Three ideas is your limit

August 3, 2007

Have you ever wondered how many of your pearls of wisdom students are actually taking in? Well, researchers have come up with the answer: just three.

Tutors should put on students' work no more than three suggestions for improvement because they cannot absorb a larger number, according to two papers presented at last week's Social Policy Association conference.

Mike Webb, course leader at Worcester University, and Gary Saunders, research assistant at Lincoln University, said that three was "the magic number".

Mr Saunders said: "One or two suggestions is not enough, and four to six seems to be too many for students to focus on. Pick the three most important points and maybe mention the others in a feedback tutorial later."

In addition, academics should steer clear of starting their comments on students' work with anything negative, such as "the trouble with this essay is...", Mr Webb told delegates.

Beginning feedback with negative comments can result in students getting depressed rather than making positive changes to their work and, in the most extreme cases, dropping out of their course, he said.

Mr Webb suspected that the self-confidence of students from non-traditional backgrounds might be more injured by very negative comments than that of middle-class students at old universities.

"I suspect the students who are doing something about criticism rather than being stung by it are probably a minority," he said.

Instead tutors should start their comments with a positive note and then make no more than three constructive suggestions for improvement. They should also make points about how students can improve their work in general, rather than making too many comments specific to one essay.

Mr Webb recommended that tutors let students choose their own preferred types of feedback at the start of the course. He came up with the idea after finding that some students stopped collecting their marked essays because they found tutors' comments upsetting.

He said: "Tutors spend a lot of time writing comments on assignments, but it seemed that they had very little idea of the effect of that on students. Very critical comments by tutors often destroy the students' confidence, and we need to be more constructive with the suggestions on ways they can improve work rather than saying what is bad about it."

* Bringing students into contact with people outside the university in their research projects can help them to understand subjects they find difficult and improve their grades, the SPA heard.

The number of firsts in a social policy module at Kent University more than tripled after a tutor got her students to work with people with learning disabilities in a bid to improve their research skills and help them get the grips with community care policy.

Rachel Forrester-Jones's students interviewed people with learning disabilities to probe how government policies to help them into employment were working.

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