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“Students Just Don’t Get It”

"Students Just Don't Get It" – Yet! 

The Role of Feedback in Student Learning

By Kathi R. Griffin with valuable feedback from Christopher Peace, Graduate Assistant

We often hear faculty say, "Students just don't get it." If we add the word "yet" to the comment, we might then ask, "What can I do?"

Feedback does not have to mean more work. As faculty, we may balk at the idea of doing anything differently, or we may think giving feedback would require doing more work. Actually, it involves work that is more focused, more intentional. In addition, feedback may be understood as evaluation, which can actually prevent students from "getting it." When we offer students timely "feedback," it can help them take responsibility for their learning, and as students move toward "getting it," grading time can actually be reduced and more rewarding.

What is feedback? Feedback is information that allows students to adjust their writing, speaking, or research in response to a real audience. Thus feedback helps students develop more control over their work and take more responsibility for their work. It can also help build their confidence in their ability to "get it."

How does feedback work? Feedback that reports to students what is and/or is not happening in a paper or speech involves students in their learning by making them responsible for what is there. From facing complex challenges and solving complex problems to acquiring mastery, students need to learn to use feedback–not just how to follow directions or answer questions "correctly." The challenge for faculty is two-fold: to think of assessment in terms of guidance rather than grades, and to design programs, courses, and assignments with deliberate systems of feedback loops that actively move students toward learning objectives.

Feedback is essential to active learning. Courses and assignments that create opportunities for feedback make it possible for students to engage with peers, to reflect on their process, to give effective feedback to each other–with minimal intervention by instructors. In other words, well designed assignments and activities can free up instructors to provide purposeful feedback and guidance–when needed. 

For students, responding to feedback is a critical skill that can only be learned through doing and can only become instinctive through practice and guidance. If students have been used to completing tasks and getting evaluated, they may initially need to learn what feedback is and how to use it before they can develop new habits of thinking, which takes some time.

For faculty, giving feedback may require new approaches at first, or it may require helping students learn to use feedback. For example,

  • In peer writing groups, students may not yet know how to respond to each other beyond correcting grammar.
  • In the sciences, students may not yet know how to use error margins to improve their methodology or the overall design of an experiment.
  • When writing, students may use spell-check but may not yet know the word they need or even how to choose the word they need.
  • When preparing a speech, students may fear feedback or take it as negative criticism rather than as information that could help them improve their performance.

In each instance, faculty can teach students how to give and receive feedback, thus help students move closer to "getting it." With practice, students can gain mastery, which cannot be achieved in the first or even fortieth attempt.

What happens when feedback is only evaluative? Evaluation alone, or summative assessment, can short-circuit learning. Without feedback students often struggle to understand what they did wrong–or even what they may have done right. It does not have the same power that feedback in process, or formative assessment, does to help students "get it." Seeking a grade (or pleasing an instructor) may also undermine students' overall professional growth. For example, if students wait for feedback until they are giving a presentation in a high stakes situation, such as for a grade or at a conference, then they have no opportunity to improve their performance. When students are given or seek feedback in the process of developing a presentation, paper, or idea, they have time to think about what changes they might make and why.

When students learn to seek feedback in the process of developing a speech, paper, or idea, they can learn what is working or not working and make more informed choices about their direction, which is what we do all the time as professionals.

Feedback in the RWC is focused on students and their goals. Tutors are not instructors, so they cannot evaluate students' work, but they can ask critical questions, offer valuable feedback, and  talk with students about how to incorporate feedback in their projects. In the RWC tutors ask students about what they are working on, where they are in their process, and what they want to work on during the tutorial session.

Feedback can take many forms, such as summarizing back what was read or heard, but it most often takes the form of critical questions about the student's purpose, audience, and genre that can help students fill in missing information or smooth out confusing sentences. Feedback in the form of questions encourages students to think about their ideas, goals, and processes. As students engage in intellectual conversations about their work, they begin to develop critical habits of mind as they make choices about their work.

Feedback from instructors is more often described as formative assessment, as it provides students with information to help them meet the goals of a particular class exercise or assignment, course objective, or educational objective. As instructors, we can get impatient when students don't "get it" quickly enough, or when they don't yet seem to act on our feedback. Within a context that includes clearly stated objectives and a range of opportunities for frequent feedback, students will be more able to "get it" in our classrooms and in our programs.

Feedback, formative assessment, and evaluation together help students "get it":

  • Feedback tells students whether or not they are on course.
  • Formative assessment can tell students the most likely ways to achieve their goals.
  • Evaluation tells students whether or not they have been successful.

Without feedback and formative assessment, however, evaluation makes little difference in student learning.

Our aim, therefore, must be to engage students in ways that better equip them to "get it."