Assessment and feedback have been dubbed the higher education sector’s Achilles heel. Year after year, metrics such as the UK’s National Student Survey tell us that students are less satisfied with the feedback they receive than with any other aspect of their studies. In response, institutions scrutinise that feedback ever more closely; many academics report being overwhelmed by the spiralling demand to give rapid but detailed and constructive advice.
Despite this rising pressure, we are not seeing convincing returns on our collective investments in terms of gains in students’ satisfaction with feedback. Nor, arguably, is all this extra feedback leading to discernible improvements in the quality of the work we assess. Something clearly isn’t working.
We could continue to provide more and more feedback, of higher and higher quality, until doing so fills every moment of our waking lives. Here’s the problem though: it still wouldn’t be enough. The reason – as many before us have pointed out – is that even the very best feedback can only be useful if it is used. What students do with expert advice is at least as important as the advice itself.
It’s easy to find anecdotal and empirical accounts of students engaging minimally with written feedback: skim-reading it, hiding it in a drawer, failing to collect it altogether. But let’s be honest with ourselves: are these avoidance behaviours really unique to students? How eagerly did you anticipate your most recent teaching evaluations or your annual appraisal? No, disliking, avoiding and deflecting feedback aren’t student issues – they’re human issues. Suppressing our knee-jerk reactions to criticism is a tricky skill for any of us to master, yet we often take it for granted in students.
To compound the problem, students may struggle to understand feedback, or to put it into practice. They may feel unequipped to change, or – yes – they may simply lack the volition. So although giving more and more feedback to students won’t solve the problem of feedback going unused, nor will simply telling students: “It’s your responsibility, you fix it.”
Instead, we need to train students to become effective users of feedback, just as we train them in essay writing and critical thinking. Setting this goal, of course, is much easier than specifying how to achieve it. Recently, we looked for solutions by systematically reviewing the academic literature on students’ engagement with feedback. Our review unearthed an assortment of interventions that academics have described. Some were tried-and-tested teaching practices reappropriated with this purpose in mind, such as self-assessment and peer assessment. Others were rather more innovative, and included new ways of using technology to deliver feedback, workshops for developing “feedback literacy” and portfolios for students to track trends in their feedback over time.
It was plain to see that the empirical evidence supporting these interventions’ effectiveness was often far from conclusive. Even clearer was that each of the interventions stood to tackle different parts of the wider problem. Becoming a proficient feedback user requires several skills, not just one. It relies on an ability to accurately judge your own abilities and to recognise your own behavioural and psychological reactions to criticism. It needs an understanding of how the assessment process works, and being able to take the perspective of your assessor. It involves setting achievable goals for the future, and planning how you’re going to meet them. And it depends on being motivated to change, and enthusiastic about doing so.
Hence, there will never be a single silver bullet for getting students to use their feedback. Instead, the solution will undoubtedly require a many-pronged approach, tackling different parts of the problem in different ways throughout students’ higher education careers. Most importantly, it will require us collectively to create learning environments in which students’ active participation in the feedback process is both expected and valued.
To really achieve this goal properly, we need a cultural shift in higher education, moving away from the notion of feedback simply as something we give away to students and towards one that sees it as a two-way street, with shared responsibilities and expectations. This will be complicated in political landscapes, such as that of the UK, where teaching quality is measured against students’ endorsement of statements like “I have received detailed comments on my work.” But the crucial point is that this will be mutually beneficial to academics and students. Academics will be able to use their limited resources more sustainably, in the process having greater impact on their students’ development. Students will have an increased ability to achieve their best in education and beyond. Perhaps everyone will even feel more satisfied.
Naomi Winstone is lecturer in higher education at the University of Surrey. Robert Nash is senior lecturer in psychology at Aston University. Their systematic review on students’ engagement with feedback is available via open access. Their Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit, published by the Higher Education Academy, can be downloaded here.