Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Focusing on feedback: An examination of effective written feedback to promote learning for external students

Marianne Cronin
Student Academic Support Service
Heather Sparrow
Resources Development
Edith Cowan University
Edith Cowan University now has over 4,000 students involved in external studies. Many of these students may have limited, or no personal consultation with tutors. Thus, the only feedback which they receive in regard to the quality of their learning from the university, is by written responses from the tutor. The type of feedback may affect the future learning, attitude and behaviour of the student.

This paper reports on the first stage of an action research project which is examining the style, characteristics, and quality of written feedback which marking tutors provide to Edith Cowan students. We are investigating both students' and tutors' perceptions of written feedback. This is being done by analysing information from external students through surveys, email discussions, letters, interviews and focus groups. We are also obtaining data from marking tutors by interview and email, and analysing feedback scripts.

In the paper we will provide some background to the research, a brief literature review, a description of our approach and methodology, and our initial findings. The findings relate to data received from student email discussions.

What prompted the research?

Jacqui' s story

Jacqui phoned. Hello, can I get some help with my study skills? I'm returning to study next year after five years and I have no confidence. The reason, she said, was the negative feedback which she had received during her previous studies. She indicated the feedback was unclear, ambiguous and contained upsetting comments. This had severely eroded her self-confidence.

Jacqui came in for an interview and spoke at length about her expectations and needs in her studies. In regard to an effective tutor, she considered that they needed qualities of sensitivity, being supportive and positive, someone to relate to, who provided encouragement and treated the student as an individual. This had not happened for her and now she was very hesitant in her approach to study.

This story was a catalyst. It raised the issue of quality in written feedback. What are the effects of feedback? Do Jacqui's comments about effective feedback concur with those from other students at Edith Cowan University? We decided to find out more.

What is being investigated?

Four research questions were posed. These research questions provided the focus for our study. It was anticipated however that other issues would arise, thus broadening the scope of our investigation.

What does the literature indicate?

The literature related to tutor feedback currently being examined is in three areas; From the initial review of the literature it appears that there is an abundance of anecdotal information regarding effective feedback (Zellermayer, 1989; Campbell Gibson, 1990; Cookson, 1990). However there seems to be little evidence of substantial research projects identifying the perceptions of students about the tutor's written feedback, or documenting what students actually want in terms of quality feedback to assist their learning. It appears that the issue of effective tutoring has been ascertained mainly from tutors' rather than the students' perspective (Price, 1997; Thach & Murphy, 1995; Newble & Cannon, 1989).

There are however, detailed research findings on feedback provided by discourse analysis, particularly in relation to second language learners (Chamberlain, Dison & Button, 1998; Ferris, Pezone, Tade, & Tinti, 1997; Leki, 1990, Fathman & Whalley, 1990).

In the area of guides for effective written feedback, two publications for tutors working in distance or open learning were examined (Kember, 1997; Lewis, 1980). Other literature, which included aspects of tutoring, was also perused (Wheeler & Birtle, 1993; Gibbs, 1996; Morgan, 1993). Findings consisted mainly of checklists of best practice of a general nature. Roger Lewis has done substantial work. Though dated 1981, Lewis has produced a very thorough guide focusing on aspects such as rapport between tutor and student, comments on the assignment, explanation of grades, specificity, ideas on how to improve, promptness of feedback and legibility. Support for suggestions made was provided by tutor comments; for example, "When a student has done something really well, don't just tick it, eulogise" (Lewis, 1981).

Kember (1997) has provided a very succinct guide for tutors, echoing many of the features emphasised by Lewis (1981) including the recognition of mutual respect (citing Knowles 1980) in the relationship between tutor and student. Students were seen as mature adults with their own "agenda". Lewis (1981) is also sensitive to this issue quoting from tutors who consider students as "individual people" and determining their needs. The affective domain is also considered by Wheeler & Birtle (1993), who explain the effect of anxiety on written feedback. The grades given to students, plus the comments, can be taken personally (p.73) and cause distress.

The concept of "dialogue" is focused on by Morgan (1993, p.108). This involves assisting the students in knowing clearly what to expect. This idea is also considered by Price (1997, p.158) who states that students require a crystal clear explanation of assessment criteria.

The review of literature is incomplete. Therefore at this stage only tentative trends can be identified. In summary, the main characteristics of effective written feedback identified were:

From our current reading of the literature, there seems to be limited evidence of the consideration of the need for cross-cultural sensitivity, reference to students' perceived needs and encouragement for reflective learning.

