Improving communication is a focus of this week's British Educational Research Association conference in Cardiff. Alison Utley reports.
The scribbled comment, "your argument needs improvement" at the bottom of an essay may be all the overworked tutor marking the umpteenth script that night can manage. For the student, however, it may be an insult.
Research from Sheffield Hallam University reveals that fee-paying students are often confused and upset by impersonal and vague feedback.
Richard Higgins, who has quizzed 100 students from two universities, found that styles of feedback varied enormously. While some tutors felt one line was enough, others made detailed comments on different aspects of the work. But even the latter could be deeply unsatisfactory for the student.
"The whole process is problematic since tutors base their feedback on implicit values and vocabulary that often mean nothing to the student," Mr Higgins said.
For instance the comment "be more critical" was often interpreted to mean "be more negative", which was very puzzling for the student.
Similarly the common request to improve essay structure was unhelpful and worrying without further advice. The comment "this line is immature" was felt to be particularly meaningless. And one student complained that his tutor had written "your essay is good as far as it goes".
Others said comments tended to be reproduced and impersonal. The research shows that the vast majority of students read and try to attend to feedback from their tutors, but since, for most, university is an alien environment, Mr Higgins found the students' expectations were very different to those of their tutors.
Dense academic vocabulary was a common problem - the research found that just 33 per cent of the respondents understood their assessment criteria.
There was also concern about the lack of consistency from different tutors. "Some tutors perceive the role of feedback primarily to evaluate work, while others may use it to foster improvement," Mr Higgins said.
He found that students expected feedback from their tutors because they felt they deserved it, particularly as many perceived higher education as a service they were buying. The comments most valued were those that explained mistakes and gave an indication of the overall impression of the work.
* RESEARCHERS CAUGHT ON CANDID CAMERA
University of East Anglia undergraduates have explored the relationship between teaching and research - armed with digital cameras to record their impressions.
The 14 students explored how students could most benefit from studying within a research environment during a six-month project.
Project co-director Rob Walker of UEA said: "There is a perception that students find university research distant and that they feel unconnected with it. The camera was a way of getting inside the subject (to break) down barriers between research and teaching."
The researchers found that students often regarded their lecturers' research as "their own business" and that they did not get any benefit from it.
"They feel they are not invited to participate. And while this is not necessarily deliberate, it is a perception that students gain," said Dr Walker.
In a bid to overcome some of the barriers, project co-director Barbara Zamorski recruited a group of students to carry out small-scale research.
Ms Zamorski said: "The amount and quality of research they were involved with exceeded our expectations."