"Teaching is about creating those moments where the world suddenly makes a little bit more sense." 

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Do students use feedback or just look at the mark? Dr Pam Donovan set out to find the answer

11 April 2014

The UCL Teaching and Learning Conference 2014 heard the results of an experiment to explore the myths surrounding student feedback. Clare Goudy reports

feedback student ucl

At the outset of Dr Pam Donovan’s presentation, ‘Closing the feedback loop: how do physics undergraduates use feedback comments on their laboratory coursework?’ she explained that she wanted to explore three interconnected myths associated with feedback. They were:

  • Students don’t pay attention to feedback
  • Many students don’t collect their marked work as they are only interested in the grade
  • Therefore writing comments is a waste of time.

Her method was simple – record the comments that had been given to students and then look at lab reports to see if those comments had been acted upon.

She first made the distinction between ‘mastery’ comments (what all students should be able to do – e.g. label axes) and ‘developmental comments’ (what a particular student needs to do to get to the next level of performance).

She found that students were more likely to apply mastery comments (90% vs 63% of developmental comments applied), and that while 18 students applied everything and 17 applied some, two ignored everything.

So why aren’t all comments acted upon? Dr Donovan deduced that a circle of complicity was at work – mastery comments are easier to give and to act on and students target their effort for the highest benefit. Therefore, the way to change the system is to incentivise acting on feedback most likely to be ignored, which means ensuring students know they will gain marks for acting on developmental comments.

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