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Students' responses to lecturers' feedback: Problems and suggestions

Oktavia Nurtjahja and Agustina Lahur
Department of English
Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus
It is believed that lecturers' feedback on students' assignments can help students in their learning process. Nevertheless, there seems to be a tendency for students to ignore the feedback given by their lecturer, which results in the repetition of mistakes in their next assignments. This paper aims to find out the reasons behind students' lack of response to lecturers' feedback which results in repetitive mistakes.

The study was conducted to lecturers and students of English Department, Foundation Studies Program at Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus, Malaysia. Questionnaires were distributed to lecturers to list the kinds of feedback they gave to students and its effects on students' next assignments. A different type of questionnaires was distributed to students to identify the importance of feedback to them and what types of feedback that they think beneficial to improve their learning process. Furthermore, individual interviews or discussions on the topic were also conducted to some of the lecturers and students to further discuss the data.

The result of the survey indicated that the types of feedback that the students received are unlikely to be the cause of students' ignorance. It is the students' perception and goals of learning that were the main reasons why they paid so little attention to the feedback. Having identified the problems, this paper offers a few practical suggestions that can benefit both the lecturers and students in addressing the problem.


Introduction

Assessments are designed to measure the students' performance at a certain point, such as during the their studies or at the end of the program (Miller, Imrie, & Cox 1998, p. 23). According to Chalmers & Fuller (1996, p. 41), assessments that can measure students' performance can be divided into two categories: the first type is designed to know how much students have learned and the second type is to support students' learning. For the first type of assessments, students are graded according to what they know of the subject; anything that can pin point their weaknesses will affect their grades. The second type of assessments is for the lecturers and students to acknowledge the areas that they still need to work on, and does not affect the students' grade. During this process, the students are encouraged to be engaged in more difficult tasks without worrying about being penalised. The teachers usually give feedback to help the students improve their skills.

The assessments discussed in this paper have the second function, which is to identify students' gaps in knowledge. Lecturers usually try to identify these gaps by providing feedback to students' assessments. Brown, Race, & Smith (1996, p.30) claim that "assessment is 'engine that drives learning'", therefore, the role of feedback is crucial to achieve the maximum results. Nevertheless, as Chalmers & Fuller (1996, p. 104) point out, students do not always make the most of the feedback they receive. As a result, they don't use it as a source to improve the level of their work as they keep on making the same mistakes that they made in their previous works.

This study was conducted for the English students of Foundation Studies Program (FSP), Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus, Malaysia. It intends to find out the reasons behind students' lack of response to lecturers' feedback which results in repetitive mistakes, and tries to offer suggestions on how to improve this condition.

Methodology

In order to address the problem, a survey using questionnaires were distributed to the second semester students and the English lecturers of FSP. The FSP itself consists of two streams, Engineering (74 students) and Commerce (115 students) where each stream consists of some groups. In each stream, the students are divided into different groups mainly depending on their English proficiency level (Group A represents the strongest group in Engineering stream, while D represents the weakest group. Similarly, Group 1 represents the strongest group in Commerce, while Group 7 represents the weakest group).

Respondents

The students (58 Commerce students and 38 Engineering students) were all in the second semester of FSP, taking English Communication 022 and/or Academic Writing 022. The details are as follows;

GroupTotal students
B & D/ Engineering38
2, 5, 6, & 7/ Commerce58
Total96 (100%)

Questionnaires were also distributed to all 10 English lecturers teaching English subjects for the second semester students at the FSP. Some of them taught both Engineering and Commerce groups, while others only taught either Engineering group or Commerce group.

Questionnaire

There were two sets of self-designed questionnaires where one set was for students and the other for lecturers. The questionnaire for students covered 25 questions including 21 multiple-choice and 4 open-ended questions, while the questionnaire for lecturers consisted of 20 questions covering 17 multiple-choice and 3 open-ended questions. Both questionnaires were anonymous and had similar questions that addressed the main issues.

Data collection

The questionnaire for students was distributed in early November 2001 on a random basis to both Engineering and Commerce groups and it covered 'good' groups (B and 2), middle groups (C and 5) as well as 'weaker' groups (6 and 7). Questionnaire for lecturers was also distributed during the same period of time. Apart from collecting the data using questionnaire, informal interviews or discussions were also conducted with 40 students and some lecturers after the completion of questionnaire in order to gather more comprehensive information and to clarify some concerns.

Results and discussion

As stated earlier, this paper intends to find out the reasons behind students' lack of response to lecturers' feedback which results in repetitive mistakes. This section will try to respond to that issue by emphasising on (1) types of feedback given, (2) students' goal in doing assessments, (3) students' perception on the purpose of feedback, and (4) the effectiveness of feedback received from the lecturers. Since the numbers of male respondents outnumber female respondents, the discussion of the findings is then made without gender perspective.

Types of feedback given

When providing feedback to students, the lecturers normally gave both written and oral feedbacks depending on the nature of the subjects. For Academic Writing, for example, lecturers would mainly emphasise on written feedback, while for the other English subject -English Communication- the students would normally be provided with oral feedback. Many lecturers, during the discussions, also expressed that the feedback does not only depend on the nature of the subjects, but also the size of the class, the English proficiency level of the students, and the time allocation as well as other factors.

With regard to written feedback, 76% of student-respondents preferred to have feedback which identify the exact errors and also provide suggestions, while only a few of them (17.7%) preferred to have a general comment. Similarly, the lecturers also preferred to identify specific errors as well as give suggestions. The student-respondents claimed that sometimes the general comment does not work effectively as often they do not know what the lecturers are asking for or trying to explain. By identifying detailed errors and providing suggestions they will be able to figure out what their mistakes are and to improve the quality of their assessments in the future. The lecturers also provided similar reasons, and, in addition, they further explained that general comment are normally only given for the students' final works. This finding rules out the possibility that the reason why students ignored the feedback is because it does not match their expectation and preferences.

