March 5th, 2012

Getting Students to Act on Our Feedback


I’m still pondering why students don’t make better use of the feedback we provide on papers, projects, presentations, even the whole class feedback we offer after we’ve graded a set of exams. Yes, we do see improvement as we look back across a course, but we also see a lot of the same errors repeated throughout the course.

Just today I found a reference to a 2007 study (Crisp) where a cohort of undergraduate social work students got detailed feedback on a writing assignment. Six weeks later they did a second, very similar assignment and 66.7% of their grades were within four percentage points of the grade received on the first assignment. This and other analyses caused the researcher to conclude, “this study found only limited support for the idea that students respond to feedback by making changes which are consistent with the intent of the feedback received.” (p. 571)

It takes a lot of time and effort to provide students with good feedback. Most faculty I know tackle the task seriously and conscientiously. We should be getting a better return on our investment. You’d think as grade-oriented as students are, they would want to do better on subsequent assignments, and would use the teacher feedback to help them accomplish that goal.

Another article I was reading hinted at what might be part of the problem. The feedback we offer students tends to be focused on justifying the grade. It defends the decision to award the paper a B and not an A-. That feedback is appropriate but it doesn’t highlight what the student needs to do to improve. “If assessment feedback is to be effective in guiding learning, it should focus on growth rather than grading encouraging and advancing student learning,” write Rae and Cochrane (p. 217). I have to admit, I don’t think I ever gave much thought to the focus of my feedback. I know I identified problems, but did I indicate how they could be fixed or did I assume that would be obvious to the students? I’m thinking it might be useful to take a set of graded papers or essay answers and do an analysis of the comments. As always, colleagues can be especially helpful in getting us to see things that might not be all that apparent to us.

Feedforward is another interesting way to think about the feedback offered students. This more future-oriented feedback responds to what the student did, but in light of what needs to be done on the next assignment. Rather than isolated comments, it distills the feedback into three or four specific suggestions that target what the student should work on to improve the next assignment.

I continue to worry that we have so long left students out of the evaluation process that they are truly bereft of self-assessment skills. They don’t recognize what’s good about work they’ve completed and they don’t see the problems. I know, some of them don’t care, but those students aside, we need to think of ways to help students gain what Sadler calls “appraisal expertise.” Teachers have it; gained through years of practice. We have graded more pieces of student work than most of us can count.

Perhaps students would make better use of our feedback if they used that feedback to develop an action plan for the next assignment. “Based on the teacher’s feedback and my own assessment of this work, here’s the three things I plan to improve in the next assignment.” Maybe students don’t get the grade for the first assignment until the action plan has been submitted. And maybe that action plan then gets submitted along with the next assignment. I’m exploring options here. Please be welcome to share your insights and ideas for getting students to read our feedback, but more importantly, to act on it.

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

Rae, A. M. and Cochrane, D. K. (2008). Listening to students: How to make written assessment feedback useful. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9 (3), 217-230.

Sadler, D. R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (5), 535-550.