May 15th, 2008

Does Feedback Impact Subsequent Learning?


We give students grades for two reasons. First, they fulfill our professional responsibility to certify mastery of material. That is, they measure how much and how well students have learned. But we also use grades to promote learning. Writing a paper or taking an exam forces students to confront content and in the process they learn the material, to varying degrees, of course. That benefit accrues before the work is graded.

But what about when the graded work is returned? Does the feedback that accompanies grades positively impact subsequent learning? Faculty think so—69 percent of faculty surveyed in the study referenced below said that it frequently motivated learning. Stand that percentage against the 25 percent of the students surveyed who said that grading never motivated learning. (Most of the students said that it did sometimes.)

A couple of other questions about grades and feedback are equally revealing. Does the feedback faculty provide prompt students to discuss their work with the teacher? Sixty-three percent of the faculty said that it did so frequently; 50 percent of the students said that it never did. Does the feedback provided improve learning? About half the faculty said that it did so frequently; only 15 percent of the students agreed that it did so frequently.

Wow! Those are some pretty significant perceptual differences! It might take some courage, but how about asking students about the feedback provided in your courses? Questions like these: How useful do you find the feedback provided on your work in this class? How useful is the feedback in developing your skills and understanding of course content? How often do you refer to the feedback provided when preparing a subsequent assignment? How often do you feel like discussing the feedback on papers, projects and exams with the teacher of this course? Rate the extent to which the feedback provided in this course motivates you to work harder. These questions can be asked as open-ended queries or simple scales (not at all useful, somewhat useful, useful most of the time, always useful) can be attached.

Why are students’ perceptions of grades and feedback important? Because nothing motivates students quite as powerfully as grades and teachers are in control of grading processes.

Reference: Maclellan, E. (2001). Assessment for learning: The differing perceptions of tutors and students. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 26 (4), 307-318.

—Maryellen Weimer