By Dr Helena Paterson & Dr Phil McAleer
A key aspect of learning on any programme of learning is receiving actionable feedback that allows a student to develop their knowledge and graduate skills (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). Currently, across Schools, Colleges and Universities, teachers are preparing to grade and give feedback to their students and considering the best approach. From the perspective of university-level degree programmes, for an aspect of learning development that students and lecturers value so highly, it is surprising how regularly both parties comment with dissatisfaction about the process (Winstone et al., 2017a; Winstone et al., 2021). In a recent qualitative analysis of staff and student experiences of feedback Henderson et al. (2019) observe many challenges common to our own experience, for instance students saying that some of the feedback they receive is unclear, unguided, and at times discouraging to the point that they are demotivated to seek further help. Staff on the other hand highlight increasing workloads and a feeling of not enough time to give appropriate feedback along with a perception that the feedback is not acted on by students. Whilst we do not propose that negative attributions regarding each other’s attitude are always misperceived by the two groups, we do believe that most staff and students are highly invested in the feedback process and are keenly looking to improve this two-way conversation. To that end, we propose three brief considerations, based on both our own experience and a review of the literature, as to how teachers might consider framing feedback based on the assignment, whether it is formative or summative, and on the stage of development of the student. The three considerations are:
- Will the student resubmit the assignment?
- At what stage is the student in your programme?
- How will a student make use of the feedback?
Will the student resubmit the assignment?
In our experience, within academia, the most common instance of providing feedback tends to be on others’ research where we are aiming, either as a colleague or as part of the peer-review process, to help improve a manuscript for publication. This shapes us towards thinking that there will always be another chance to develop and hone the work further. However, as we have discovered, for the majority of assignments that a student will submit in their degree there is no opportunity to resubmit an improved version of the work, unless specifically built into the course as part of a formative task. This disparity between our dual roles as reviewers and teachers can create a clash between our feedback, and the benefit of that feedback to the student. Consider the following two comments that may be given as feedback on a student’s essay:
- “It would have been good to have included further information about the theory of X”
- “For next time, aim to give further details about the underlying theories to give more background to a reader”
The first statement assumes a chance to reshape the current assignment. The second statement is a more forward-looking comment that the student can apply to all future and similar assignments. Whilst the first statement is meant with good intention, showing students how to adapt the current assignment, it does not actually benefit the student for their next assignment unless they can make the meta-cognitive step from what they should have done in the current assignment to what they should do in all future assignments (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). The second statement instead highlights the issue in the current work as well as developing an action plan for future work and has been shown to help students more in the long-term (Derham et al., 2021). Research suggests that many of the comments teachers make within their feedback tend to fall towards the first approach but with the expectation that students will comprehend the comments as something like the second approach (Arts et al., 2016; Dirkx et al., 2021). Therefore, we suggest that feedback becomes more effective if teachers adopted the second approach for when assignments cannot be resubmitted and the first approach for formative pieces that go on to become a revised version of the same work.
At what stage is the student in your programme?
As experienced readers we know that there is more than one way to read a paper. We can skim read to get the general gist or we can peruse every sentence for a deeper understanding – a distinction that ties into depth of processing theories in cognitive psychology (Craik and Lockhart, 1972). In addition, we also know that you can’t process both the global and the detailed at the same time. In a similar vein, feedback can focus on either the fine details down to spelling and grammar, or the more global aspects such as structure and building arguments (Derham et al., 2021). Surprisingly however, and despite knowing that the two levels of feedback are hard to process in parallel, we often mix these aspects of feedback together in the one document and expect students to comprehend and improve both elements for future work. This in turn leads to students fixating on the fine details specific to that task as these are the ones that can be quickly comprehended, but this comes at the expense of not developing the global skills of writing (Lipnevich and Smith, 2009; Orsmond and Merry, 2013). Indeed, by focussing on the task-specific finer details, students miss the point that it is really understanding the process of developing knowledge and skills in writing, such as evaluation and communication, that leads to writing a top-end assignment. It is also when looking at the more global aspects that students are able to engage in the meta-cognitive processes of transferring their skills to new types of assessment and new domain knowledge (Dawson et al., 2019; Tai et al., 2018).
That said, it is important for teachers to help students improve the finer details, such as grammar, spelling, and subject-specific formatting including citations and references, but perhaps more so in the early stages of development with the goal of building a solid foundation. Therefore, when planning feedback, we propose that consideration should be given as to what level is the student at in their development and in your programme. As a student progresses throughout their degree they may expect to see a shift in balance from comments on task-specific finer details to comments more on the general process (for discussion see, Partobeeah and Anwar, 2009; Sadler, 2010; Winstone et al., 2017b). The transition point will of course be dependent on programme and fields, and may vary across assignments within a year group, but we would recommend that feedback on assignments in Level 1 are more towards the finer details, and feedback from Level 2 onwards is more towards the global process. One consideration might be that later years have smaller formative assignments specifically designed to reiterate the finer details, but if larger summative pieces are still correcting finer details, at a point when students should be focussed more on the global process, then it would be worth considering how the assignments in earlier years are being designed to develop those foundational skills. Ultimately, it falls on us as markers and as experienced teachers to recognise the benefit of helping the students to focus on the most important aspect, at different points in their learning, that will help sculpt their future work (Winstone et al., 2017b).
How will a student make use of the feedback?
One comment that students often make is that whilst they understand what is being said in the feedback, they do not know how to action those comments (Winstone et al., 2017a). To remedy this, one well-intended approach often seen in novice markers is to add more and more specific comments about what the student has done wrong within the current assignment with a view to giving the students something to focus on improving (Wiliam, 2011). As stated above, this style of feedback would really only be effective for early development or for a formative assignment. In addition, the hidden downside of this approach is that students can find receiving a lot of comments highlighting issues to be demeaning and demoralising (Boud, 1995; Ryan and Henderson, 2018), leading to cognitive dissonance where the student can disengage and even take the viewpoint that the teacher did not understand what the student had written (Fong et al., 2019).
An alternative approach would be to keep the comments about the current work more general and instead make the comments for future work more specific, highlighting what was good and demonstrating how it could be improved in the next assignment (Forsythe and Johnson, 2017). Again this might be dependent on level of study but by doing so it helps highlight issues within the current work, but in a manageable way for students, and focuses the students specifically on what they could do in the next assignment to help improve or maintain their standard. Often this does not require a large change to the comments teachers already give and the inclusion of “For next time,…” as a stem to the sentence can help frame the comment. Key however is making sure that the comments are actionable and specific so that students can make best use of them. Compare the below comments and ask yourself which would benefit you most:
- Whilst you covered an array of relevant topics, for next time, aim to have better structure.
- Whilst you covered an array of relevant topics, for next time, start your essay with a clear introductory paragraph that highlights the key concepts and lays out how the essay will address the question, before moving into individual paragraphs structured around Point, Explain, Evaluate, Link.
Likewise, compare the two comments below and consider which would encourage you to disengage more:
- In this one sentence there were four spelling mistakes, an incorrect use of a comma, and never ever start a sentence with the word AND. It would also help if you used paragraphs.
- Whilst I can see you trying to use what we have discussed, there are a number of spelling and grammatical issues that detract from the reading. Aim to build more time in before submission to review and proofread your work a few more times.
The goal with feedback is not to give endless comments; teachers do not have the time and students do not have the brain space to process them all. Instead the goal should be fewer but more effective comments. Being more specific and framing your feedback as actionable points around student development, we would suggest, is a) more beneficial to the student and b) a more effective use of time for staff.
What comes next?
Whilst the above approaches should help improve the quality and useability of the feedback that we as teachers give, we must remember and highlight to students that feedback is a two-way street. As such, it is imperative to stress the importance of making use of the feedback through reflection, and obtaining further feedback through discussion with staff (Carless and Bould, 2018; de Kleijn, 2021). Along with notifying students of the available opportunities, we as teachers can help students by demonstrating how we reflect on feedback – receiving feedback is an emotional process, and we can all make knee-jerk reactions, but stepping back and making a plan helps us move forward (Derham et al, 2021; Fong et al., 2019; Winstone et al., 2017a). To paraphrase Kirschner and Hendrick (2020) students are not novice experts who already have the knowledge and skills for dealing with feedback. Instead, we must model reflective practices for them, and help students develop an appropriate approach for making best use of the feedback they receive (Price et al., 2010).
In the end it is of course down to students to use the feedback we give them to develop their work. That does not however excuse us as teachers from looking to improve our feedback to make it as effective as possible for student development. Whilst teachers may not always get the balance right, we believe that the above practices would make the feedback loop a more fruitful experience for both staff and students. Whilst giving more feedback might seem the most obvious answer, it is rarely the most beneficial. Instead, fewer more targeted and actionable comments will allow students to develop the knowledge and skills we value.
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Dr Helena Paterson is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Glasgow. She is the Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning Lead for the School of Psychology and Neuroscience. Her expertise lies in digital education and her research is about children and adults’ perception of difference as it pertains so first impressions and person perception.
Dr Phil McAleer is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Glasgow, and is currently the Lead of the MSc Research Methods of Psychological Science programme within the School. Since 2012, he has been lecturing in research methods and statistics and has most recently been working on improving teaching within that area through the PsyTeachR initiative (https://psyteachr.github.io/). His main pedagogical research interest is focussed on effective teaching research methods, making it more accessible, and the role that assessment and feedback plays in helping students learn. He is a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) Division of Academics Researchers and Teachers (DART-P) and a Fellow of the Software Sustainability Institute (https://www.software.ac.uk/).