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Graduate Students’ Perception of Feedback

Feedback has been shown to be crucial to student learning (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Hattie

& Jaeger, 1998). According to Ramsden (2003), being able to write effective comments on

student assignments is one of the main characteristics of quality teaching. Many studies have

further shown that students value and understand the importance of feedback (Hyland 2000;

Weaver, 2006). Yet despite all this research on the significance of feedback, many students can

lack satisfaction with the feedback they receive.

Students can be dissatisfied with the feedback given. Hartley and Chesworth (2000)

showed that only 10 % of psychology students surveyed felt that they had received helpful

feedback. McCune and Hounsell (2005) surveyed biology students and found that the area

relating to the adequacy of feedback, received the lowest scores. In fact, in follow-up interviews,

students expressed anxiety and dissatisfaction with feedback given.

There can be several reasons for this dissatisfaction. Of the few studies that have

examined student perceptions of feedback, research shows that students can have several main

problems with feedback. One major issue involves negative feedback. Students can perceive the

feedback they receive as possibly having a detrimental affect on their confidence (James, 2000).

For instance, Ferguson (2011) explored what students felt effective; quality feedback was by

distributing a survey to undergraduate and graduate students. One of his findings suggested that

students felt the role of feedback was to increase confidence and provide encouragement. When

students received too many negative comments, they stated that it made them feel like giving up.

Some students even claimed that they needed positive comments. Negative feedback affected

these students confidence. Weaver (2006) found similar results when she examined student

perceptions of feedback. Using a multi-method approach of quantitative and qualitative data

collection and analysis, higher education students were surveyed. One of the key results showed

that students felt that the feedback they received focused too much on their weaknesses. They

wanted a balance of positive and negative comments, stating that too many negative comments

were demoralizing. Thus, negative feedback was detrimentally impacting their confidence.

Another major issue that students can have with feedback given is lack of clarity or

difficulty in understanding the feedback received. For example, Chanock (2000) distributed a

survey to understand how students interpret comments that they received from their tutors. She

found that many students did not interpret feedback received in the way the tutors intended.

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Many students had difficulty understanding the comments given. Glover and Brown (2006) also

showed that students find feedback to be difficult to understand. Data was collected through

questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews of higher education students. One of the main

findings was that students did not understand feedback comments, as well as, the assessment

criteria that the feedback comments were based on.

Feedback lacking specificity is something students significantly struggle with also. For

instance, Higgins, Hartley, and Skelton (2001) wrote an article exploring the meaning and

influence of assessment feedback for higher education students. They state that students

sometimes do not receive specific enough feedback and so cannot improve. Poulos and Mahony

(2008) studied student perceptions on what makes feedback effective and found similar results.

They conducted focus groups with undergraduate students. They found that students preferred

specific rather than general feedback. Weaver (2006), in her study that used both quantitative

and qualitative techniques, found that higher education students felt that one way feedback can

be unhelpful is by being too general and not having enough detail. Thus, these findings also

suggest that students have a problem with feedback that is not specific.

One final concern that students find to be major involves the timeliness of feedback. For

example, Ferguson (2011) distributed surveys to undergraduate and graduate students to study

effective feedback. He found that most students wanted feedback in a timely manner, giving a

period of two to three weeks with two weeks being preferred. Furthermore, Hartley and

Chesworth (2000) examined higher education students’ views on feedback. They found that

59 % of participants stated that feedback was received too late and so no longer useful. Also,

according to Yorke and Longden (2006), who surveyed over 6000 higher education students, it

was found that in one third of subject areas students felt that feedback was not timely enough.

Therefore, these findings highlight the struggles students have with untimely feedback.

Hence, the literature shows that some of the main issues students have with feedback is

lack of specificity (Weaver, 2006), lack of timeliness (Hartley & Chesworth, 2000), lack of

clarity (Chanock, 2000), and negativity of feedback (Ferguson, 2011). Therefore, the purpose of

the current study was to see whether these same issues were a concern for graduate students who

attend the Pennsylvania State University. It was hypothesized that these four areas would be a

concern for students. Thus, questions were asked about the frequency of these issues. Also,

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additional questions were included that asked students to explain these issues in more depth, in

order to get a deeper understanding of these problems.

Participants

Method

Convenience sampling was used. A total of 14 students were eligible to participate.

Only eight of these students chose to be part of the study, making a total response rate of 50 %.

Participants were eight graduate students who were all enrolled in a higher education course at

the Pennsylvania State University, a large public university in the Mid-Atlantic region of the

United States. The demographic characteristics of the sample are presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Demographic Composition of Sample

Age

n

%

 

20’s

4

50

30’s

2

25

40’s

1

12.5

50’s

1

12.5

Gender

 

Male

4

50

Female

4

50

Race

 

Caucasian

6

75

Hispanic

1

12.5

Asian

1

12.5

Program

 

Higher Education

4

50

Educational Psychology

1

12.5

Residence Life

1

12.5

Biochemistry

1

12.5

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Measure

One measure was used in this study that assessed how graduate students felt about the

feedback received and was labeled Academic Feedback Survey. This survey is a 12-item

questionnaire that contains demographic questions as well as questions assessing feedback.

