By Alison Campbell 30/11/2017


I’ve just received a reminder that I need to set up the paper and teaching appraisal for my summer school paper.

This is a series of items that students can answer on a 1-5 scale (depending on how much or how little they agree with each statement), plus opportunities to give open-ended responses to a few questions. These last are the ones where I might want to find out how the students think I might improve my teaching, or the aspects of the paper that they did and didn’t like.

Among the first set of items is usually a stem along the lines of “this teacher provides useful feedback on my work”, where responses would range from ‘always’ (1) to ‘never’ (5). It’s the one where I get my lowest scores – and this is despite the fact that I provide general feedback to the class, written individual feedback on essays etc (and when I was teaching first-year, the opportunity to get feedback on drafts), and verbal feedback when the opportunity is there. Digging into that a bit, it appeared that most students only saw the written feedback as feedback at all, and since a substantial minority didn’t collect their essays afterwards, then they felt they weren’t getting feedback. Bit of a catch-22, and one that perhaps marking and giving feedback on line might ameliorate? I hope so.

But you can understand why students might not participate in an appraisal of the paper and the teaching in it: if they feel that the teachers aren’t providing them with feedback, why bother? And – just as important – if we don’t close the loop and tell students how we use their feedback, then why would they bother?

Feedback on feedback

So, are universities good at providing feedback to students? I don’t agree, and I think quite a few students would say no – and according to this excellent article in the Conversation, academic researchers, Australia’s 2015 Graduate Course Experience survey, and the Australian government’s “Feedback for Learning” project agree with them. For example:

The 2015 Graduate Course Experience surveyed over 93,000 students within four months of their graduation. It reported that while close to three quarters of graduates felt the feedback they received was helpful, 16.3% could not decide if the feedback was helpful, while a further 9.7% found the feedback unhelpful. Clearly something is wrong when a quarter of our graduates indicate feedback is not working.

The findings from the Feedback for Learning survey of more than 4,000 students are particularly interesting – and saddening. Of all those surveyed, 37% said that the feedback is discouraging. Thirty-seven percent!!! There were few instances where students felt that they’d received the opportunity to benefit from any formative feedback they received. 15% of all respondents found the feedback upsetting – but this rose for international students, students with poor English skills (these first two are not necessarily one and the same) or a learning disability. And a majority of both staff and students felt that the feedback is impersonal.

You can see why I found the article saddening. But why is there such a problem? Perhaps, suggests the Conversation, it’s partly (largely?) because in many cases both academics and students don’t really understand what ‘feedback’ really is.

For example, many academics and students assume that feedback is a one-way flow of information, which happens after assessment submission and is isolated from any other event. In addition, academics and students often feel that the role of feedback is merely to justify the grade. A further misunderstanding is that feedback is something that is done by academics and given to students. These beliefs are deeply held in academic culture.

Luckily there are things that we can do about it. The article describes four things that educators should bear in mind that would significantly improve both the quality of feedback that we provide, and the nature of students’ learning experiences arising from that feedback. I strongly recommend reading those recommendations – and acting on them.