Written comments may be a traditional way to communicate with students, but are they really useful to those on the receiving end, asks Paul Orsmond
As a tutor, almost the last thing I do before returning an assignment is to write my feedback to the student. Feedback is private and therefore, potentially, a potent form of communication. But little is known about how students react to it. When and how do they read feedback? How do they use it? What would happen if they didn't get it?
To find answers to these questions, a band of us biological scientists at Staffordshire University decided to do some research. We ran semi-structured interviews with 16 final-year students, chosen at random to represent about 20 per cent of the cohort.
How little we knew became all too evident. Not only did students read feedback straightaway, but many also reread it when they got home. Some cross-referenced feedback from different assignments. A few said they exchanged feedback from a given assignment with friends because "we all wanted to see what each other had got".
Negative feedback was just as motivating as positive feedback. One student said: "Feedback makes me work harder to prove some lecturers wrong and impress others." It was only demotivating when tutors made insensitive comments.
Reactions to feedback varied according to learning styles. Some students said it stimulated them to be more independent in pursuing research into a topic. Others used it as a guide to tackle further assignments. One student said: "Rereading an essay with the feedback in mind helps you see work in a different light."
A minority were interested only in the mark. But most used feedback as a performance indicator. "You know what is expected at a given level. The mark shows where you are, the comments show how you understood the question," one student said.
Another said: "Individual tailoring of feedback is important. So if a better mark is obtained but there are no comments to indicate why, this is annoying." For most there seemed to be a genuine desire to squeeze as much out of the feedback as possible, so sentiments such as "feedback changes your direction of learning", "no feedback, no change", and "once you hit the wall, you need to find a way round" were not uncommon.
A number mentioned the relationship between guidance given at the start of an assignment and feedback. While insisting they did not want to be spoon-fed, students said they welcomed greater clarification.
The research is starting to influence my practice. If students use feedback in a variety of ways, perhaps I should write it in more than one style.
Looking back I have tended to give students direction rather than, say, encouraging reflection.
How I introduce assignment topics is also changing. Setting learning outcomes is useful for this. It is easier to focus feedback if you are clear about the outcomes or skills to be developed. Tutors need to be aware about the processes involved in tackling an exercise and must communicate these clearly.
I rarely evaluated the impact my feedback had on students until this project. I never really knew if students had understood. It was too late and too time consuming when I was busy marking examination papers to spot whether earlier errors had been corrected.
The most interesting things I found were difficult to define. Students seemed to carry around with them only feedback that they thought meaningful. They would read it every so often.
All students said they needed feedback, even the really good ones. One student with top-mark coursework said comments were "useful, because tutor feedback keeps me on the right path; if I waver, it guides me back".
Ensuring that feedback is individually tailored, appropriate and subtle is a tough task for hard-pressed tutors. But we are not always assessing excessive amounts of work.
Focusing on the type of feedback you give to smaller groups may help you deal with larger cohorts. After all, feedback needs to be seen in the context of student progression and, perhaps, retention. All tutors ought to do selective evaluation of the feedback they give. If feedback is so time consuming to write, why let the effort go to waste?
Paul Orsmond is a senior lecturer in the department of biological sciences and is a learning and teaching fellow at Staffordshire University.