The personal dimension in teaching: why students value feedback Anna Rowe Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia Abstract Purpose – Feedback is a central element of the learning experience yet, until recently, few studies have focused directly on what students think about feedback. This paper seeks to address this issue. Design/methodology/approach – Data collected as part of a larger study investigating reasons for consistently low ratings of feedback across the higher education sector are reported. The larger study includes Rowe and Wood’s Student Feedback Questionnaire (SFQ), which gathers quantitative data on student perceptions and preferences for feedback, but also includes two open-ended questions inviting students to give written comments on why they believe feedback is important, and how the feedback they are getting could be improved. Findings – Focusing on responses to the first open-ended question and viewing comments in the context of the larger study and its findings, an analysis is offered of the students’ responses, extracting seven different student conceptions of the function of feedback. Research limitations/implications – Feedback serves a wide variety of functions in the lives of students, not limited to the implication of feedback for learning. Students are most likely to succeed in an environment where their broader social needs are met. Originality/value – The findings reported in this paper contribute to an area of educational research previously neglected, drawing attention to: the importance which students attach to feedback as a teacher’s personal response to them as individuals; and the need to take into account students’ perceptions – both positive and negative – of the emotional aspects of feedback. Keywords Feedback, Higher education, Students, Perception Paper type Research paper 1. Introduction The recent emphasis on student-centred research in education is important for alerting teachers to differences between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of what good teaching is, and to the main challenges facing the learner. Although students’ perceptions of learning often chime with the claims made by educational theory, they sometimes emphasise factors that are rarely mentioned in the education literature, nor are they taken into account in mainstream curriculum considerations (Drew, 2001). This applies to assessment and feedback too, but while there is a large body of general research available on students’ assessment preferences (Entwistle and Tait, 1990; Birenbaum, 1997; Biggs, 2003; Gijbels and Dochy, 2006; Birenbaum, 2007), fewer studies focus specifically on instructor-based feedback as seen from the students’ point of view (Chanock, 2000; Higgins et al., 2002; Weaver, 2006; Cameron, 2008; Lizzio and Wilson, 2008). Feedback has been conceptualised in different ways and, for the purpose of this paper, Hattie and Timperley’s (2007) definition will be adopted. They define feedback as information provided by lecturers and tutors on students’ performance or The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at www.emeraldinsight.com/0951-354X.htm Why students value feedback 343 Received July 2010 Accepted July 2010 International Journal of Educational Management Vol. 25 No. 4, 2011 pp. 343-360 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0951-354X DOI 10.1108/09513541111136630 understanding. Within this context feedback is a “consequence of performance” (Hattie and Timperley, 2007, p. 81). The present study is part of a larger investigation of students’ perceptions of feedback, the purpose of which has been to explore reasons for student dissatisfaction with feedback in Australian universities. This investigation has unfolded in two stages. The first involved running focus groups and individual interviews with students (n ¼ 29). Using themes extracted from these, and also the existing literature on feedback, a Student Feedback Questionnaire (SFQ) was constructed. The second stage of the investigation consisted of administering the SFQ to a large sample of students across two institutions: Macquarie University and the University of Canberra. Using a five-point Likert scale, the SFQ gathered student responses to a range of issues concerning the students’ attitudes to feedback, but it also included two open questions inviting students to comment in their own words on: (1) Why feedback was important to them. (2) How feedback at their university might be improved. Analyses of quantitative data yielded by the SFQ (including a demographic analysis) and analyses of the qualitative data from the focus groups have been reported in previous papers (Rowe and Wood, 2008a, b; Rowe et al., 2008). The present paper focuses on the students’ responses to the first of the two open-ended questions. The reason for this emphasis on the first of the two questions is that the purpose of this paper is to throw light on the general issue of students’ expectations, desires and needs regarding feedback, rather than on the more particular and practical issue of how feedback could be improved at the institutions where the surveys were done. Two findings reported in earlier parts of the larger study are worth noting here. The first is that we identified two preference dimensions (PrefA and PrefB), which appeared to reflect surface and deep approaches to learning as conceptualised by Biggs (2003) and others (Entwistle and Tait, 1990; Gijbels and Dochy, 2006; Rowe and Wood, 2008b). Table I presents a sample of items from the feedback preference scale illustrating this dichotomy. Students who scored highly on the PrefA dimension welcomed opportunities to engage with the lecturer and preferred feedback that allowed them to think deeply about their subject matter. This appears to reflect a “deep” learning approach where the preference is for engaging