How Students Perceive Feedback

student in the library

The following conceptions of feedback were offered by a group of students studying to become physical therapists. They were asked to recall a situation during their time in higher education when they felt they’d experienced feedback. Then they were asked a series of questions about the experience and about feedback more generally: “What is feedback? How would you describe it? How do you go about getting it? How do you use it?” (p. 924) The goal of the study was to investigate students’ conceptions of feedback. Student conceptions involve underlying personal beliefs, views, and ideas, unlike student perceptions, which explore how the feedback is understood. Analysis of transcripts from the interviews reveal four conceptions of feedback held by this student group.

  • Feedback as telling–Here students equated feedback with information. “Feedback is about telling, transmitting, being told: ‘feedback is when someone tells you whether what you are doing is right,’ (according to one student).” (p. 925) The feedback information is fixed; it’s not open to interpretation or to adaptation. It’s something more akin to a fact. In this conception the feedback comes from an outside expert, not peers. And the feedback focuses on the here and now. It’s in response to the task at hand without future implications.
  • Feedback as guiding–Students reporting this conception of feedback say it’s about pointing them in the right direction. There is more to this kind of feedback than just being told something. These students were also starting to think about the feedback in terms of how it encouraged them to give themselves feedback, to reflect on what they did. They were beginning to see value in feedback that might be solicited from or volunteered by peers. There was mention of “bouncing ideas off each other.” (p. 926) And although the focus of this feedback was still on the present, “there was some hint of future application and orientation. . .” although thoughts of “future use of information were in a vague, abstracted sense,” (p. 926) as maybe the feedback had identified something that needed more work.
  • Feedback as developing understanding–In this conception of feedback, the information was explanatory, helping the student to understand not just that they were doing something wrong, but why it was wrong. “The view of information softened in this category; information was firm but not fixed, and could be moulded to enable understanding. . . .” (p. 926) Feedback could come from a variety of sources and was exchanged via conversations and discussion. And finally, feedback was seen as being relevant beyond the classroom to work as a professional.
  • Feedback as opening a different perspective–Now the feedback is seen as offering another point of view. The example was often physical therapy techniques and how there wasn’t just one way they could be done. The feedback introduced students to other ways or alternatives. The view of information was expansive and inclusive. “Information was neither solid nor fixed; instead it could be manipulated to be looked at from different angles, and even be questioned. . . .” (p. 927) It applied now and in the future and was part of what was needed for ongoing professional development.

These students’ conceptions of feedback were “qualitatively and significantly” different. “Experiences ranged from simple to complex, bounded to open-ended, concrete to relative, ‘expert’ to self-generated,’ task-oriented to broader perspective, and differing temporalities.” (p. 928) Most of the students in this cohort reported conceptions of feedback that belonged in the first two categories. The researchers point out that the conceptions guide how students respond to teacher feedback. If students’ conceptions are of feedback as telling, and the teacher is offering feedback aimed at developing understanding, students may misunderstand and/or reject the feedback. Class discussions that reveal beliefs about feedback (both the teacher’s and the students’) can clarify understandings of it generally and give context to the feedback that’s being provided on an assignment or skill demonstration.

Reference: McLean, A.J., Bond, C.H., and Nicholson, H.D., (2015). An anatomy of feedback: A phenomenographic investigation of undergraduate students’ conceptions of feedback. Studies in Higher Education, 40 (5), 921–932.

Reprinted from Conceptions of Feedback, The Teaching Professor, 30.5 (2016): 2,7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.