Is feedback a waste of time? A personal view

I’ve just found something I wrote nearly eight years ago and most of this post is a copy of it. I might draw some slightly different conclusions now, but my basic argument is unchanged. There is huge confusion about what feedback is and what it’s for, and there are lots of ‘sacred cows’ [things that are assumed to be true and not questioned, even though they should be!].

Is feedback a waste of time? A personal view.
By Sally Jordan, The Open University

I believe that feedback has a crucial role to play in underpinning student learning, but that there is frequently a mismatch between our expectations of the purpose and usefulness of feedback and those of our students. Until we start to really listen to what evaluation tells us about this, there is a danger that our feedback will be of limited value and cost-effectiveness.

I worked for many years as an Open University tutor. I gave excessively detailed feedback to my students on their assignments, explaining exactly where they had gone wrong in their working and giving frequent hints for improvement. I did this for the very best of motives – after all there were some students who I never met, so my comments were important in facilitating student learning. In doing this I was told that I was good at my job; my correspondence tuition was exemplary – and my students seems quite grateful. But I always had a nagging feeling that some students simply filed my comments away ‘for future use’ (when?!), and perhaps some even put the marked assignments straight in the bin. And what of those who attempted to learn from my comments; could they ‘see the wood for the trees’?

Now I line-manage Open University tutors and see many of them spending considerable amounts of time in providing students with just the same sort of detailed feedback. Are they wasting their time? Is the University wasting its money? We provide tutors with ‘model answers’ to send to their students if they wish, in an attempt to ease the load, but these are of limited use unless personalised by additional comments from their tutor. Seeing ‘the right answer’ doesn’t always help a student to be able to produce such an answer for themselves.

I chaired the production of a course which has totally online assessment. It’s clever stuff (not multiple choice). We provide students with relatively detailed feedback on their work and then give them an opportunity to learn from the feedback by having another go. Whenever possible the feedback is targeted; the student is told exactly where they have gone wrong and is given a hint as to how to correct their error. And of course, because the assignment is completed online, feedback is instantaneous. The system has been extensively evaluated and students tell us that ‘the immediate feedback was ace’ and that the end of course assessment (the course’s examinable component) is ‘fun’. Pretty good stuff!

But how much do students really learn from our feedback? When asked, many students say that it is useful, but how many actually use it? Worryingly, when asked about the feedback immediately after they have completed the assignment, some students tell us that they haven’t had any! This could mean that they got almost all of the questions right, so didn’t see the feedback provided, or it could be simply that students don’t mean the same thing as we do by the word ‘feedback’. But they could be referring to the fact that we haven’t told them their mark or whether or not they have passed the course (we can’t do this until various weightings have been applied and the Award Board has met). So is there any point at all to all our lovingly crafted teaching comments for students? Even if the disparity can be explained by a simple misunderstanding of the word ‘feedback’, this has lessons for the way in which we phrase questions on survey instruments.

I suspect that, at the end of the day, different students would benefit from different types and levels of feedback. So in an ideal world we would provide each student with feedback appropriate for that student. I’m not sure that I accept the assertion that we should be providing students with the feedback that they need rather than what they want. People tend to engage better with what they want. But this isn’t an ideal world. We are rightly driven by a desire to improve student learning, but we are also driven by economics and the need for cost-effectiveness.

There are some awkward questions to ask, and no easy answers. But as a starting point, it is time that we started to listen to what our students are really telling us rather than what we want to hear, and to learn from the feedback they are giving to us.

Sally Jordan
23rd February 2006

This entry was posted in feedback and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *