January 14th, 2014

Why Don’t Students Use Teacher Feedback to Improve?


Here’s the conclusion of a small but intriguing study. Its findings reveal “only limited support for the idea that students actually do respond to feedback and make changes in a subsequent piece of assessable work consistent with the intentions that underlay the provided feedback.” (p. 577)

And what’s the evidence that supports this conclusion? A cohort of 51 undergraduate social work students (some taking the course online and some on campus) wrote two 1,750-word essays six weeks apart. They were given a choice of topics: four for the first essay and five for the second. The format and grading criteria for both essays were the same and were given to students with opportunities to discuss and ask questions prior to preparation of the essays. Feedback on the first essay focused on areas where the student could make improvements. Potential evaluator bias was controlled via several mechanisms. Grades for both essays were within four points of each other for 66.7 percent of the cohort. Close to 16 percent of the students showed substantial improvement, and a bit more than 17 percent showed a substantial decline in performance.

The researcher admits with some candor, “Like many academics, the author’s first instinct was to blame the students for their apparent disregard for the feedback they were given.” (p. 577) And students are not blameless. She includes citations from other research documenting that students spend little time reading the instructor-provided feedback. In one study 39 percent of the students indicated they spent five minutes or less reading the feedback. A total of 81 percent spent 15 minutes or less reading feedback. She wonders whether students are so focused on just getting the second assignment done that they don’t see the point of the feedback and have no interest in understanding or trying to use it. Maybe they are satisfied with the grade on the first assignment and figure that if they do the second one the same way, they’ll do just as well. They aren’t thinking about what they might learn if they tried to respond to the feedback.

“For academics, a less comfortable option than blaming students for their apparent ignoring of feedback is to critically reflect on their own practices.” (p. 578) She goes on to explain, “Providing information prior to an assignment regarding the criteria for assessment, followed up by written feedback on the completed assignment, frequently represents a series of unilateral pronouncements by assessors rather than a dialogue with students.” (p. 578) This is another example of teaching by telling—of expecting students to learn by listening, as opposed to learning by discovering and doing.

She also wonders whether students receive consistent feedback across the collection of courses they take during a semester. Are all their professors identifying the same problems and recommending the same areas for improvement? Chances are good they aren’t. If the messages are mixed, even contradictory, that can be confusing to the student and could explain the frequent but annoying query, “What do you want on this paper?” If the messages are multiple, that may result in an overwhelming amount of feedback, so the student copes by ignoring some or all of it.

This study is small, but it does raise a number of interesting questions that probe more deeply into the role of teacher feedback and improved student performance. It challenges us to consider both student and teacher actions that might diminish the role of feedback in promoting learning and improving performance.

Reference: Crisp, B.R. (2007). Is it worth the effort? How feedback influences students’ subsequent submission of assessable work. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(5), 571-581.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.4 (2012): 2.

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  • Anon

    Is it reasonable to expect a professor to have a meaningful dialogue with 51 students, some of which are not even on campus?

  • anon

    And why don't teachers use student evaluations as feedback to improve?

  • This article raises a really important point. There is a real issue with explaining the value of feedback provided after an assignment is submitted, and students are usually already focused on the next task. It is interesting to note that many University websites provide copious advice on how to use formative feedback, but little on how to extract the value of summative – with some exceptions though: http://nuctutor.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/the-value-

  • In academia, we show what we value by the points awarded for achieving an objective. If we want our students to reflect on our feedback, then we may want to directly reward that behavior. University students are very busy, so most of their priorities are determined by the impact a task or expectation has on their GPA. This is the fault of the system, not the student, so we need to work with it. When I give students grades for acts of reflection and personal improvement, most of them take the time to do it well. Students also appreciate it since they see the immediate benefit it has on other assignments.

    One way I check on improvement is through conferences in which the student walks me through the changes he has made in the second draft. The student's grade for this draft is based on effort, not perfection, which allows me to coach the student further, leading to a better final draft. For online classes, I do this using a combination of Skype and Google Docs. However, this can be extremely time consuming: for 50 students, it will take two full days of back-to-back meetings, and not everyone has time for this.

    Another way I check students have reflected on my feedback is to have them upload a clean copy of their paper to Voicethread or a screencasting app — e.g. ShowMe on the iPad or Screencastomatic online–and then they narrate and point out the areas they need to work on for next time, referring to my feedback as their guide. I can review these videos at my leisure and respond in kind, particularly if using Voicethread.

    The key to any of this, though, is giving credit to the students for the deep thought and time it takes for quality reflection to take place. Without this most students will succumb to the "tyranny of the urgent" and hope their writing and thinking will miraculously mature on its own.

    • DCMcGaffey

      I, too, would love to be the (mostly fictional?) Oxford Don with up to seven students coming to my study to engage in real dialogue leading to increasing enlightenment of the student, and occasionally, of me as well. I have experienced this in my 50+ year career with about two dozen individual students, who took the time to seek me out during and outside of office hours with more than a complaint/excuse. Your proposal seems excellent, but not in the real world of more than 50 students in a class, each student taking the maximum course load each semester in order to minimize their debt after graduation. What is this "at my leisure" that you refer to?

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