Demographic questions were asked about gender, ethnicity, age, and the academic program one

was in. Questions about feedback assessed negativity, clarity, specificity, and timeliness of

feedback. Four of these items were rated on a 5-point Likert response scale, ranging from never

(1) to always (5). These items were “ Within your graduate career, how often has feedback

lacked specificity”, “Within your graduate career, how often has feedback lacked clarity”,

“Within your graduate career, how often has feedback been negative”, and “Within your

graduate career, how often has feedback lacked timeliness.” Higher scores for these questions

indicated greater frequency of the behavior. The remaining four items were open-ended

questions. These items were “ Please explain what these instances or instance of unspecific

feedback looked like”, “Please explain what these instances or instance of unclear feedback

looked like”, “Please explain what these instances or instance of negative feedback looked like”,

and “Please explain what these instances or instance of untimely feedback looked like.”

Procedure

The survey was administered to graduate students who were all taking a higher education

course. The survey was created online through google docs. The researcher sent an invitation to

participate via e-mail. The e-mail contained a link to the survey. When students accessed the

survey, they completed demographic questions as well as questions pertaining to their

perceptions of feedback. No identifying information was requested, such as names, making the

entire process anonymous.

Results and Discussion

Quantitative results

First, participants were asked to indicate how often the feedback they received, within

their graduate career, has lacked specificity. They rated their response on a 5-point Likert

response scale, ranging from never (1) to always (5). Table 2 shows the distribution of

participants’ responses. Most participants either stated that they rarely (50 %) or sometimes

(37.5 %) received feedback that lacked specificity, with more participants responding with a

rarely. Therefore, this area was not a substantial concern.

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Table 2

Feedback Lacking Specificity

 

n

%

Never

0

0

Rarely

4

50

Sometimes

3

37.5

Often

1

12.5

Always

0

0

Second, participants were asked to rate, within their graduate career, how often the

feedback they received lacked clarity. They rated their response on a 5-point Likert response

scale, ranging from never (1) to always (5). Table 3 presents the participants’ responses. Most

participants gave a rating of sometimes (62.5 %), indicating that this area was an area of concern.

Table 3

Feedback Lacking Clarity

 

n

%

Never

0

0

Rarely

2

25

Sometimes

5

62.5

Often

1

12.5

Always

0

0

Third, students using a 5-point Likert response scale ranging from never (1) to always

(5), were asked to rate how often within their graduate career they receive negative feedback.

Table 4 indicates the distribution of the participants’ responses. Most students gave a rating of

sometimes (50 %). Thus, this area was an area of concern.

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Table 4

Negative Feedback

 

n

%

Never

2

25

Rarely

2

25

Sometimes

4

50

Often

0

0

Always

0

0

Last, students indicated how often, within their graduate career, the feedback received

lacked timeliness. They rated their response on a 5-point Likert response scale, ranging from

never (1) to always (5). Table 5 presents the ratings given by participants. Most participants

gave a rating of often (62.5 %) showing that this area was an area of concern.

Table 5

Feedback Lacking Timeliness

 

n

%

Never

1

12.5

Rarely

0

0

Sometimes

2

25

Often

5

62.5

Always

0

0

Therefore, these results somewhat corresponded with literature that concentrated on

student perceptions of feedback. In line with the literature, students did report that feedback

lacking clarity, negative feedback, and feedback lacking timeliness are all areas of concern.

However, feedback lacking specificity, was not an area of concern, which did not support the

literature. Perhaps these results are because professors give more specific feedback to graduate

students, as compared to undergraduate students, due to the greater importance placed on

learning the material. Furthermore, my hypothesis that all four of these areas would be an area

of concern was not supported due to these results.

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Qualitative results

Open-ended questions were also asked regarding the negativity, clarity, specificity, and

timeliness of feedback. These additional questions were included to explore student perceptions

of feedback in more depth. Answers were analyzed by looking for the most common responses

or themes.

First, in regards to being asked to explain what an instance or instances of unspecific

feedback looked like, two major patterns emerged. Most students either did or did not have

experience with unspecific feedback. Students that did not have experience with unspecific

feedback indicated that the feedback that they have received has usually been direct, as

emphasized by the comments below.

For the most part, the feedback that I have received has been pretty specific.

Usually in my field feedback is very direct as to what the issue is.

Most students that had experience with unspecific feedback were mainly concerned due to

receiving not enough detail, as they would be given an overall score of some kind or just a few

comments. Responses below highlight these concerns.

I have gotten assignments and papers back that just had a letter grade or number written

on the top.

One paper was given back to me with a few sentences written - it basically said that the

professor liked the connection I made, but stopped there.

Another example, would be sending me my grade by email without any comments.

Second, in relation to explaining an instance or instances of feedback that lacked clarity,

most participants indicated that the feedback given was difficult to understand. This difficulty

sometimes hindered their ability to improve. Some of the most common responses are below.

