The ‘F’ Word

The issue of feedback seems to arise again and again across HE institutions in the NSS. Last week, I delivered a workshop to students in one of the schools I look after about how to interpret and make use of feedback. It only attracted 3 students. Despite the very small number of attendees, reasons for which I won’t go into, the process of researching for this session and discussing feedback with these students brought to light a number of things I had not thought about in that much depth before:

  1. We’re speaking a different language
    This was probably the most enlightening in some ways. Not because it was new to me but but because I hadn’t realized that the answer might be quite simple.The school give the students really thorough feedback. This includes annotated scripts and overall comments about what the students did well and where they could improve. To me, the school give good feedback. There seemed to be many areas of feedback however that the students just simply didn’t understand. After some discussion, it became clear that there is a language barrier…not all of our students speak “academic”. Phrases such as “needs more of your own voice”, “be more analytical and evaluative here”, “you need a clear thesis statement in your introduction” did not make sense to these new undergraduates. We use terms like this all the time in marking criteria, feedback, online tutorials etc. and they can be confusing. As I said, I know this is not a new revelation and this is why we often provide explanations to these kind of terms but academia can still seem like an impenetrable language.

    So what is the answer? Well it’s clear that explanations are simply not enough. I’m becoming more and more convinced that going through real examples with the students both before and after assessment to demonstrate what these terms actually mean is crucial to understanding. Some seem unwilling to share examples or believe this is too much like “spoon-feeding” but I don’t understand why. Imagine being asked to write a journal article but never being allowed to read any other journal articles- instead you can only see a description of one!

  2. Students don’t always seek extra help
    This was really interesting to me and made me think back to how I was as an undergraduate. I found the transition to independent learner very tough. I wanted the tutors to tell me exactly what I needed to do to improve, step by step, with examples and I felt let down when they gave me what I considered to be quite vague feedback. However, I never thought to actively seek out help. I could have asked to speak to my tutors for clarification, I could have taken a book out of the library about essay writing, I could have asked if there were any workshops I could attend to improve my writing but I didn’t. I looked at my mark, scanned my feedback and moved on. It was only at the end of second year that I finally asked my dad for help (he is very academic!)- he was brilliant but I should have just asked my tutors. The students I spoke to in class admitted they were mainly bothered about their marks (understandable) and if they didn’t understand their feedback they didn’t really have a strategy to help themselves.
  3. Acceptance of feedback is key
    I have found that some students are unwilling to accept their feedback. They insist they have done what the tutors have asked and can’t understand why they are not improving. I think feedback can be quite emotional. Ultimately it’s personal and can feel very critical even if the tutor has tried to be as constructive as possible. When I have sat down with the student and we’ve really talked through their work, the penny often drops and they can see what their tutors meant. Other times they are just clearly frustrated and want a quick fix. I recently spoke to Anne MacNab at Edinburgh Napier University who works with both staff and students to help students make the most of feedback. We talked about resilience, engagement and confidence. Her approach is something I want to explore more in the near future.

It seems that feedback is an issue that continuously needs attention. We need to experiment with different ways to engage students (and staff) with their feedback and make it a meaningful part of their learning. If anyone has been successful strategies for this please do share!

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