Students' goals in doing assessments

One of the main aims of assigning students to do homework, projects, assignments or any other forms of assessments is actually to measure the students' skills and academic abilities that they have developed during their studies. This view was fully supported by lecturers' response (100%). However, the majority of respondents (46.8%), claimed that they do their assessments in order to get good marks while another 38.54% respondents felt that doing assessments is only to fulfil the requirement stated on the Course Outline or to pass the concerned subject. Only a few of them (13.5%) felt that the purpose of doing assessments is to exercise their thinking ability. From the interviews, many students made it obvious that they aim to achieve, at least, the passing grade so that they can continue to the next level. Based on the data gathered -both questionnaire and interviews- the majority of the student-respondents seemed to have different goals in doing assessment from those of the lecturers'.

Students' perceptions on the purpose of receiving feedback

Feedback is given to the students so that their ability can be measured and their knowledge can be enriched. This perception was fully supported by the lecturers, where all of them (100%) agree that feedback is not meant to search and point out students' mistakes or weaknesses, but it is more to measure students' abilities and to let them know how they've performed for a particular assessment so that they can make significant improvement in the next assessments. On the other hand, only 11.5% student-respondents realised that feedback is actually meant for measuring the students' ability or informing the students how they've performed for that particular assignment or paper. Surprisingly, the majority of student-respondents (66.7%) believed that the use of feedback is to point out the students' mistakes so that the students can correct them and get better grades for that particular assessment. Others (21.9%) feel that it is to reveal their mistakes so that they can enrich their knowledge. This shows that students and lecturers have different perceptions on the purpose of feedback.

The effectiveness of feedback received from the lecturers

Students claimed that they are eager to see the feedback provided by their lecturers. Almost half of the respondents (42.7%) admitted that they always feel nervous to find out what sort of feedback they may get from the lecturers, while another 40.6% of respondents said that sometimes they feel nervous about it.

Despite their eagerness to see the feedback, students' attention is focused on how to revise the particular assessment. This is also supported by their response earlier that they preferred to have detailed identification on the mistakes or errors that they have in their papers and the suggestions. Interestingly, even though the students were given detailed feedback, they still couldn't fully identify their strengths as well as weaknesses. It can be seen from one of their responses where they (43.8%) claimed that their main weaknesses are (a) grammar and (b) essay format, but the lecturers (100%) strongly believed that their main weaknesses are (a) grammar and (b) content. This is perhaps best explained by the students' attitude towards the given feedback. After the students receive their written feedback, they (59.4%) claimed that they read through the written feedback and ask clarification from the lecturer. However, during the informal discussions, some lecturers argued that only a few students approach them to ask for further clarification while the rest of the class does not make any attempts to approach them at all.

Furthermore, even though a majority (66.7%) of students stated that they kept the assessments and used them for future reference, but when further clarification on 'why they keep repeating the same mistakes' was asked, some of them simply said that they didn't realise, they forgot about it, or they didn't think it was a mistake. These explanations are in agreement with the responses provided by other students (15.6%) where they admitted that after they go home they put the assignment neatly in a folder and never look at it again or throw it away because they feel they don't need it any more. During the interviews, these students further elaborated that, as each assignment or task was treated differently, past assessment seemed irrelevant to them.

In addition, the student-respondents also revealed that sometimes they (47.9%) realise that they keep repeating the same mistakes from one assessment to another. This view slightly contradicts with the lecturers' where they (100%) strongly pointed out that students always relate their mistakes from one assessment to another.

Conclusion and suggestions

Based on the data it can be concluded that students ignored the feedback not because the types of feedback does not match their expectation. It is more because there is a discrepancy between lecturers' and students' perceptions on the use of assessments and feedback. While the lecturers' purposes to give assessments and feedback are to measure students' ability and pin point the students' strengths and weaknesses in order to identify the areas that still need improvement, students' objectives in doing assessments are merely to get good grades and to pass the course subject. This is the reason why the effect of the feedback they receive is far from what the lecturers expect. Lecturers hope that from the feedback, the students would realise their mistakes, take time to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and actually take the necessary steps to improve their skills so that in their next assessments, they will not do the same mistakes. Nevertheless, as far as the students are concerned, as long as they can revise the assessments to pass the course subject, the feedback is effective.

In order to achieve an objective that can satisfy both sides, a consensus is necessary. First of all, lecturers need to acknowledge that students have goals of their own that are different from the lecturers'. Then, the lecturers need to take the efforts to let the students know about the lecturers' goals and the reasons why the students need to achieve those goals. As a result, the feedback given on assessments should be structured in such a way that students need to think about their mistakes, do something about them and actually get grades for the efforts of identifying their own strengths and weakness and remedying them. All these must be communicated explicitly to the students at the beginning and throughout the semester so that the students are aware of what kind of learning strategies are needed to get grades and pass the subject satisfactorily. By doing this, the students obtain their goals of getting grades and pass the course subject and they achieve them by going through the process of learning that the lecturers expect them to do.

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Authors: Oktavia Nurtjahja, Lecturer, Foundation Studies Program/English, Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. oktavia.r@curtin.edu.my
Agustina Lahur, Lecturer, Foundation Studies Program/English, Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus.

Please cite as: Nurtjahja, O. and Lahur, A. (2002). Students' responses to lecturers' feedback: Problems and suggestions. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/nurtjahja.html


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