Written comments are increasingly valued for assessment; however, a culture of politeness and the conflation of assessment with feedback lead to ambiguity. Interpretation requires reading between the lines, which is untenable with large volumes of qualitative data. For computer analytics to help with interpreting comments, the factors influencing interpretation must be understood.
Using constructivist grounded theory, the authors interviewed 17 experienced internal medicine faculty at 4 institutions between March and July, 2017, asking them to interpret and comment on 2 sets of words: those that might be viewed as “red flags” (e.g., good, improving) and those that might be viewed as signaling feedback (e.g., should, try). Analysis focused on how participants ascribed meaning to words.
Participants struggled to attach meaning to words presented acontextually. Four aspects of context were deemed necessary for interpretation: (1) the writer; (2) the intended and potential audiences; (3) the intended purpose(s) for the comments, including assessment, feedback, and the creation of a permanent record; and (4) the culture, including norms around assessment language. These contextual factors are not always apparent; readers must balance the inevitable need to interpret others’ language with the potential hazards of second-guessing intent.
Comments are written for a variety of intended purposes and audiences, sometimes simultaneously; this reality creates dilemmas for faculty attempting to interpret these comments, with or without computer assistance. Attention to context is essential to reduce interpretive uncertainty and ensure that written comments can achieve their potential to enhance both assessment and feedback.