I think some comments made by professors on my papers sometimes were vague.

Sometimes I get feedback on my assignments that is not clear. I am not sure what the

professor is trying to tell me to improve it. This usually happens when the professor does

not adequately reference the assignment guidelines or expectation of the target concept.

The professor didn't really indicate areas for improvement and only wrote a few

sentences on a 5 page paper.

Sometimes they do not directly state what you did wrong but rather just put the correct

answer, it is up to you to figure out where you went wrong.

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Third, in regards to instances or an instance of negative feedback, most students indicated

that they did not have much experience with negative feedback. Many responded that they

received constructive or critical feedback. Some comments are presented below to highlight this

pattern.

I have certainly been corrected…never felt attacked or that the feedback was too

negative. I appreciate critical feedback.

Most of the feedback that I have received has been constructive and beneficial to the

work.

It's never negative. It's just been constructive to help me improve in whatever it was I was

doing incorrectly.

Finally, in relation to an instance or instances that feedback has been untimely, many

students had this experience. Most students reported that they felt that feedback was given too

late. They had already turned in the next assignment by the time feedback was given, preventing

them from being able to use the feedback. Some common answers given are below.

In one of my classes, the professor returned papers back after the next paper was due so

there was no chance of correcting similar mistakes on the next paper.

It takes a few weeks to get feedback and then I have already moved on to the next thing.

Sometimes it limits the amount that I pay attention to the feedback.

It seems that most of the feedback that I have gotten has taken extremely long to get

back. Feedback is important to help you prepare the next paper but if you don't get the

feedback in enough time to make changes for the next paper, the feedback becomes

pointless.

As explained above, assignments were not returned in time before more assignments

were due; thus, the feedback was not effective.

Thus, these responses show some interesting findings. In regards to feedback lacking

specificity, those who did have issues in this area emphasized that feedback was not detailed

enough. In regards to feedback lacking clarity, most students interpreted lacking clarity as

difficult to understand, which would sometimes impede their ability to improve. In relation to

negative feedback, most students indicated they did not have much experience with negative

feedback. These findings were opposite of the quantitative findings that indicated that most

students sometimes received negative feedback. Perhaps due to the sensitive nature of the

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subject matter, participants were not comfortable enough sharing an instance or instances of

negative feedback. Last, in regards to untimely feedback, most participants interpreted untimely

feedback as late feedback that was no longer useful. Hence, participants indicated how

important it was for feedback to be detailed, clear and indicating how to improve, and given back

in time to be useful.

Limitations

All findings need to be taken with extreme caution due to a number of limitations. First

the sample size was small with a total of eight participants. Second, the use of convenience

sampling ensured the sample did not accurately represent the population of interest, which were

graduate students at the Pennsylvania State University. Third, the measure used was a self-report

measure, which can lack reliability. Fourth, the survey was distributed online. Thus, there was

no way to monitor students to ensure that they completed the survey accurately. Hence, these

results lack generalizability.

Implications

Due to the number of limitations of the study, results lack generalizability. Thus, future

research should replicate this study using random sampling, a greater number of participants, and

using a pen and paper version of the survey. By focusing on this type of research, findings from

this study can be verified.

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References

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in education, 5,

7-74.

Chanock, K. (2000). Comments on essays: Do students understand what tutors write? Teaching

in Higher Education, 5, 95-105.

Ferguson, P. (2011). Student perceptions of quality feedback in teacher education. Assessment &

Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(1), 51-62.

Glover, C. & Brown, E. (2006). Written feedback for students: Too much, too detailed or too

incomprehensible to be effective? Bioscience Education e-Journal, 7. Retrieved from

http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/subjects/bioscience/bioscience-education-

7-3.pdf

Hartley, J., & Chesworth, K. (2000). Qualitative and quantitative methods in research on essay

writing: No one way. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 24(1), 15-24.

Hattie, J., & Jaeger, R. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning: A deductive approach.

Assessment in Education, 5, 111-122.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P., & Skelton, A. (2001). Getting the message across: The problem of

communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education, 6(2), 269-274.

Hyland, P. (2000). Learning from feedback in assessment. In P. Hyland & A. Booth (Eds.), The

practice of university history teaching (pp. 233-247). Manchester: Manchester University

Press.

James, D. (2000). Making the graduate: Perspectives on student experience of assessment in

higher education. In A. Filer (Ed.), Assessment: social practice and social product.

London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

McCune, V., & Hounsell, D. (2005). The development of students’ ways of thinking and

practising in three final-year biology courses. Higher Education, 49(3), 255-289.

Poulos, A., & Mahony, M. J. (2008). Effectiveness of feedback: The students’ perspective.

Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(2), 143-154.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2 nd ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Weaver, M. R. (2006). Do students value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors’ written

responses. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(3), 379-394.

Yorke, M., & Longden, B. (2006). The vital first year. Academy Exchange, 4, 16-17.

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