June 16th, 2009

When Students Say ‘Thanks but No Thanks’ to Feedback


Here’s something I was surprised to find. A group of researchers in the UK decided to show students how to use written feedback on papers to improve their writing. They collected feedback given students on eight previous writing assignments and had writing tutors review and analyze the comments. Then they looked at the writing assignment students were to complete next, paying special attention to the stated criteria for grading, and developed a specific set of recommendations for each individual student.

This advice, focusing on which aspects of their writing students needed to work on for the next assignment, was provided in writing. There was also the opportunity to have it reiterated and elaborated during a face-to-face meeting.

Researchers presented the “feedforward” opportunity to 52 students via a strong “selling” talk given in class. Only 16 signed up to participate in the activity and they were the better students in the class.
What an amazing chance for students to learn how to use to feedback on their writing. How disappointing that so few took advantage of the opportunity.

Since reading the article I’ve been trying to figure out why more students wouldn’t want this kind of feedback. Could it be they had a history of not finding faculty feedback helpful and didn’t think this format would be any different? Could it be they had never thoughtfully considered how feedback on one paper could help them write the next one better? Could it be they didn’t like writing and didn’t think they needed skills any better than those possessed? Could it be they just didn’t care, just couldn’t be bothered, were already busy beyond belief and didn’t need one more thing to do?

I suppose it could be any or all of these, depending on the student. For me the real message is how teachers need to continually talk about the value of learning with students. Students need to be confronted with all the learning opportunities learning college affords and know teachers are there to expedite that learning. Sure, they need the grade, the degree, and the credential but those marks must indicate that students know something. Employers might be impressed with high GPAs but if the student doesn’t have the skills a degree implies, employers are just as unimpressed.

Reference: Duncan, N. (2007). ‘Feed-forward’: improving students’ use of tutors’ comments. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32 (3), 271-283.