What approach are we taking?

We are using the "mindful approach" as articulated by Ellen Langer (1997,p.4). Langer suggests that there are three characteristics to "mindful learning". These are "the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective" (p.4).

As we progressed with the initial study, and began to read both the literature and the scripts from the student data, it was apparent that we needed to remain open to, and take into consideration, new areas for investigation, and be aware that new issues were emerging constantly.

What data is being collected?

Data has been, and is being collected from both students and staff. It includes students' verbal and written reports of their experiences, and tutors' discussions of their beliefs, approaches and practical strategies. In addition samples of tutors' feedback scripts are being collected from external students' assignments.

What methods of data collection are being used?

Four methods to collect data are being used. The main sources are from script analysis from both tutors' written feedback and student responses to email and posted surveys. In addition focus groups with students,, and interviews with both individual students and tutors will be held. Triangulation is also planned, by interviewing the student and his/her tutor, to obtain confirmation and clarification of quality tutoring.

Current research findings at Edith Cowan University

Research is being carried out in various modes. However in this paper the focus is on the data from student email responses. The aspect explored was; What feedback did the students receive and how did they react?

Forty-four students were sent a brief letter by email. These were a sample of students who had sought study skills advice from the academic skills adviser by email. The timeline was very short; four days to respond. Twenty two students responded (50%). The request was for examples of good quality written feedback received from the tutor. However the information provided by the students, related to both positive and negative feedback. Of the students responding, eight were positive about their feedback, six were negative, four gave both positive and negative responses, two gave minimal information, one student had received no feedback and one sent a postal address for further information.

The positive responses to date can be categorised as the following:

"My tutor took the time to go over each point, telling me what was expected and why. This helped me with my future assignments."

Specific and clear
"The beneficial comments in the text helped to keep me focused I was even more determined to stay on line with the topic."

Encouraging and approachable
"She made me feel that she was really interested in students successfully completing the units."

Suggestions on how to improve
"I need you to address each component of this model."

Productive relationship between tutor and student
"Tutor wrote regularly passing on answers to questions she had received from other students. She even wrote after the exams!"

Further opportunities for support
"I felt that I could contact my tutor at any time."

The negative responses related to similar areas in written feedback but with additions of isolation and the importance of considering the students in their environment.

"I often felt completely left out of the picture. Studying was lonely and stressful."

Consideration for the student's environment
"I also feel that tutors forget why we are distant learning - too far from the uni, or working or raising a family..."

Specific and clear
"It was like trying to work out a cryptic puzzle." "A tick when we don't get the full mark is confusing."

"It is very disappointing to plough hours and hours into an assignment only to have a few lines as comment and then a score. Totally fruitless."

Promptness in feedback
"Tardy in responding to assignments and impossible to get hold of."

From our examination of the students' email responses, two other aspects stand out. One is the significance of the respect for students as mature individuals who are seeking to better themselves academically. It seems that the students are very keen for a productive and stimulating relationship between themselves and their tutors. They see feedback as the critical area of communication, with the tutor as a mentor, and as a learning facilitator, providing ideas and encouraging the "delving into areas which may be hidden at first glance". This relates to the second feature, that the students who responded were keen learners. They eagerly awaited feedback and when it was clear and comprehensive, with suggestions on how to improve, they indicated that they acted on it.

Concluding comments

We have been very careful to be ethical in our research and have emphasised that we don't want to identify students or tutors by name. However, in the sample of e-mails, where students wished to acknowledge the work of particularly effective and caring tutors, they often insisted on providing the names of these tutors. This in turn has provided us with a data bank of tutors who have been identified by students as providing quality written feedback.

To conclude, the action research project on examining tutor written feedback is resulting in the collection of some very rich data. It seems that both tutors and students are enthusiastic to talk and write about feedback in any form. There has been no shortage in subjects volunteering to be part of focus groups or to attend interviews, eager to discuss the issue further.


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Cookson, P. S. (1990). Persistence in distance education. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Contemporary Issues in Distance Education (pp. 201-203). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

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Zellermayer, M. (1989). The study of teachers' written feedback to students' writing: Changes in theoretical considerations and the expansion of research contexts. Instructional Science, 18, 145-165.

Please cite as: Cronin, M. and Sparrow, H. (1999). Focusing on feedback: An examination of effective written feedback to promote learning for external students. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 87-92. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/cronin.html

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