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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Helping Students To Get The Best From Academic Feedback

by Helen Cooper and Michael Shoolbred 29th October 2019

Helen Cooper and Michael Shoolbred share their thoughts on how we can help students get the best from the academic feedback they receive.

Times move on – because now feedback REALLY matters

These days, much of university life in the UK is driven by targets and tables. Students are concerned about the feedback they receive from lecturers, and this is clearly reflected in metrics such as the UK National Student Survey (NSS) scores. These scores say that students want more and better feedback; the results impact on funding. However lecturers also want students to improve their learning and the research shows that high quality feedback can help. Excellent academic feedback is therefore both a political imperative and a driver towards the improvement of learning and teaching.

What goes wrong with feedback?

There is sometimes a gap between the good intentions of the academic marking the assignment and the reaction of the student reading the marked assignment. Feedback is a form of academic shorthand. It can sometimes be too concise: "Refs!!", or too general: "Good work! You're going in the right direction". Students may interpret the feedback they receive as personal criticism; "Not appropriate at University level! Get it right." when the tutor is simply offering guidance. Or students may not be sure what exactly the marker is trying to tell them: "Could you be more robust at this point?"

What are universities doing to help their staff?

Many academic institutions now give their staff training in how to write constructive feedback. This helps students to improve their work. Some departments also encourage lecturers to see feedback from a student perspective. This is useful too because it's quite easy for an academic to be somewhat brusque in their feedback to students. Spending a working life writing academic papers and receiving unsparing feedback from reviewers is not great training for writing student feedback.
How can universities help students to work with feedback?
  1. Explaining marking criteria more effectively
  2. Providing feedback in more innovative ways, e.g. audio and video feedback, and apps
  3. Introducing standard templates to help both academic staff and students identify key points for learning on each assignment
In some departments, feedback is becoming more of a genuine feedback loop - so that students are receiving feedback from the lecturer and also giving the lecturer helpful feedback about how they are learning. When it works well, feedback can feel like a cooperative venture. Encouragingly, feedback is becoming much more systematic in UK universities because it's being designed into the assessment system.
Lecturer to student feedback loop
So what's missing? Teaching staff need to help students to make sense of the feedback they receive, and then to implement it, and to apply their learning going forward.

In the UK, support is often provided through academic skills or learning development units. These units give students presentations on feedback and crucially, offer one-to-one support. This personal support is vital to students who are disappointed, puzzled or mystified when they receive academic feedback.
One-to-one support can help students to:
  • stand back from their writing and the feedback they receive
  • view their work from different perspectives
  • categorise the feedback, learn from it, and then
  • “feed forward” i.e. develop ways to continually improve their work, using feedback as part of continuous development of learning

The future

How can we help students to become fit for tomorrow's challenging workplaces? One approach is to help them learn more actively. For instance, students can be encouraged to use feedback constructively.
Engaging with feedback can help students to:
  • increase resilience
  • develop critical thinking skills
  • use more reflection
  • develop increasingly important skill strategies for flexible and effective learning
Academic feedback has moved on from handwritten comments on the back page of an assignment. Participating in, and learning to work with, feedback will become an increasingly important skill for students (and staff) in the future.

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Featured image credit: Photo by Christine Sponchia. Available on Pixabay via the Pixabay license.