This report presents the findings of the UWE Student Feedback Project (which ran March to June, 2007). The project was set up to investigate HLSS and AMD students’ expectations, perceptions and use of tutor feedback, using questionnaires, focus groups and one-to-one interviews. This project builds on findings from previous research on students’ transition from 6th form/college to university, the recommendations and successful outcomes of which are listed in Appendix One.1
Student dissatisfaction with feedback from lecturers has been highlighted as a problem across the University. The National Student Survey showed this to be the part of their experience with which students were most dissatisfied (www.tqi.ac.uk). Similarly the University’s Marketing and Communications Department survey of recent graduates (2005) highlighted a significant gap between levels of perceived importance and levels of satisfaction, regarding student feedback.2 It had also become clear from the student satisfaction surveys that students regard the rapid return of useable feedback to be important. However anecdotal evidence from teaching staff indicated that students did not necessarily appear to act on the feedback they were given and in some cases did not even go to the trouble of retrieving marked assignments from tutors. Students also commented in local satisfaction surveys that they felt it took too long to receive written feedback.
Much current literature on this topic engages with the processes of giving feedback, thus tending to focus on lecturers/tutors themselves. This paper broadens the field, focusing on students talking about feedback in their own words: what they understand by feedback, how useful it is to them, what they expect and want from it, what they find helpful and unhelpful and so on.
In concluding, we will be addressing the ways in which the framework of the assignment system itself reinforces ‘strategic’ or ‘superficial’ learning behaviours, and consider other ways in which students’ independence and proactivity in learning and working for assignments can be encouraged and nurtured.
2. Literature Review and Discussion
A survey of the literature (primarily conducted using Google Scholar) indicated that there is in existence a body of material on the subject of feedback to students, and related fields such as assessment practice, however little research had been conducted among students themselves. It may be that the assumption that feedback is necessary but little attention is paid to what it is actually for. Undoubtedly lecturers hope that it will help students to improve their future work. It also appears to serve the purpose of justifying the mark given for the piece of assessed work. This dichotomy does of course lie at the heart of Higher Education; HE is intended partly to develop the learner and partly to certify that the student has certain bench marked skills (QAA). The usual way to overcome this difficulty has been to separate out formative and summative assessment. This had not been a problem in the traditional university. The formative essay followed by the first year and final year examinations has been a widely used format. In contrast in the new (post-1992) universities the model of module based credit accumulation had tended towards the use of continuous assessment. Many marking schemes therefore include every assessed piece of work submitted after the first year in the final degree grading. Major reviews of the literature on formative assessment have been undertaken most recently by Black and Williams (1998) who took as their base-line two substantial review articles, one by Natriello (1987) and the other by Crooks (1988). It is impossible in the space available to consider these reviews in any detail (Black and Williams reviewed 681 articles). However it should be noted that they consider not only those articles that review techniques of assessment and review but also many that discuss the philosophical, social and psychological underpinnings of pedagogy. In the field of feedback, Black and Williams’ review highlighted those articles that indicated that feedback was most beneficial when teachers concentrated on the task rather than the student and highlighted the impact of supportive and positive encouragement.
William and Black discussed this problem with some sophistication with reference to the national curriculum in schools. (Williams and Black 1996) In their conclusion they found themselves rather stumped primarily because of the external assessment schemes that dominate secondary education. It is worth noting that in HE where assessment is largely designed by academics who both teach and assess that the ‘continuum’ of assessment, i.e. the integration of assessment, that Williams and Black suggest may actually be practicable. An interesting example of such an approach in the Humanities is given in the teaching of mediaeval literature (Smyth 2004). Smyth describes a course wherein the differences between formative and summative assessment are made clear to students. In consequence the different sorts of critical evaluation and summative judgement associated with formative and summative assessment respectively are taught as part of the course. Such an approach to assessment may become more important as the cohort of traditionally prepared students becomes a minority in the face of mass higher education. It is therefore worth paying some attention to the larger issues for a moment, in particular the kinds of students who enter university and the attitudes to education that they bring with them.
Our previous work on transition suggested that students sought models of how to be a student and that they attuned themselves to a model constructed from perceptions of the University, institutional context, student opinion and their own experience and expectations. This is not the place to explore alternatives to the current model of the University, however the increase in participation rates in Higher Education have drawn in students who might not previously have participated in HE. However it appears that the expansion of HE has not brought in students from manual working class backgrounds where applications from the lowest socio-economic groups remain at around 25% (The Guardian 12 June 2007). Rather it has drawn in a layer of young people who might previously have entered white collar work business and the public sector and relied on internal training to develop their careers. As the ‘certification’ role of HE has increased so ‘learning for learning’s sake’, particularly in the Arts and Humanities, has come into even greater tension with the role of preparation for work and certification in general. The development of mass HE, albeit of the character described above, has been accompanied by a considerable development of ideas in teaching drawing on a vast range of philosophical and pedagogic traditions
As Haggis (2006) has pointed out the institutional structures of British Universities tend to support a directional transmission of knowledge from the lecturer to the student rather than a shared investigation and resolution of problems. Terrenzini (1999) has argued something similar in the US case. It should not be thought that the difficulties in academic feedback to undergraduates are exclusively a problem for new universities. Even in the ‘Old Universities’ the pressure to complete research means that many students are unlikely to receive an informal tutorial with an expert in their field. Rather feedback is also likely to be written and may even be provided by a PhD student. Bearing these factors in mind our attention turns to feedback itself.