meaningfully in learning that enhances students’ understanding of the material. By contrast students who scored highly on the PrefB dimension were less interested in understanding the material but wanted feedback, which just gave them specific answers, and disliked class participation. This dimension appears to fit the category of a surface learning approach, where the preference is for meeting course requirements with minimum effort. These results suggest that some students view feedback from a deep learning perspective, seeing it as a learning tool – in particular, an opportunity to gain a better understanding of course material viewed in its own right – while others view it primarily as an aid to achieving better course results. The second finding was that demographics emerged as a poor predictor of feedback preferences. This is important because available research suggests that a student’s preferences regarding teaching in general and assessment in particular are likely to IJEM 25,4 344 reflect the learning environment that the student finds most familiar, and that the student’s success will depend significantly on whether they are taught and assessed according to methods which they know and understand (Birenbaum, 1997; Biggs, 2003; Struyven et al., 2005; Birenbaum, 2007). Our study, in contrast, suggests that nationality, for example, is not a significant factor in determining feedback preferences. Better predictors were found to be students’ differing conceptions of feedback and the importance that they attached to it (Rowe et al., 2008). For example, students who value feedback are more likely to have a deep approach to learning. These considerations may have important implications for curriculum planning. To date, most of the literature concerned with the value and effectiveness of feedback has concentrated on the timing of feedback – in particular, the importance of quick turnaround times – and on the various modes in which feedback is offered (Rucker and Thomson, 2003). Although these considerations are important, the research findings reported in this paper suggest that the personal and emotional significance of feedback needs to be given more attention by university managers and teachers. An Australian government report in 2005 highlighted the fact that less than one-third of university students felt that teaching staff took an interest in their progress, suggesting a widespread desire for a more personal dimension in university teaching (Krause et al., 2005). Knowledge of how emotions contribute to the learning process remains very limited, despite the fact that “learning itself is an intrinsically emotional business” (Claxton, 1999, p. 15). Thus there is a lack of attention given to emotion in contemporary general texts on higher education, including Ramsden (2003) and Biggs (2003). The relative neglect of this issue may be partly attributable to a lack of agreement about how the term “emotion” is to be understood. Emotions are often defined as responses to events, with the predominant view being that they arise in reaction to particular situations, where a person makes an appraisal (conscious or unconscious) that then sets off a number of response tendencies, such as subjective experience, facial expression, Feedback A Preference dimension (deep approach) Feedback B Preference dimension (surface approach) General feedback in class helps me to learn independently It is boring when lecturers provide general feedback to the class I like it when tutors guide us to work out the answers ourselves The grade is more important to my learning than feedback Participating in classroom discussion is the most effective way to learn I do not like it when teaching staff encourage questions in class because it wastes time It is more important for me to see the reason why I received a particular grade than to know how other students went Feedback is only useful when it is positive I learn more when my tutor focuses on the questions I got wrong I prefer general feedback in class because it is not personal I learn better when the lecturer encourages me to think deeply about the subject matter I prefer it when tutors just give us the answers Written feedback is better because I can refer to it later Written feedback is unreliable because tutors have different marking criteria Table I. Sample of items in the feedback preference scale Why students value feedback 345 cognitive processing and physiological changes (Fredrickson, 2001; Nielsen and Kaszniak, 2007). For example, in failing an exam some students may feel disappointment while others may feel anger, depending on how they interpret the event. While these are particular episodes of feeling, the term “emotion” has also been used to refer to longer-term dispositions such as general happiness, loneliness or demoralisation. Whereas feelings such as these often have identifiable causes, another category of longer-term emotional states seems related more to a person’s character – for example, optimism or aggressiveness. Moods form yet a further category, consisting of general feeling states not linked to a personally meaningful event, but varying along two dimensions, as either a positive or negative affective state (Goldsmith, 1994; Fredrickson, 2001). For the purposes of this study, we will use the term “emotion” in a broad sense that includes particular episodes of feeling as well as longer-term affective states, where the latter encompass both character dispositions and moods. The relationship between emotions and feedback has recently been gaining attention in education theory (for a review see Va¨rlander, 2008). We believe that changes within the higher education sector over the last ten years have made it especially important to bring these factors into the equation. The changes include increasing student-to-staff ratios; a progressively more diverse