Nearly a third of students think that the feedback they get from their lecturers does not tell them how to improve their work, a study has found.
Many students surveyed said they were confused and frustrated by "cryptic" feedback that posed questions but did not tell them where they had gone wrong in their work.
The study for the National Union of Students found that students at post-1992 institutions tended to be happier with the quality of their feedback because they felt it was tailored to them and related better to the marking criteria.
Students at the elite, research-led Russell Group universities found their feedback less useful.
Aaron Porter, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, said the results were "worrying".
Only a quarter of students got verbal feedback yet nearly three quarters wanted it. The students commented that they needed a good relationship with their tutor to get verbal help but such relationships were rare. The number of students getting verbal feedback was lowest at Russell Group universities.
Mr Porter said: "If you are seeing staff for one or two hours a week then there isn't the time to develop the relationship. It is not about the relationship being bad; more that students feel they do not get the contact time to develop a meaningful relationship."
A quarter of students said it took more than five weeks for them to get feedback on their work, but 55 per cent got their work back within four weeks. More than 60 per cent said the timing of the feedback met their expectations.
Mr Porter said that Northumbria University had seen its National Student Survey rating for "assessment and feedback" rise by 9 percentage points after providing guidelines to staff on how to provide feedback and to students on how to make better use of it.
The NUS produced a guide on giving feedback and Mr Porter said it should be included in inductions for academics.
David Nichol, deputy director of the Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement at the University of Strathclyde, said that high student numbers made it difficult to provide the level of verbal feedback and dialogue that was a given when there were fewer students. However, a purpose of higher education should be to make students better at self-assessment, so they should review each other's work under the guidance of a tutor, he said.
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said Russell Group institutions provided more contact hours than the sector average, and improving feedback was one of its goals.
She added: "Improvements are already showing; for example recent studies found that 82 per cent of international students at Russell Group universities were satisfied with their performance feedback. Nevertheless, continual improvements will require a long-term investment, the benefits of which will appear over time."
More than 3,000 students completed online questionnaires or took part in focus groups for the NUS study.
- "Don't do what I told you to do a week ago (and what you've spent the past week doing). Start again from the beginning."
- "No, that's all wrong."
- "You really have chosen the wrong career."
As reported by students.