THE Scholarly Web

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March 29, 2012

On many occasions, undergraduates will wonder why an essay or lab report is marked so low, or even - if they do not believe in their own capabilities - so high. Often, such students will be none the wiser after feedback sessions with their tutors.

So in a post on the Politics @ Surrey blog, Maxine David, lecturer in European politics at the University of Surrey, attempts to give clear direction on how feedback should be conducted.

"What has emerged (from student feedback forms) is a much better understanding of what students want, what they need, and what we do and don't provide in respect of both desire and need," she writes. "If I'm honest, I'm not overly interested in hearing what students want, I want to focus on what they need."

Dr David notes: "Students want good, clear feedback that helps them understand how they can develop their work for the better. "But...do we all mean the same thing when we summon up the word 'feedback'? There is the question of quantity: is more better or worse? And more than what? What's the measure?"

Dr David does not believe in looking only at what can be done in the future to improve students' marks, despite the importance of doing so.

"Listen to students, I mean, really listen," she writes. "They all know that you learn from looking at what has been done before. That's why they ask for model answers or to see examples of excellent - and poor - work, it's why we encourage them to read previous students' dissertations before embarking on their own.

"Feedback is about looking back, but only so that you can learn from it, develop, by applying the guidance to future work."

She emphasises that this is a mutually beneficial practice.

"It's not just about feedback for the student," she writes, "it's about feedback for me too...delivering insights; from academic to student, from student to academic."

If students are to improve, she argues, academics need to give feedback that is clear, even if it is brief.

"If a student doesn't understand at the end what they did well and what not so well, it isn't good feedback. If they do not understand what they need to do in order to improve, it isn't good feedback," she states.

"It's just important to remember that you can't improve everything all at once so I try and help students focus on what needs most work and/or on what is most easily and quickly remedied, the harder stuff can be done over the longer term."

Dr David concludes that academics have to compromise with students to provide effective education.

"Consider what one student told me about audio feedback. They liked it because they didn't have to leave home to get it! And I couldn't just dismiss that as a typical student answer," she writes.

"If more students engage with feedback because it comes in a format they can access from their bed, and if I am convinced that is the most appropriate format in which to deliver feedback, then we're all happy."

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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