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5. Improving the impact of feedback

As previously discussed, one important way assessment can support learning is through effective communication between the tutor and student about the quality of work. Numerous studies have found that feedback has a significant impact on learning (Black and William, 1998; Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Kluger and DeNisi, 1996). However, there is considerable variability in the results. Given its potential importance, why might students fail to respond to feedback? How can we increase the likelihood that they will engage with and act upon the guidance tutors provide? The following section discusses a number of these issues.

It arrives too late

Students are more likely to engage with feedback if they receive it while the process of researching and writing the assessment is still fresh in their minds. Unfortunately writing detailed comments on hundreds of assignments can take weeks. By the time marking is complete and the feedback returned, many students have started studying for subsequent assignments. The comments may no longer seem relevant as they focus on their next assessment. There are two different ways of providing feedback quickly – even on very large modules.

  • Provide feedback after reading a sample of assignments.

Instead of marking all the students’ work before providing feedback, read a sample of the assignments in the first couple of days after the deadline. Identify any common weaknesses and either discuss these in the next class or post announcements/handouts on the virtual learning environment.

  • Provide feedback before reading any assignments!

Tutors can often predict/anticipate common mistakes or weaknesses in students’ work before they have marked a single assignment. Rather than keeping this information private, produce a handout and discuss these anticipated weaknesses with the students in the first class following the deadline date. It is also useful to spend some of this contact time describing some of the key features of a good answer.

Although imperfect and rather generic, feedback provided in the first few days following a deadline, may have a stronger impact on some students than more personalised and detailed feedback provided at a later date.

It discourages and demotivates

One purpose of feedback is to motivate students to take appropriate actions to deepen their learning. If the comments only discuss weaknesses and the language is harsh/judgemental, it can have the opposite result. When marking, it is easy to forget the emotional responses people feel when reading comments on work in which they have invested a large amount of their own time and effort. As well as having a negative impact on self-confidence and motivation, students are likely to ignore feedback if it is overly negative. Always try to find something positive to say otherwise there is a danger the students will take no notice of any of the comments.

The impact of releasing marks/grades

There is evidence that once students see their marks/grades they are more likely to ignore potentially useful feedback. There are a number of possible explanations. For example, those students who receive high grades may believe they have mastered the topic and so do not need to read any of the comments. Those who receive low grades may feel they never want to look at or engage with the assignment ever again. One way to address this issue is to release feedback before the marks. Students then have to provide an estimate of the grade based on the comments. They are encouraged to compare the feedback with their peers and a small grade incentive for accuracy is a useful way to encourage them to take it seriously.

Top Tip:

A useful incentive scheme operates in the following way. If the estimated mark from the feedback is within five percentage points either above or below the final mark awarded by the tutor, the student receives a bonus of five percentage points. To avoid any incentives to game the system, add the five percentage points to the mark awarded by the tutor – not the estimated mark provided by the students.

It seems irrelevant for future assessments

In the research literature there is evidence that some students ignore feedback because they believe it is specific to that particular assignment and provides no guidance on how to improve their future work. Many lecturers write feedback comments as if the students have submitted a draft copy of the work for a later resubmission. How can we avoid doing this? Some comments relate to the academic content of the assignment such as the choice/explanation of economic theory and its application to any issues raised in the question. When writing these types of comments, it is important to highlight cases where a good understanding of this same academic content is required for students to perform well in subsequent assessments. For example

“You need to gain a deeper and more thorough understanding of expected utility theory if you wish to improve your performance in the final examination”

Other comments relate to more generic skills development such as the structure of the answer, the balance of material, the quality of written communication and the ability to develop arguments in a logical manner. It is easier for students to see the relevance of improving these skills for future assignments but always signpost and make it as clear as possible.

Perceptions about the usefulness of all types of feedback are greatest when provided on draft versions of work. Some issues with marking drafts are considered in section 4.3.

It does not clarify the size of any weaknesses or gaps in understanding

Traditional written feedback can be effective at identifying gaps. For example, commonly used comments include

“The assignment lacks clarity and logical coherence.”

“There is not enough critical analysis.”

“Some concepts are not explained in enough detail”

“The answer did not focus on the question.”

It is far more difficult to explain the size of any gaps. For example, the second comment above identifies that there is not enough critical analysis but says nothing about the level required to achieve a particular grade. One way to address this issue is to show students concrete examples of work that demonstrate the standard or the skill at an appropriate level. These are post-submission as opposed to pre-submission exemplars. For example, when marking assessments, copy samples of answers that illustrate good performance on some aspect or aspects of the assessment criteria. Distribute these answers in class or post on the VLE. Referring to these exemplars in the written feedback can also save time by reducing the quantity of comments.

The use of post submission exemplars can also play a very useful role when staff face students who appear disinterested in constructive feedback and just want to know why they received a mark below the one they believe they deserve. Spending a few minutes getting these students to compare their own work with examples of high quality exemplars is an effective and efficient way of dealing with these difficult situations.

Top Tip:

Rather than providing complete versions of the post submission exemplars, copy a particular page or highlight a paragraph that is a good example of some element of the assessment criteria. In the feedback, include a sentence along the following lines – “For an example of a piece of work that demonstrates excellent critical analysis see the highlighted section on exemplar A”

It does not explain how to improve

This is the trickiest part of the feedback process. It is difficult to specify/outline exactly what the student needs to do or what future actions they can take to improve. Comments such as ‘you need to work harder’ are unlikely to have an impact. Some alternatives include:

“Read lots of different examples of other assignments that received a high grade. Compare them against your own and try to identify their particular strengths and areas you need to work on to obtain higher marks in future assessments.”

“In the future, try to read through your work more carefully and amend any errors before handing it in.”

“Book an appointment with the support centre x at the university to receive extra support.”

“Try to attempt more practice questions.”

“Go back and read chapter x again in the textbook and try to gain a better understanding of theory y.”