Theofanis Exadaktylos: When feedback hits students: Avoiding vagueness and backlash

In another guest blog, Theofanis Exadaktylos, from the School of Politics, University of Surrey, writes about one of the recurrent difficulties of feedback.

Your work needs to be more in this direction…

Leading the module on undergraduate dissertations, I often found myself in the position of having to interpret supervision and marking feedback on behalf of other colleagues. Ever since I returned the marked dissertations to the final year students, I have been approached by a number of them who are trying to figure out what went wrong, even though a good majority of them will not come to contact again with academic matters for the rest of their lives.

It may be easy to blame the students for performance or poor incorporation of previous feedback due to lack of engagement with their course or their supervisor (which is partly true anecdotally) or their cognitive and learning capacity as students of politics and international relations, but we should pause for a moment and consider whether we have a share of responsibility in the quality of feedback we provide to them through their modules.

Let me explain: most of the time, students complain that they cannot understand feedback, that we use our own convoluted and cryptic code or set of words in our comments, and that we often offer conflicting advice between two markers that confuse matters rather than constructively helping them out to move forward.

In our quest for higher-impact feedback comments, we may become highly pedantic in underlying content related mistakes but we may be missing out on providing comments that relate to their skills and motivation, as well as a clear explanation of what was not so good about their work and how they feed that forward to other assignments.

Clarity therefore becomes a highly visible issue if we think of the way we annotate or summarize our comments on a feedback form: imperatives and exclamation marks, private symbols, wiggly lines and cryptic comments on ‘vague language’ or ‘evidence?’ (Gibbs and Simpson, 2004). Without specific examples or illustration and particularization of comments; if we don’t focus on two or three key areas that we think are of significant importance for their development; and, if we don’t make concrete suggestions on how they can make the improvement, then it is only rational to expect the shock of poor results, mixed interpretation of comments and a blank face by the student when they hear that their work was ‘not critical enough’ or ‘poorly structured.’

Trying a different mode of giving feedback can be a good answer on our side of things. Education literature (Denton et al. 2008; Rotheram, 2007) suggests the use of a mixed set of word-processed, audio (McGregor et al., 2008), screen-casting/video (O’Malley, 2011) or even face-to-face marking (Chamberlain and Taylor, 2011). These are excellent suggestions, yet they come with the caveat of time. Whereas such diverse modes can work in smaller classes, larger numbers of students would render this method a time-consuming exercise with ambivalent results—as it’s hard to ethnographically follow up on the progress of a larger group of students.

Thus, the answer may be found in actively embedding feedback in the learning design instead (Boud and Molloy, 2013). By assessing work-in-progress; by providing socialization and learning opportunities; iterations of the same assignment; a parts-to-whole approach; or chaining, threading and synthesizing with the aim of ‘feeding forward’ we are able to save time and effort in creating a more independent way for students to delve into feedback and be able to discern the constructive from the non-constructive ones.

Even so, there are caveats to consider, such as overabundance of feedback that overwhelm the students. Hence, our effort to provide feedback may go down the drain. An extremely important qualifying factor is where, when and how feedback is provided. Time, timing and tempo (much like in our study of Politics) can be defining in the way students make sense, absorb, incorporate and respond to feedback. We should then aim to provide them with feedback opportunities, while thinking about the idiosyncrasy of each module. In other words, there is no set template for this, but our multi-layered approach to teaching provides plenty of sites already, where students can get different types of feedback, on time and prior to assessments and also with good margin for them to absorb and come back to us with questions. We all do this instinctively as we have embedded these practices into our teaching philosophies in advance, but planning for feedback when designing, tweaking or recasting a module can preempt vagueness and backlash.

Now if the students do not engage, it is a different story altogether; but as adult learners they need to take advantage of such opportunities—not via spoon-feeding, but rather through us making them understand the value in the feedback we provide, in the time we provide them and aiming to skills more than to content.

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