Want essay feedback? Do it yourself, professor tells students

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Students can improve their marks without lecturer input by generating their own feedback, a study has found.

The research, led by David Nicol, a research professor at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School, found that getting undergraduates to compare their essays with other students’ work, journal articles or textbook explanations was more effective for improving their drafts than having academics provide comments.

In one experiment conducted by Professor Nicol with Suzanne McCallum, a senior lecturer in the business school, 150 first-year accountancy and finance students were asked to generate their own feedback on an essay using this method. Seventy per cent improved their grades from draft to redraft without teacher feedback, and the weaker students benefited the most.

Getting students to generate their own feedback is particularly effective when they are asked to compare their own work with multiple sources, says a paper published by Professor Nicol in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education.

“To leverage the power of internal feedback, students have to make deliberate comparisons, and the outputs need to be made explicit either in writing or in discussion or in actions,” Professor Nicol told Times Higher Education. “Everyone is making feedback comparisons all the time, but making the learning from them explicit is what turns this into a powerful educational strategy.”

Professor Nicol said that universities had focused too narrowly on feedback being a process only of lecturers providing comments on students’ work. He said that academic input still had a place in the feedback process, but that it would be more beneficial if it came at the end of the learning process.

Shifting to this model could reduce the burden of marking on academics, especially those who need to provide detailed feedback to large numbers of students, he said.

The approach is now being piloted more widely across the business school, as well as at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Padua.

“This is about students comparing rather than someone telling them about their own work. This lens of comparison changes everything. For the first time, it seems that there is a way to increase learning from feedback without inordinate increases in staff workload,” Professor Nicol said. “This method can be applied in any teaching situation across any discipline.”

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