback opportunities generated in different ways (Carless & Boud, 2018). The focus of feedback literacy research was initially on students, but it was also recognised that teacher feedback literacy was a facilitator (Carless & Winstone, 2020).  In this blog, I am going to focus on the parallel topic of feedback literacy for academics: what are the capacities that academics need to take advantage of feedback possibilities of different kinds?

The main argument is that to maximise our chances of success in the competitive world of grant-getting and publishing in high impact journals, we need to develop and refine our capacities for managing internal and external feedback. Internal feedback represents the insights that we generate on our own; external feedback comes from others and calibrates our internally-generated insights.

It is common in academia that we invite colleagues, mentors or trusted associates to offer comments on our work in progress, but how effective is this strategy and how could it be enhanced? Because of the socio-emotional aspects of feedback, there is a danger that commentary on our work in progress can end up as too bland, positive and encouraging. This is fine when we are looking for a boost to our fragile confidence but anonymous reviewers are seldom so polite and positive. To face the rigours of peer review, we probably need some hard-hitting advice pre-submission. How we phrase a feedback request to a supportive associate is significant. We might ask questions like the following: What is the biggest limitation of this paper or grant proposal? If you were obliged to reject it, what would be your rationale?

The main barrier to these kinds of practice is self-image. Academics often present themselves as more competent and knowledgeable than they really are, so sometimes shy away from critical external feedback that can really help them improve. Competitive grant applications, like the annual General Research Fund exercise in Hong Kong, offer multiple opportunities for colleagues to collect feedback from external and internal experts. Many colleagues take up these opportunities fully and many do not. The more successful grant-getters generally share their drafts with multiple others but threats to self-esteem and self-image often deter others. Procrastination, lack of time and other factors also intrude. Imposter syndrome lurks within most of us, at least some of the time.

The literature on feedback seeking motives brings some potentially relevant insights. An influential set of feedback seeking motives is the tripartite instrumental, ego-based, and image-based motives (Ashford et al., 2003). Instrumental motives refer to the use of feedback seeking to achieve goals of performance-improvement, and is probably an indicator of high levels of feedback literacy. Ego-based motives are introspective and about protecting or enhancing self-esteem. Image-based motives are more socially oriented, namely impression management and need for approval from others. Individuals with ego-based and image-based motives often hesitate to reveal vulnerability, so probably are less likely to share their work in progress with potentially critical others. The instrumentally-oriented colleagues tend to be those who grasp feedback opportunities widely.

Feedback literacy is a relatively new concept so not surprisingly research on academics’ feedback literacy remains in its infancy. Gravett and colleagues (2020) used concept map-mediated interviews to normalize the challenges academics face whilst engaging with peer review feedback, and discuss how peer review can be used developmentally but also involves ‘game-playing’ and strategic approaches. Through an auto-ethnographic perspective, Chong and Mason (2021) show how reviewers design opportunities for feedback uptake, navigate responsibilities, and reflect on their feedback experiences.

In conclusion, feedback literacy is critical for academics, including self-evaluating our own manuscripts perceptively through internal feedback; seeking external feedback from suitable critical friends; receiving advice with an open-mind; and judging astutely when to follow comments or when it is probably wiser not to do so. The ability to handle critical feedback, develop resilience, celebrate successes and learn from failures are at the heart of academic feedback literacy.


Ashford, S., Blatt, R., & VandeWalle, D. (2003). Reflections on the looking glass: A review of research on feedback-seeking behavior in organizations. Journal of Management, 29(6), 773-799.

Carless, D., & D. Boud. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: Enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), 1315-1325.

Carless, D., & N. Winstone (2020). Teacher feedback literacy and its interplay with student feedback literacy. Teaching in Higher Education.

Chong, S.W., & Mason, S. (2021). Demystifying the process of scholarly peer review: An autoethnographic investigation of feedback literacy of two award-winning peer reviewers. Humanities and Social Science Communication, 8 Article 266.

Gravett, K., Kinchin, I., Winstone, N., Balloo, K., Heron, M., Hosein, A., Lygo-Baker, S. & Medland, E. (2020). The development of academics’ feedback literacy: Experiences of learning from critical feedback via scholarly peer review, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(5), 651-665.

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