Feedback ought to enable students to improve their future learning. However, often students do not seem to use comments on assessed work as a resource for learning (e.g. the same errors or misunderstandings recur in subsequent work).  Explanations offered for this common phenomenon include that:

  • Assessors' comments are little more than editing and do not give students a clear message about how they can improve their future performance.
  • Students don't read or take the advice that is given and are not required to do so.
  • Students do not understand the comments because of a lack of familiarity with academic discourse and the language used by lecturers
  • Students do not have appropriate strategies to use the comments as a learning tool.

The growing body of recent research (see for example Weaver, 2006; Burke, 2009; Walker, 2009) on student views on feedback suggests that there are two key issues that need to be addressed in making comments into usable feedback. The first is the characteristics of the comments themselves in terms of their technical structure and accessibility to the learner. The second is helping students to develop strategies to use comments to improve learning. This research complements earlier work which emphasised ‘process' aspects of feedback such as the need for feedback to be prompt and timely for students to be able to use it, which of course, remain relevant considerations.

Two key characteristics of comments enhance their usability. The first is the content of the comments. The second is the language used to convey the content.

Content

Usable feedback should contain:

  • descriptions of the features of the student's work (what has been done and/or not done);
  • evaluative judgements/comments linked to criteria and standards that indicate the features of the work that add to or detract from its quality (how well things have been done);
  • suggestions of alternative approaches that would lead to improvement
  • explanations, or directions to resources, that demonstrate an improved possible approach that the student could use, and
  • motivating comments (praise, encouragement etc.) that indicate that an aspect of the work is praiseworthy and explains why the element being praised is good.

The first four aspects above together provide the information needed to enable a student to use the comments for learning. The last can help build students beliefs about their ability to succeed. It is worth noting that students in Walker's (2009, 74) study were confused "where unqualified praise was given in connection with less than full marks", so the relationship between criteria, grades and what is praiseworthy needs to be untangled and decoded for students for motivating comments to be fully appreciated.

In Walker's (2009) study most written comments contained descriptions (of content and application of skills), judgements and motivating comments, but very few contain mentions of alternative approaches/future study or suggestions of resources that students might use. This suggests that the content of comments limits their usability. Walker's findings confirm those from an earlier study by Weaver (2006) where students indicated that they found comments that focused mainly on the negatives, did not contain suggestions for improvement or did not relate to criteria to be unhelpful.

It is worth noting that grading rubrics provide descriptions and judgements about student work but normally not suggestions, explanations of alternative approaches or motivating comments. Rubrics need to be used with other mechanisms for them to provide usable feedback.

The language of feedback

Lecturers and tutors bring authority, an extensive knowledge base and a developed understanding of academic discourse in their discipline to the assessment and feedback process. Often assumptions about what is known and what is expected and therefore can be taken for granted affect the comments provided to students. However research (Sadler, 1989; Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Weaver 2006) has noted that the student's conception of learning, and of the discipline and of the particular assessment task, all affect their ability to use comments as feedback. "students who do not yet share a similar understanding of academic discourse as the tutor would subsequently have difficulty in understanding and using feedback (Weaver, 2006, 380)

In Weaver's (2006) study, a significant proportion of students indicated that they were unsure of the meaning of phrases commonly used in tutors' comments (e.g. "more critical reflection needed", lacks application of theory, "superficial analysis").

We need to keep in mind as Sadler (1989, 82) notes "students' knowledge of the subject being learned is by definition partial. Hence any feedback must be expressed ... in language that is already known and understood by the learner."

It is unreasonable to expect students to understand and use comments which are framed in language that is unfamiliar, e.g. to expect them to provide ‘critical reflection' if they have not been taught about the nature of critical reflection and how to engage in it, or to note ‘superficial analysis' if the students have not been shown exemplars of the type and depth of analysis expected. Therefore, it is important to match the language of comments to the stage of student development and understanding for comments to be usable.

Matching comments to students' current understanding can be improved in several ways:

  • make the criteria and standards expected of assessable work clear to students before they start;
  • discuss, explain and demonstrate expected practical and thinking skills before students are assessed; provide exemplars to students
  • write the comments as simply and clearly as possible
  • provide a glossary of common terms and their meanings that you regularly use in comments on work
  • follow the guidelines above on content of comments, i.e., describe the characteristics of the work that are being commented on, explain the judgements being made in relation to the criteria and standards, provide suggestions and explanations that show how to do things better.

The key requirement is to find out what students know and understand and then to build on that understanding through dialogue with them.

One crucial point to come from some recent research (Burke, 2009) is that many students do not know how to use feedback as many have never been taught how to do so. One key focus of dialogue with students should be the development of strategies to use feedback to improve their future performance and learning.