Giving Effective Written feedback

Why don’t students read or seem to engage with feedback?

Feedback is an ever more pertinent in the age of the TEF and the increasing importance placed on the NSS and PTES (Price at al, 2010;O’ Donovan, 2017).  Yet giving feedback is time-consuming for teachers and it can be frustrating when students do not seem to engage with it (Hounsell, 2003).

Here is a short video of student responses to assessment and feedback:

Why is this happening?

Students’ responses to feedback can be affected by any, some or all of the following:

  • They focus on the grade not the feedback: Assessment is high-stakes for students and derives from school or university culture encouraging this high-stakes environment.
  • They don’t understand it: It is easy to assume that students have understood information on KEATS or in the module handbook but this may not be the case. Sadler (2010) has shown that students usually don’t learn from being told — even gently and repeatedly.
  •  They don’t know how to improve: Even when students do understand their feedback, they might not be able to make the extra step to apply it to their own work, and therefore continue to make the same mistakes.
  • It comes too late to be useful:  Nicol and McFarlane-Dick (2006) have shown that TIMELY feedback is vital. The College has a 4-week turnaround policy to highlight this. Double marking procedures for QAA compliance can slow down the turnaround of feedback. However, if feedback is only on summative assessment which occurs at the end of a module or the mid-term is a different type of assignment from the final, feedback is less useful for students and therefore suggests you should spend less time on it.
  • It is too specific to the set assignment: Students receive feedback on one type of assignment and then move on to the next. Even if the assignment seems the same (e.g. an essay), the task and focus will be different. How critical thinking is defined in one task might be different from how it is defined in another.
  • It does not involve them in their own learning: If students perceive that they are passive recipients of feedback on assessments, they can feel alienated from the larger purpose of education and therefore feel that it is the teachers’ job to tell them how to pass assessments.
  • It only focuses on the negative: As all who have gone through the painful process of peer-review know, feedback can be a very emotional event. It can build or destroy confidence. That is not to say you should avoid negative feedback, but to frame it as constructive. Often it is the tone of feedback which can be more damaging to students than the content.
  • There is little consistency across markers: This is a common complaint amongst students, and can seem inevitable when there is a spread of markers across large cohorts and when work requires more than a correct or incorrect answer. This is usually only applicable to summative assessment.

How can I give effective written feedback?  provides some recommendations to address these common issues