Improving the feedback experience: Usefulness through verbalisation

Students are expressing dissatisfaction with feedback in higher education (Boud & Molloy, 2013). This can be seen in the results of the U.K. National Student Survey (NSS) in 2018, where just 73% of students say they were satisfied with feedback, the same level as in the year before. So what are we doing wrong? Is it timing, context or the type of feedback, or all of the above?

Reports of learner dissatisfaction has led higher education institutions to re-examine the ways that feedback is enacted. Many higher education institutions have been putting measures in place to address the issues surrounding assessment feedback. An overwhelming institutional response to student satisfaction surveys relating to the ‘feedback problem’ has been ‘we must give more feedback’, or ‘we must ensure that students understand all comments as feedback’. However, as Lui and Carless (2006) indicate this can be difficult when staff face challenges in managing time and workloads in relation to the provision of feedback. Gibbs & Simpson (2003) argue that from a student’s perspective, feedback is one of the most useful products of assessment. Higgins, Hartley, and Skelton (2001) explored students’ understanding of feedback received from instructors. They found that students place high value on the importance of timely, specific, and clear feedback from instructors.

Taking these viewpoints on board what can higher education establishments continue to do? How can they find the balance between what students need and want and what staff can deliver? Students expressed that comments which directly related to the assignment were most helpful, as opposed to general feedback provided to the entire class, and that students prefer feedback comments which are directed toward the task as opposed to the self; that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the work and provides advice on how to improve their arguments.

Those of us in Higher Education would love to provide learning activities and opportunities that encourage students to engage with the curriculum and develop their subject knowledge as well as their personal development. We would all love to provide personalised feedback, taking great care over the words used in formative feedback so as to encourage and motivate students and help them develop their knowledge and understanding. But there is a dilemma – there is currently an environment of mass higher education, there is an increasingly diverse student body, and there are many teaching pressures on staff.

One potential avenue is the use of verbal feedback. It’s personalised, and it’s quick, easy to use and well received by students. Anecdotal evidence highlights that students find verbal feedback to be accessible, relatable and easy to understand. From a staff perspective is it less time consuming whilst still offering quality feedback. Both experience and research highlight that this type of feedback is ‘Thorough and helpful’, Much more personal’‘, ‘Allows me to make changes in the future’, even across diverse groups of students.

More detailed qualitative research carried out reported that verbal feedback in the form of one to one basis is much preferred; ‘I feel that the feedback given is more in depth, easier to understand and allows the marker to go into lots of detail without typing paragraphs'.

As passionate advocates for timely and helpful feedback we encourage colleagues to give verbal feedback a chance, and in particular to grab your tablet and trial some feedback software (we've found Turnitin useful, but there are many alternatives available). We've found this helps to maintain your connection with your students by making your feedback "anytime, anywhere".

By Lorraine Quinn, Head of Division Marketing, Innovation, Tourism and Events, University of West of Scotland, and Kirstine Collins, Lecturer and Course Director at Stirling Management School