Getting students to engage with feedback can be a challenging task and in this post Leah Marks (AFHEA, University Teacher in Medical Genetics, University of Glasgow, firstname.lastname@example.org shares her experience of a method for encouraging students to use the feedback. To encourage students to engage, they were asked to write feedback reflections and assignment grades were witheld until this was done. Increased engagement with feedback resulted in improved writing and students found the reflective approach helpful.
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On how many occasions can you remember marking a piece of work from a student and feeling a sense of deja-vu? A distinct impression that the carefully crafted advice you have given on previous occasions may not have been fully digested, or perhaps worse, not even swallowed? A couple of years ago, a conversation with colleagues revealed that this was a recurrent experience with our MSc students. Comments from students heightened these impressions and gave us some insight, with one student revealing that if their grade was ‘good’ they felt in no need of the feedback, while if a poor grade was gained they felt too ‘depressed’ to contemplate reading it! But can you force someone to read what you’ve written? And does attempting to do this constitute ‘spoon-feeding’, that dreaded term which no one can quite define but seems to be decidedly off limits in HE? Anyway, my colleague Maria Jackson and I decided to try……
Fast forward a few months and armed with ethical approval which deemed that we wouldn’t harm anyone in the process, we made it compulsory for students to submit a short reflective piece of writing on the feedback they had received on previous written work. Specific guidelines were given to make the piece semi structured and a small mark was assigned to the reflection to ensure at least some degree of participation. In the second year of the study, to try to stop the elation/depression effect, we also withheld grades from students until this reflection was submitted.
The range of responses was fascinating. Whilst some students had obviously just regurgitated the comments written on their work (does this constitute plagiarism?), there were a good number who had clearly taken the comments at more than just face value. Several reflected on the reasons why the errors or omissions in their work had occurred, as opposed to simply stating that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. A factor which recurred in many related to time management and emphasized to us as educators the complex interplay of issues which affect the quality of a student’s work.
Does it matter?
Regardless of whether it helps our ego to feel that our feedback is being taken seriously, the key issue is whether or not engaging with the feedback is actually a useful exercise. We looked at this aspect carefully and found that overall class grades improved over the two years in which reflections were used, with the greatest gains made by students generating the most insightful reflections. Students also in the main were in favour of reflection writing, with 77% reporting that they found it a useful exercise. A smaller majority of 57% were in favour of grade withholding. Further details of our analysis are discussed in our article Improving the effectiveness of feedback by use of assessed reflections and withholding of grades and the presentation below.
What was equally interesting, however, were the insights gained through a focus group on the topic; students attended from a variety of prior educational backgrounds including our own institution. Almost unanimously they agreed that they had received very little feedback on any work preceding MSc level. Whether they had not recognised feedback in its various forms or whether ever-increasing class sizes prevent meaningful feedback is unknown. However, having never got into the habit of reflecting on feedback, many of them admitted not using the feedback which they were given at MSc level. This suggests that, spoon feeding or not, students at all levels do perhaps require help not only with their writing but to actually use the advice that they receive. Time consuming, perhaps, but not nearly so demoralising as the “why do I bother?” feeling that comes with writing the same feedback over and over again!
What are your thoughts on reflective writing and grade withholding – have you tried any other approaches to help students engage with feedback?
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