Making Student Feedback Useful and Effective

This week, a new article on student feedback came across one of the listserves I belong to, and since we’re getting close to midterm grade reporting, I thought I would give it a read. One thing I’ve been struggling with in my own teaching is balancing the time I spend providing feedback to students with time for…well, everything else. It’s easy to spend a huge amount of time commenting on student work, but we also know from the research that students often don’t read that feedback; rather, they scan for their grade on the assignment and that’s it. And who wants to spend a lot of time creating feedback that goes unread and unused?

That’s why this new article on feeedback 1 caught my eye: it was a study that looked at what students themselves believed was useful (or not) in their instructors’ feedback, and studied what student perceptions of “good” and “bad” feedback on their work were, specifically. The findings were interesting; they affirmed some of our regular practices, but also called attention to some other areas we might not immediately assume are germane to the feedback process, yet end up being really important to students. Using a “large-scale study” of British university students, the authors argue that it’s not enough to focus on “the technical aspects of feedback, such as the feedback artefact or the timing or medium of its delivery.” Rather, a consideration of several “domains of influence” is essential in order to craft feedback that is both seen as valuable and actually used by students.

What are these “domains of influence?” This study points to the following considerations: the features of the feedback itself; the larger context surrounding this feedback; and the amount of “assessment literacy” possessed by students.

For the specific features of the feedback, the students in this study identify helpful feedback as that which actually engages with their work specifically (as opposed to vague or general comments, or feedback that is obviously cut-and-pasted). This has some implications for those of us who use rubrics, and suggests that we need to be mindful of ways in which we can get students understanding and collaborating with that type of assessment instrument. Interestingly, students in this study did not equate specificity with volume; in other words, “simply writing more feedback was not sufficient.” Students also pointed to feedback that recognized their effort (even if the assignment score was lower than expected) as more useful than feedback they perceived as “lazy,” “rushed,” or condescending/patronizing.

In the realm of feedback context, the most important observation was that “students were unlikely to perceive feedback as good if they thought the assessment task was not well designed or ambiguous.” This underscores the importance of effective (and accessible) assignment design for student success, in that it’s hard for us to get students to incorporate feedback if they don’t see the relevance, or understand the criteria for, the assignment itself. Poorly- or vaguely-designed assignments stack the deck, apparently; student frustrations with these aspects of the assignment shape the way they receive our feedback. According to this study’s authors,

The complete assessment process and, in particular, feedback preconditions, was the most prevalent issue discussed in interviews. Time spent by a lecturer/tutor before, during and after the assignment to explain and clarify were seen to be important. Where more guidance had been wanted the feedback, however detailed, was deemed ‘bad’.

“What Makes Good Feedback Good?”

Even though this study focuses exclusively on student perceptions of feedback, I still think this is an important point. Fair or not, the ways in which students feel about our feedback ultimately determines how useful and effective it is. And if students are frustrated or confused by our larger assignment design, then our feedback on their work becomes less effective as a result.

Finally, the authors of this study point to what they see as an underappreciated part of this whole process: the degree of “assessment literacy” with which students are engaging with our feedback on their work. When students understand what assessment is (data that helps us get better at a learning task), as opposed to what it is not (a final, summary judgment on their ability to do a particular task either now or in the future), our feedback becomes more effective-even when the grade is lower than students had expected:

in the case of a lower than expected grade, positive feelings about the feedback were created if this was sufficiently clear and detailed to enable the student to draw information from it and apply it to future work…reactions were tempered by students’ interpretation of the tone of the feedback, their individual resilience and their perceived relationship with the marker.

“What Makes Good Feedback Good?”

Moreover, this study found that if this “perceived relationship” with the instructor was a positive one, that this “shaped their response to tone and other aspects of feedback.” In other words, this study reaffirms one of the most important observations we have about effective teaching and learning: transparency matters. If we are able to create an environment where our students are collaborators with us, where the assessment process is clear and understood by all, then the assessment work we do will have much more impact.

Some takeways from this new study, then:

  • Feedback should engage specifically and personally with students’ work for students to see it as useful. And even though this study doesn’t address the point explicitly, feedback has a shelf life-it must be timely in order to be of use as well.
  • Feedback, perhaps more than we realize, depends upon transparent assignment design in order for it to be of the best use.
  • Transparency is also vital for the assessment process itself; students who understand the purpose of assessment (especially formative assessment) are more apt to view feedback as useful. One observation that occurred to me in this regard, with midterm grade reporting approaching, is that communication with students is key. If I have to report a low midterm grade for a student, I need to communicate that to the student, and not just the Registrar’s office. Otherwise, the student might interpret that report as a “gotcha,” as opposed to an opportunity to seek help and course-correct. Again, the ability for us to communicate the importance and purpose of assessment is the most important element for this process to work as it should.

If you’d like to access this study, you can click the link at the beginning of this post; if you have any difficulties finding the PDF, I’d be happy to send a copy along to you as well.

Programming Note: The Conversations on Teaching Session on “difficult discussions” originally scheduled for Tuesday, September 28, will be rescheduled due to the Faculty Forum this afternoon. A new date will be announced soon, along with the accompanying calendar invite. Apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused.

  1. O’Donovan, Berry M., Birgit den Outer, Margaret Price, and Andy Lloyd. 2021. “What Makes Good Feedback Good?” Studies in Higher Education 46 (2): 318–29.

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