The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2. Why don’t students engage with the feedback provided?

There may be a number of reasons why students tend not to engage with and act upon the feedback provided by tutors at university. This chapter will outline some of these potential explanations.

2.1 Feedback needs to be dialogicnot just monologic

Many tutors perceive feedback as predominately a post-summative assignment event. It is usually provided via written comments and tends to be a passive activity for the students. Some authors have described this one-way process as ‘monologic’. At its core, feedback is a communication process and requires information to be sent and understood. However many educational researchers have concluded that this one-way process using written comments is ineffective.

2.2 It needs to be timely

Students are much more likely to engage with feedback if they receive it while the process of researching and writing the assessment is still fresh in their minds. This is the rationale behind the inclusion of Question 7 in the NSS. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of producing carefully crafted and detailed written comments is that it takes time. With the increase in student numbers it could take weeks, maybe even months, to complete the process. This causes problems because by the time the student has received the feedback they have moved on and started studying for subsequent assignments. The comments they do receive no longer seem that relevant to them. The quicker feedback is returned to the students the more likely it is to seem useful. Departments may have to accept a trade-off between the timing and quality of feedback – a tension that exists between scoring well on Question 7 and 9 in the NSS. In terms of the impact on student learning, imperfect/incomplete feedback provided instantly while the assignment is still fresh in the student’s mind may prove more effective than detailed and well crafted feedback made available much later.

2.3 They are distracted by the mark

There is evidence that some students simply look at the mark and ignore the feedback comments (Wojtas, 1998). Receiving marks that are either higher or lower than anticipated can have an emotional impact on students and can cause them to ignore the feedback comments. The mark seems to block the feedback comments from the student’s view! The problem has been made worse by the common practice of posting marks on a VLE. Students no longer have to collect their work in order to see their grades and many don’t.

2.4  They don’t understand the feedback

This may occur because students cannot read the tutor’s handwriting. It may also happen because students do not fully understand the whole assessment method and the standards required. If the feedback relates back to the assessment criteria and students do not fully understand that criteria then they will not understand the comments. As Sadler (1987) notes:

‘One of the conditions necessary for the intelligent use of feedback is that the learners know not only their own levels of performance but also the level or standard aspired to or expected.’

There has been a real drive in the past decade to improve the transparency and consistency of the assessment process so that students know and fully understand the basis on which their work will be marked. For example, Question 5 on the NSS asks students whether ‘The criteria used in marking have been made clear in advance’. Unfortunately, as shown in Table 1, the number of economics students who agreed with this statement is below the average across all subjects. The response of most institutions has been to make it standard practice for tutors to provide plenty of written guidance prior to deadline dates. This is normally expected to include the learning outcomes being assessed, the assessment criteria and marking guidelines. The QAA benchmarking document in economics suggests that when assessing students’ work some of the following criteria may be adopted:

  • How far have students focused on questions asked and/or identified key problems?
  • How well have students chosen the arguments, the relevant theory or model, to relate to the area specified or question asked?
  • How good is the quality of explanation?
  • How well have students demonstrated consistency, coherence and purposeful analysis?
  • How successfully have students used evidence?
  • How well have students collected, processed, analysed and interpreted relevant data?
  • How deep is the extent of critical evaluation?
  • How well have students demonstrated knowledge of relevant literature?

Do students fully understand what is meant by phrases such as ‘purposeful analysis’ and ‘critical evaluation’ when they see them in written criteria or guidelines? It might prove very difficult to communicate a shared understanding of these terms in a form of words that students would fully understand. If the feedback provided refers back to the assessment criteria (i.e. ‘not enough critical evaluation’ or ‘not enough analysis’) the students may not be able to engage with the comments because they simply do not understand what they mean. Students may also be unaware of the extent to which they do not fully understand the comments.

Difficulties with the understanding of assessment guidelines can be exacerbated by lecturers writing the comments predominantly for the benefit of external examiners or QAA assessors rather than the student. There is a danger that comments may read as if they are part of a formal piece of work for the academic community rather than for the average undergraduate!

Perhaps the only way to effectively communicate what we mean by terms such as ‘analysis’ and ‘critical evaluation’ would be to provide examples in the context of an actual piece of work. However it is important that the information is communicated in an active rather than a passive manner. A case study in the next chapter will outline some activities that could be used to engage the students with the assessment criteria.

2.5 They don’t know how to respond to the feedback

Sometimes a lecturer might provide a student with excellent feedback that is fully understood but is still not acted upon. We tend to assume that when they arrive at university students are ready to receive feedback in the manner provided and that they understand how to act upon it. However they might not fully appreciate how important feedback is in the learning process and hence the impact that it can have on their academic achievement. They may sometimes perceive that feedback is only relevant to the assignment they have just written and fail to see its relevance and usefulness for future assignments, i.e. the potential for ‘feedforward’. In some circumstances they may see the potential ‘feedforward’ but do not know how to engage with it. They may appreciate and fully understand their weaknesses but do not know how to improve.

The next chapter will outline and discuss a number of different assessment activities that could be used to overcome some of the problems identified in this chapter. These include:

  • providing feedback quickly;
  • overcoming the problems caused by marks;
  • alternatives to written feedback;
  • helping students to understand assessment criteria;
  • helping students to appreciate the usefulness of feedback.

The chapter includes some detailed case studies based on the experience of economics lecturers who have introduced some innovative assessment activities into their teaching. The challenge is to see if it is possible to introduce and maintain high quality methods of assessment and feedback given large class sizes and the heterogeneity of the student population.