The primary concerns of the literature on feedback include two areas of interest (which are often commented upon in the same paper or project). One, the contradictory, difficult, obscure and sometimes simply unreadable nature of feedback provided by teachers and, two, the use, or lack of use, made of feedback by students. It is perhaps actually most important to take the latter first, in that if students do not use feedback, then no matter how much it is provided or demanded then there is no point in producing it. The most recent review of the literature on feedback has been undertaken as part of an Higher Education Academy funded FDTL5 project (Millar 2005).3 The project has yet to report but the literature review offers a conclusion that both the institutional context and the views of academics on how students learn are crucial aspects of the process.
In the sample researched by Higgins et al (2002) the principal conclusion was that students wanted to use feedback but could not always make sense of it. However it should be noted that for example in Holmes and Smith (Holmes and Smith 2003) the student difficulty was primarily with a lack of comment, indecipherable comment and overly negative comment (it is possible that the local practices were particularly poor). McCune (McCune 2004) reported even more negatively that feedback to a group of first-year psychology student had no impact whatsoever on the conceptualisations that they were supposed to develop through essay writing and feedback. However it proved difficult for the author to come to any deeper conclusion in view of the small sample.
In an interesting article Orrell (2006: 442) has argued that the purpose of grading essays dominates the real process of assisting students to improve their essay-writing. It worth noting that in turn this aspect of feedback becomes an expectation among students (Brown 2007)
“At the end of the assessment process, once assessors had decided on a grade, it was common practice for them to provide a summary explanation, in writing, regarding the reason for the grade assigned. This is what the academics probably referred to as ‘giving feedback’.” (Orrell 2006: 453).
So markers end up justifying their marks rather than helping students to improve. Orrell also points out that
‘Participants in this study suggested that one of the most valuable purposes of assessment was to give students feedback on their achievements. In practice, academics were observed to substitute reading and thinking about students’ texts with writing on and editing students’ texts.’ (Orrell 2006: 453)
The ‘new literacy’s’ approach adopted by Lea and Street (1998) attempts to provide a solution to this problem by paying attention to the social situation of both the tutor and the student. It could be said that this is an attempt to overcome the problems identified by Haggis in that the discourses employed by higher education lecturers are not those employed by many of their students except perhaps in a very small number of elite institutions and perhaps not even there.
A fairly fundamental question has been addressed by Higgins et al (Higgins et al 2002: 62) who go so far as to ask if there is any point in providing written feedback, i.e. will it actually support student learning? Based on a small sample they offer the tentative view that it has potential. However they argue;
It must be timely, interim feedback on plans might be beneficial.
Misconceptions need to be explained and suggests made for improvement.
Critical skills are more important than editing the text.
It must be provided in a language students understand not in a language appropriate to academics.
It is also important to note that inappropriate feedback can actually be unhelpful, particularly by lowering self esteem when students find they cannot understand the feedback they have been given. Hyland (2003) points to this in work on students learning a second language. It is of course possible that the very particular personal investment in language can mean negative comments impact particularly strongly on student feelings of self-worth and indeed Taras came to very similar conclusions when looking at translation students. Mutch and Ivanic et al make similar comments on a more diverse sample. (Taras 2003, Mutch 2003, Ivanic et al 2000)
Overall then it can be seen that the prospect of asking students about their experiences of and desires for, feedback offered a complex set of issues to explore. On the one hand, the need for clear, unambiguous feedback, easy to read and easy to act upon appears to be a foregone conclusion. On the other appreciating feedback as something to be processed rather than the correct answer to be learnt raises additional demands on teachers and students. In other words, assuming that academics can write clearly, what is it that students want to read? We therefore now move on to consider a methodology that might enable us to address the issue.
This study draws on our previous project’s methodology; a more detailed account of these qualitative methods can be found in the Student Transition Report (Brooks and Kelly 2006).4
Briefly, our approach consisted of three stages:
(i) A review of relevant literature and current studies
(ii) Approx 550 students were asked to complete a short questionnaire at the start of a number of lectures, and in and around the St Matthias SU Bar area, the Bower Ashton refectory and the Student Refectory at St Matthias. 166 responded and their responses are summarised in Section 3.
