By all accounts, academics are not very good at giving feedback to students. Recently, an MP complained to me about slothful lecturers who apparently take months to return corrected essays. This criticism is echoed in national student surveys, where universities often receive their lowest scores in the area of feedback and assessment.
At first sight, this appears to be straightforward - provide students with clear and timely feedback and all will be well. Unfortunately, the issue of what students want and what they need in terms of feedback is far from clear.
For a start, there is considerable evidence that a significant proportion of undergraduates are not really interested in tutors' comments on their work. It appears that students are very alert to seeing their grades online, but fairly casual about reading their teachers' comments. In some social science departments, almost 40 per cent of essays are not picked up by their authors. One department administrator has become so fed up with piles of neglected marked essays that she shoves them into the hands of unsuspecting students.
In a recent research article on humanities students' attitudes to feedback, Kate Brooks, co-ordinator of student experience, teaching and learning at the University of the West of England, notes that although they wanted "more feedback", a "significant number of students did not pick up their essays at all". The paradox of demanding more feedback in theory but not being interested in it in practice has confused many colleagues. For example, one social policy lecturer organised a one-off seminar to discuss essays after complaints about the lack of feedback, but only three students out of a class of 12 showed up. Her conclusion was that "they're only interested in their marks and not in my comments".
So what do students want? No doubt there are instances when they are let down by disorganised teachers who are far from punctual about returning work. Sometimes the comments written by staff are illegible and even incoherent. Students are often at a loss to grasp the relationship between their marks and the critical comments made by tutors. And from time to time I have seen comments that are unhelpful, vague and even self-indulgent. Good feedback explains and justifies the mark. It points out the work's strengths and weaknesses and offers suggestions that help students learn from their experience.
Yet the idea that undergraduates crave high-quality feedback is a misleading one. When students complain about poor feedback, what they often express is their confusion about the purpose of a university education. In many institutions, progression is experienced as a process that is formally and not intellectually linked. As in secondary education, students often go from one module to the next without a sense of cumulative development. From this standpoint, the work completed for a course is done - it is the past. All that's relevant for the future is the mark.
What's missing is the idea that studying and learning is an interactive process - part of a conversation that takes place between scholars and students. Unfortunately, we do not always educate our students to understand that we are interested in continuing this discussion, even after their work has been submitted. Nevertheless, we offer comments that assume an unfolding and interactive engagement with the subject. Inadvertently, we are often miscommunicating with one another.
Outside an academic conversation, critical feedback has little meaning for students. If they see little point in continuing a dialogue, our comments often appear to have an exhortative or perfunctory character. Worse still, critical is often seen as "negative". Outside academic engagement, good feedback can mean that which is motivating and identity affirming. Unfortunately, academics can only provide this if they marginalise content and focus on motivation. That would make for "high-quality" feedback but lousy education.
The solution lies in providing more personal contact and interaction, so that the ideal of an academic relationship becomes more of a reality. That way we would not be giving feedback, but having a conversation.