Student feedback: can do better – here’s how

Research is pinpointing ways to make feedback more useful to undergraduates and teachers alike. David Carless writes

August 13, 2015
Paul Bateman illustration (13 August 2015)
Source: Paul Bateman

Feedback is one of the most problematic aspects of the undergraduate student experience. Successive National Student Surveys attest to that, and the issue is high on universities’ agendas as they jostle for students in an era of high fees and uncapped numbers.

One reason for the dissatisfaction might simply be that no matter the frequency and quality of feedback that students receive, they will always want more. However, developing effective feedback in mass higher education is difficult: it requires time and careful thought, but classes are often large and teachers face multiple demands.

As for students, many struggle with feedback phrased in academic terminology with which they are not familiar. And even if they can understand it, they may not know how to act on it. Meanwhile, in some classes, the main formal feedback that students identify is the final grade they are awarded. So when they say that they are not satisfied with the feedback, they may just mean that they wanted a higher grade.

In recent years, researchers have placed emphasis on delivering feedback in the form of dialogue with students. A key point is that students need to be active in generating, engaging with and acting on feedback, rather than just being passive, subordinate recipients of it.

One way to orchestrate this is to have students examine the work of their peers, identifying strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement. Such processes begin to sensitise them to what good work looks like, and to differences between their performance and that of others. As they often do not feel comfortable awarding grades to their friends and classmates, asking them to provide comments instead is usually more effective. Another important research finding is that giving peer feedback is often more productive than receiving it because it is more cognitively engaging.

The main purpose of feedback should be to support students in self-evaluating their performance more effectively. All students self-monitor and make adjustments to work in progress, but some do this relatively inefficiently. Feedback is effective when it helps them to fine-tune their sensibilities.

Classroom activities that involve students in making judgements are particularly useful. A powerful way of helping students to develop their sense of quality is through analysing samples or working through problems together. As I have pointed out previously in Times Higher Education, when they enter into dialogue with their teachers about the nature of good work, they are being primed to develop some of the connoisseurship of the expert (“What’s in a grade?”, 9 April 2015).

Technology also has a considerable potential role to play. The learning management systems or virtual learning environments that universities have established can provide a forum for students to involve themselves in conversations around course content or work in progress. They are generally more motivated to do so when marks are awarded for good contributions.

Student responses that help teachers to gauge learning progress are also particularly useful. Clickers or electronic voting systems can be used to collect students’ views on a problem or issue, and the instant feedback they provide is also valued by students.

Audio feedback, whereby teachers record verbal commentary on student work and then send the file to them electronically, is attracting a number of enthusiasts. Some teachers find it convenient and time-saving, although others caution that it takes time to get used to a different way of doing things. Students generally appreciate the more detailed and nuanced feedback it allows, and it seems to strengthen their relationships with their teachers.

Empathy and trust are important in view of the risk of negative comments harming the self-esteem of students. However, the common approach of sandwiching criticism between positive comments has been found to lack bite, largely because of its formulaic nature. Honest, constructive comments are more useful than empty praise, but it remains a hard line to draw. One person’s constructive critique may be another’s wounding criticism. So when providing searching commentary, it is useful to reiterate that the aim is to help the student to grow. Trust develops when you feel that a feedback-giver has your best interests at heart.

Students particularly appreciate timeliness in feedback. They value guidelines about what is required and advice on how they might tackle assignments. Traditional feedback, which occurs after completion of assignments, can be useful for highly motivated students but is often a relatively blunt tool. After all, if it is too late to act, there is no opportunity or incentive to close the feedback loop.

But there are strategies to inject more dialogue into conventional written feedback. For example, on the cover page of their assignments, students can be asked to state the aspects on which they would most like to receive feedback. This prompts them to reconsider their work and begins a dialogue with the teacher. It may also save markers time as they can focus their comments mainly on the issues identified by students.

For your typical academic, who regards marking as an unpleasant academic chore, that may be a key advantage. After all, feedback processes should be satisfying for teachers as well as useful for students.

David Carless is professor of educational assessment at the University of Hong Kong. His latest book, Excellence in University Assessment, has recently been published by Routledge.

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Print headline: Can do better: here’s how

Reader's comments (1)

I continually take courses of one sort or another in my line of work it is essential. What is really concerning is the feedback. Actually work is not marked at all , all the student receives sometime later is a few paragraphs which are merely generalised comments and not attached to any particular line or paragraph of work. The feedback is negative and does not address the stated aims of the course or marking system seen in the course handbook. What really is missing is someone like an OFSTED inspectorate to assess the teaching work of the university. Currently universities shout loudly they are a 5* this that or the other, setting aside manipulation of the REF system based on a handful of research papers for a moment, this we know about. What happened to the assessment of teaching? It is currently non existent, yet that is precisely what the student is paying dearly for. The student is not paying for that researcher to go on a jolly for 6 months to do more research, good for their career and meaningless to everyone else.. Finally the system where universities self label themselves wonderful has to stop. I was asked to respond to the postgraduate student survey. The EMail said up to that point only 10% of students had bothered to respond to the survey. One week later we were to learn that 71% of students thought that Keele University Law Department was wonderful. The question becomes how many students actually took part? This self labelling is at best misinformation. I put it that figures such as recruitment and retention properly audited would be a better test. Further I would argue that the lack of staff qualified in English Law coming from the professions in this country is a problem. Far too many came from other countries where another system of law is in place. This is not what I paid my hard earned cash for. I wanted English Law well taught by professionals in touch with institutions in this country. I did not receive that. What I found was an idiosyncratic ideological take on Human Rights. That would be fine if that was your only interest. My interest was about how institutions handle English law, Rules and Regulations and how we have to deal with the same on a day to day basis. Where are the contradictions and how does that affect people like you and me. The Law Department had absolutely no interest in this whatsoever. I was even supplied with a nice man from Japan to be my supervisor who openly said he did not understand what I was writing about - he did speak English with a heavy foreign accent and I did wonder how he was going to manage a technical paper on laws, rules and regulations surrounding the management of Bovine Tuberculosis in England. The problems are just compounded, never mind the questionable ethics of misrepresenting a course. I completed the thesis now published, but I had to rely on another Professor from another university who had not been paid a penny for her time, time she gave generously. SHAME on you Keele Law Department. I will of course not be recommending you to my students. There you go feedback.

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