“‘Tain’t what you do (it’s the way that you do it)”: Investigating feedback comments

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Credit: D Jones, lift mechanism in the Sanomatalo shopping mall, Helsinki.

The title of ‘Sy’ Oliver and ‘Trummy’ Young’s jazz classic (known to most via the Fun Boy Three ft. Bananarama 1982 cover version) may be an over simplification of matters but it serves a purpose for opening a blog on the construction of written feedback. There is good guidance on what to do when providing written feedback; for example, highlight strengths of the work, explain the mark received, etc (see the Edinburgh University Students’ Association report on what good teaching looks like). However, that still leaves the question of the way that you do it.

Supported by a PTAS small projects award we (me, Tamara Mulherin (PhD intern), Tim Fawns, and Gill Aitken) conducted a pilot study in which we collected forty examples of feedback from nine nominees for the Students’ Association 2017 ‘Best Feedback’ Award. We wanted to see if we could apply the categories developed by David Hyatt (2005) for describing types of comments used in feedback on 6,000-word education Masters assignments to a wider ‘population’. Even from our small sample a number of interesting features of feedback were evident, and we think they are worthy of further investigation. This blog highlights a small number of these potentially fruitful avenues for further exploration.

We were inspired by the wide range of assessment formats in use across the university (the examples came from nine different programmes). Some of the examples were from formative assessments and some from summative ones; they ranged from traditional long essays to blogs and discussion fora postings. What was common was the use of what Hyatt called ‘phatic’ comments. This type of comment is designed to operate as a signifier of the relationship between the student and the tutor; it can relate directly to some content (‘I really like your argument here’) or be more generally encouraging (‘I hope this is helpful, you should do well in your next course’).

In the same vein as ‘phatic comments’ we noticed a lot of what Hyland (2000) refers to as ‘hedging’. This strategy is reflected in comments that include words like ‘might’, ‘possibly’, and ‘maybe’. The subtext here is ambiguous. On the one hand, it could mean ‘I don’t want to make a big thing of this but here is something to think about’; on the other it might mean ‘I really want you to take note of this, but I don’t want to appear too directive’. The interesting question that follows is how tutors intend, and how should students interpret, these hedged comments.

The use of non-anonymised marking in some cases opened up the opportunity for a different type of feedback and reference was made to previous formative submissions by the student. So, in addition to feedback on the current piece of work and feedforward to assist with future work (‘developmental comments’, in Hyatt’s categorisation) we think there may be something else at play that (for now at least) we are calling ‘cumulative feedback’; that is to say, feedback that looks back to previous submissions as well as the present and future. Of course, this opens a debate about the strengths and limitations of anonymising work.

There is much more we could talk about but, for now, we have learned ‘Sy’ and ‘Trummy’ may have been on to something:

  • Written communication is just as much a part of developing the tutor/student relationship as face to face interaction – and those of us involved in online programmes know it has never been all about face to face.
  • In the context of assessment literacy, it is worth thinking about how feedback is conveyed and what may get lost in translation.
  • If we want to turn feedback into more of a dialogue, we need to think about how assessment formats may help or hinder.

Derek Jones

Dr Derek Jones is an Academic Coordinator on the MSc in Clinical Education. He is also the PhD Clinical Education (Acting) Programme Director, and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His first degree is in Sociology and he is a Health & Care Professions Council registered Occupational Therapist. Derek’s academic interests are in research methodology and pain education.

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