Friday, 3 March 2017

Making feedback more rewarding for everyone. Dr Julie Hulme

This blog post has been contributed to Solutions by Dr Julie Hulme a Principal Fellow of the HEA, a National Teaching Fellow and Keele Excellence award winner. More about Julie can be found here

The National Student Survey has made universities look carefully at the feedback provided to students, and most have implemented initiatives to improve students’ satisfaction (which has nonetheless remained stubbornly low). This can be a source of frustration for academics, who note glowing external examiners’ reports, hours of diligent commentary on their students’ work, and then rage that some students never read their feedback.

As a psychologist, this piques my curiosity. How can students be dissatisfied with something that should help them to learn (and get better marks)? How can academics believe that they are doing a great job, and yet deliver something that is so fundamentally flawed that students don’t even bother to read it? There appears to be a communication problem, and further investigation is needed.

Since the communication problem exists on both sides of the feedback equation, I carried out some research addressing both student and tutor perspectives. Most previous research offered insight into the ways in which students thought we could improve, but tutors were left reeling at the prospect of ‘doing more’ within an already busy job. Could we get more effective AND more efficient?

I used a mixed methods approach, combining surveys and focus groups, to investigate the perceived purposes of feedback, what people thought helped learning, and how feedback was used. The results offered a surprising degree of agreement between students and tutors, and allowed me to generate a set of recommendations, which I shared with volunteer participants online. They commented on and amended the recommendations, until they reached a consensus.

So, what can we do to make the feedback process more satisfying, and less frustrating, for everyone concerned? Let’s start with what tutors can do:

  • Students value three types of feedback: what they do well, what can they improve, and how they can improve. My research shows that tutors tend to focus on what is wrong – but guidance on how to improve is the hardest type of feedback to give, but the type that is most useful. Practically, how do you expect the student to provide ‘more depth’? I now provide structured feedback under these three headings.

  • Don’t give feedback on every mistake; pick the issues that are causing the most problems, and give detailed and constructive feedback about these (for writing errors, point students at Student Learning – this will save you time, and get them some expert help, while avoiding them feeling ‘picked on’).

  • Remember your audience – we sometimes use comments to justify our marks for the second marker. But students may not understand academic ‘short hand’; what is ‘depth’, anyway? Use language that will engage and develop them. 

  • Audio comments can help to make feedback feel personal and make it more accessible.

  • Early in the course, talk to your students about how to use feedback as a tool for learning; feedback in schools and colleges is very different, so they need to learn a new approach.

  • Identify yourself - sign or initial your marking so that students know who to ask if they need any clarification.

And what can students do?

  • Firstly, read your feedback! It gives you insight into how to improve your grades in future, and, according to Hattie (1987), is the most important way you can improve your learning.

  • But don’t read it instantly. When you first get work back, you’ll be emotional. Either you’ll be dancing around celebrating, or you’ll react defensively to the feedback. Give yourself time to calm down and reflect; look for the information that tells you what you do well, what to improve, and practically, how you can get better (even if this isn’t written explicitly). Devise an action plan and follow it!

  • If you’re not sure how to use your feedback, ask for an appointment with the tutor who marked your work, and ask for their help. Communication is much clearer in person, and misunderstandings can be avoided. If still in doubt, pay a visit to Student Learning for more advice.

The important thing, whether you’re a tutor or a student, is to remember that feedback involves two people. Sharing responsibility for the communication process ensures that feedback is useful, valued, and facilitates learning. Applying these principles certainly makes feedback delivery more rewarding for me, and my students often give me positive feedback on my feedback!

Hulme, J.A. and Forshaw, M.J. (2009). Effectiveness of feedback provision for psychology undergraduate students. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 8, 1, 34-38.

Creative Commons License
Making feedback more rewarding for everyone by Dr Julie Hulme, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at