(iii) The questionnaire asked anyone interested in being interviewed further to give us their contact details (to stand the chance to win an iPod). 100 students did so, and each student was emailed. Of the 100 emailed, 15 replied, and 11 turned up for an interview, either on a one-to-one basis or in a small group of two or three.
(iv) A further few impromptu small group interviews occurred in a student café at Bower Ashton, where we interviewed a further 12 students bringing the total of interviews to 23. Each of these students also filled in a questionnaire, incorporated in the total of 166. Their responses to our questions are discussed in Section 4.
We would like to point out here that the decision to include Bower Ashton was to begin to explore the possible differences between students’ experiences of assessment feedback across different faculties and types of assignments. Ideally, we would have included all faculties and conducted interviews at Frenchay and Glenside: limitations of time and funding precluded this.
4. Issues Raised by Responses to Initial Questionnaires
Almost 550 students were asked to fill in a questionnaire (see Appendix Two) on assessment feedback. They were asked to comment on what kinds of feedback they had found most/least helpful and effective. We received a total of 166 responses and of the issues highlighted by students at each level are highlighted below.
Some issues highlighted by students at level 1, 2 and 3
‘Effective feedback involves being able to discuss work with a tutor’
‘Effective feedback forms include detailed information on how to improve’
‘One-to-one tutorials allow you to ask questions’
‘Effective feedback forms break the essay down into sections and comment on them (structure, grammar etc.)’
‘Ineffective feedback forms involve vague comments I don’t understand and/or handwritten notes on the essay’
The dominant theme at all levels is the request for verbal feedback. Unsurprisingly, students at all levels also want detailed information on how they can improve. In the first year, there is a marked need to be able to ask questions – echoing the suggestions in current literature that students completing their first assignments need more clarification on their feedback. In particular it echoes Higgins et al’s (2002) observation, above, that students want feedback but are unsure how to understand and use it. There is a strong dislike of what they perceive to be ‘vague’ feedback which does not offer constructive advice on improvement, and a dislike of the handwritten notes in the margins of their work.
We also asked students what kinds of feedback they felt they needed and why. Of all 166 responses, just over half (56%) specifically stated they felt ‘one to one tutorials’ are or would be the most useful form of feedback. The following quotes exemplify the kinds of answers we received to this question.
‘A lot of feedback can be received in five minutes of talking than simply on a form’
‘Faceto face with my tutor I get a real sense of what I am supposed to be doing’
‘I want the chance to ask questions or to air all my grievances…’
This suggests it’s not simply the opportunity to gain more information, although this is a significant motivation, but also to build a relationship with the tutor. This links in to our previous research on the transition experience which concluded that students feel they often lack a sense of belonging on their course, and can feel isolated and anonymous.
In terms of ‘effective feedback’ one student notably said that:
‘Feedback is effective when it encourages and recognises you’ve done well…it can be inspiring’ .
Whilst most respondents agreed with this student, stating that feedback was generally helpful and clear, a number of respondents critiqued the feedback process, again exemplified below:
‘I don’t want feedback from a random tutor who doesn’t teach your seminar’
‘When it’s handwritten you can’t always read it and sometimes the phrasing is complicated’ (Film Studies/Drama 3rd yr)
‘Just getting an exam mark is useless in terms of improving and learning from it’
Thus it is suggested that what students broadly term ‘effective feedback’ can be defined as specific, detailed, positive, clearly stated and constructive.
We could, of course, critique this initial summary as stating the obvious. But as tutors we have to ask ourselves, if this IS obvious, why do students – as suggested by this preliminary small sample and the current research discussed in Section Two - feel they don’t always get the kinds of feedback they perceive to be most useful? Is there a significant cultural clash between tutors’ and students’ perceptions of effective feedback? Do students want tutorials because they simply don’t know what to do or how to understand their feedback? As we have pointed out, anecdotal evidence suggests that whilst students say they want tutorials, the vast majority do not turn up to assignment tutorials (commonly offered by the tutor before assignment deadlines) and the vast majority do not come to see tutors during their office hours. Is asking for more tutorials more an indication of wanting to feel more connected to Uni in general, but not knowing how to go about it?
In attempting to answer these questions, we carried out some more in-depth interviews, as described in Section One. Recruitment has been difficult, with only 23 students interviewed out of a potential 166 replies, and a number of students simply not turning up for arranged interview times. Whilst frustrating, this could be read as indicative of how students can consider feedback irrelevant– something to be got and then forgotten, or ignored in favour of simply getting the mark online. Possibly, those who don’t use or don’t know how to use feedback, would not be motivated to actually make time to talk to a possibly unknown person about it. Subsequently, our respondents discussed in Section Four could be described as motivated students who use feedback effectively.