The feedback dilemma

Read the opening gambit of any educational literature on feedback. It will likely report that while feedback is desired by students, considered important by academics, and in the era of rankings, prioritized by universities, it largely goes unread and unused. Many reports state that students only look at the number grade, ignoring the comments unless it is substantially different from what they expected. Often students don’t realise that the feedback comments on one assignment can help with the next.

Why is this? Looking through the literature on this topic, the crux of the  problem is a dilemma about what academics think feedback actually is.

Duncan (2007) reported a project where previous feedback received by students was assimilated and synthesised into an individual feedback statement that students could apply to the next assignment. Their observations of the previous tutor feedback highlighted some interesting points. They found that tutor comments were written for more than just the students, directed more at a justification of marks for other examiners or for external examiners. Many tutor comments had no specific criticism, only vague praise, and a significant lack of clear and practical advice on how to improve. Feedback often required an understanding implicit to tutor, but not to the student (e.g. “use a more academic style”).

Similar findings from analysis of tutor feedback was reported by Orsmond and Merry (2011). They reported that praise was the most common form of feedback, with tutors explaining misunderstandings and correcting errors. While there was an assumption on the part of tutors that students would know how to apply feedback to future assignments, none of the tutors in their study suggested approaches on how to do this. Orrell (2006) argues that while tutors expressed particular intentions about feedback (appropriateness of content and develop self-evaluation for improvement), in reality the feedback was defensive and summative, justifying the mark assigned.

So what exactly is feedback?

A theme emerging from much of the literature surveyed is that there are different components to feedback. Orsmond and Merry coded eight different forms of feedback. Orrell outlines a teaching-editing-feedback code for distinguishing between different aspects of feedback.  I liked the scheme used by Donovan (2014), classifying feedback as either mastery and developmental (based on work by Petty). I’ve attempted to mesh together these different feedback classifications and relate them to what is described elsewhere as feedback and feed forward. In many of the studies, it was clear that tutors focussed on the feedback comments well, but gave little or no feed forward comments.

Assigning various codings to general categories of feedback and feed forward
Assigning various codings to general categories of feedback and feed forward

While some of these categorisations are contextual, I think it is helpful to develop a system whereby correction of student work, and in particular work that is meant to be formative, distinguishes clearly between correction of the work and assigning a mark for that, with a separate and distinct section for what needs to be considered in future assignments. Of course, ideally future assignments would take into account whether students have considered this feedback. In chemistry, there must be potential in the lab report correcting system.

A final note: Orsmond and Merry describe the student perspective of feedback in terms matching up the assignment with what the tutor wants and using feedback as part of their own intellectual development, part of a greater discourse between student and lecturer. Feedback that emphasizes the former effectively results in students mimicking their discipline – trying to match what they are observing. Whereas emphasis on the latter results in students becoming their discipline, growing in the intellectual capacity of the discipline.

I’m interested in a discussion on how we can present feedback to students physically—how should we highlight what they focus on and how we monitor their progression so that the feedback that we provide is shown to be of real value in their learning?


Pam Donovan (2014) Closing the feedback loop: physics undergraduates’ use of feedback comments on laboratory coursework, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:8, 1017-1029, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2014.881979

Neil Duncan (2007) ‘Feed‐forward’: improving students’ use of tutors’ comments, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32:3, 271-283, DOI: 10.1080/02602930600896498

Janice Orrell (2006) Feedback on learning achievement: rhetoric and reality, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:4, 441-456, DOI: 10.1080/13562510600874235

Paul Orsmond & Stephen Merry (2011) Feedback alignment: effective and ineffective links between tutors’ and students’ understanding of coursework feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36:2, 125-136, DOI: 10.1080/02602930903201651

4 thoughts on “The feedback dilemma

  1. Excellent post and it has enlightened me on some more subtle aspects of feedback that I was unaware of. It may be useful to determine what constitutes high quality feedback and how it might be best presented, but the workload involved may not be practical for most academics. Might it have greater impact if we were to get academics to adopt more efficient feedback practices that would help them to get moderately good feedback back to students in a reasonable time. It might even give the lecturer time to require re-submission with grading on the extent that advice was taken. (Yes, yes, I know technology may be involved here – my hammer needs to find more nails)

  2. Hi Michael,
    Excellent summary of some key issues we face with feedback in HE. We have introduced a feedback section in the 1st year lab proforma where students reflect on feedback from previous lab proforma and how they have used the feedback. There is a small mark associated with this as our students are highly assessment driven. It promotes the feed forward mechanism and encourages students to think about the feedback they received. Their work improves and at least we know they are using the feedback in their learning.
    Personally, particularly for essays rather than specific questions, students tend to submit answers that are too general. They get the feedback, your answer is not specific enough, it is too general, what else might you need to include? however the pattern persists and I am questioning if students understand the feedback and how to act on it? It’s what you mention above”use a more academic style” that is not accessible to students. Perhaps using exemplars is a way to address this?
    Agree that discussions to develop “a system” or framework would really help Prog teams.

    1. Thanks Suzanne. I’m coming across lots of nice stuff on exemplars – they seem to work well. Interested in the small mark associated with the lab reports. Was it onerous to correct – i.e. did demonstrators need to go back and forth between reports etc?


      1. Hi Michael,

        Only saw this now, I didn’t get any email for follow up comments although I had ticked the box?
        Yes exemplars seem a really good option. I have used them before and interested to follow up with a more structured approach (more ideas! lol!)

        The marking of the feedback/reflection section was not onerous to mark. The feedback on the lab reports is generally similar (although there are exceptions so demonstrators didn’t have to revisit previous work. They marked how the students commented as some consider “I found the feedback good” as an appropriate response. It sets expectations in 1st year about using feedback and linking coursework as part of their journey. Small steps of course!

        Best wishes,

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