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Removing Barriers to Student Understanding of Feedback

When it comes to giving feedback to students, educators often wonder how much their work is sinking in.

For feedback to be useful to students, it has to be present, it has to be read, it has to be understood and it then has to be put into use. However, as far too many instructors know, there’s often a breakdown between advice being given and advice being used.

To help find where the breakdown is happening, in 2015 Turnitin released an online survey that more than 500 students responded to in full. Those students, answered questions about the types of feedback that they’ve received on their work, how well they understood it and what their barriers were to understanding.

To start with, students, almost universally, found that feedback was extremely valuable to them, ranking it slightly more important than in-class lectures and studying in terms of their importance in learning.

However, while more than 60% of students said that they read a large amount of the feedback that they received, only 30% said that they understood a large amount. Instead, most students said they only understood a moderate amount, or between 60% to 80%, of the feedback they get.

This creates a real problem for students. Students clearly want and value feedback but a good percentage of that feedback is not being understood properly and, thus, isn’t being used by the students correctly.

When asked about the types of challenges they faced in understanding feedback, the top problems were feedback that was too general or that the handwriting was not legible, both of which had nearly 40% of all students saying that they experienced this problem either often or always.

This means that many educators could bolster the number of students who understand and apply their feedback simply by being more specific and/or offering typed, as opposed to handwritten, feedback.

Other common problems were that the connection to the assignment was unclear and that there were simply too many comments. This means that instructors who provide a smaller number of well-directed comments are, most likely, doing more to help their students than those who bombard students with feedback.

One issue that didn’t appear a great deal was language barriers, with 70% of students saying that those issues come up rarely or never.

All in all, what the survey shows is that students do value feedback but that feedback needs to be clear and focused, especially on the rubric on which the assignment is graded. Also, more feedback is not always better as students widely reported being inundated with feedback reduced their understanding.

One final thing that was interesting in the survey was, while most students only understood a moderate amount of the feedback they got, a plurality, 40%, still used a large amount. This means at least some students are attempting to use feedback that they don’t fully understand, likely creating bigger problems down the road.

This makes the clarity of feedback more important than ever and should encourage educators to ensure their feedback is clearly-written (or, even better, typed), focused on the assignment and not excessive.

Related Resources:
Redefining the Feedback Process
Revolutionizing the Experience of Writing and Student Learning