student profile; and a shift in the student population to greater part-time enrolment. These considerations add to the challenges faced by both teachers and students in achieving their educational goals. For example, increasing student-to-staff ratios and larger class sizes (particularly in first year) make it difficult for academic staff to provide the level of personalised service that students prefer. Some research indicates that students’ level of engagement has decreased over the last ten years, and that engagement with learning needs to be more carefully planned than in the past (McInnis et al., 2000). Within this context engagement broadly refers to the “time, energy and resources students devote to activities designed to enhance their learning at university” (Krause et al., 2005, p. 31). Feedback is an essential part of this, because it provides the teacher with opportunities to deal with students’ academic development on an individual level, and can therefore serve as an antidote to the increasingly impersonalised teaching environment entailed by larger classes and higher student-to-staff ratios. The changes occurring in universities may also be creating a less sustaining and supportive social environment for students. The present study highlights the fact that feedback is perceived by students to have an important social and emotional function. This may be because it provides a way of addressing feelings of isolation and alienation that are experienced by the very large numbers of students who are studying away from home in a foreign country, a group that now comprises a very high proportion of students in Australia. For example, international students account for 25.5 per cent of Macquarie University’s total student cohort (Macquarie University, 2008). These figures approximate to those in other Australian universities, since overall about 27 per cent of Australian higher education student enrolments are international (DEST, 2008). In some faculties these figures are much higher; thus in the Macquarie University Business and Economics Faculty – from which most of the students in the present study were drawn – 57 per cent of the student cohort is IJEM 25,4 346 international (Macquarie University, 2009). The situation of large classes and high student-to-staff ratios creates a tendency for students to be viewed as nameless members of an undifferentiated “year” or “cohort”. Our data on students’ preferences for feedback suggest that an increasing number of them look to feedback as a means of satisfying a need for personal contact and emotional support, and that many are dissatisfied with the feedback they are receiving because it is not catering to this need. Current research suggests that students have to manage a number of emotional pressures and social difficulties during the course of their study. Anxiety and feelings of loneliness, for example, have been found to increase in the first year of university for students’ transitioning from high school (Larose and Boivin, 1998). Tinto’s research on student retention and attrition rates suggests that although students’ academic and emotional predispositions influence their adjustment to university, the impact of these factors also depends on the quality of their interactions with members of the academic community (Tinto, 1993; Tinto, 2006-2007). Critics of Tinto have questioned the generalisability of his results, given that his research does not include “non-traditional” students. The term “non-traditional students” is used here to refer to students not normally associated with entrants to higher education – for example older students, or those from under-represented social classes and cultural groups. These are often students who enrol part time due to work commitments. “Traditional” students are those who commence full-time university studies immediately following completion of high school. Some research suggests that social factors are less important than external ones (such as the expectations of others, work demands, family responsibilities and financial pressures) to the success of non-traditional students (Bean and Metzner, 1985; Bean, 2005). We did not collect information on the enrolment status of our participants. While the average age of our sample suggests that most of our surveyed students were “traditional”, a large proportion could also in a sense be considered “non-traditional” in that they are international. More recently there have been attempts to develop Tinto’s theory to include success factors for culturally-diverse students (Guiffrida, 2006). Some research has found that relational factors, such as social integration, play an important part in the adjustment and success of overseas students in unfamiliar learning and cultural environments (Shank et al., 1996; Delaney, 2008; Sawir et al., 2008). Our own findings suggest that demographics do not significantly affect student preferences (Rowe and Wood, 2008b). 2. Method The Student Feedback Questionnaire (SFQ) was developed using themes extracted from focus groups and individual interviews with business students in a prior study (Rowe and Wood, 2008a, b). NVivo software was used to extract themes from the data, and these themes along with others identified in the literature formed the basis of the survey questions. The questionnaire was divided into six sections: (1) Demographic data. (2) Type of feedback. (3) Perceptions of feedback. Why students value feedback 347 (4) Value of feedback. (5) Preferences for feedback. (6) Suggestions for feedback. Sections 2, 3, 4 and 5 required students to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements on a five-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. For part of section 2, a five-point Likert scale with numerical points of reference (0, 25, 50, 75 and 100 per cent) was used. All feedback measures were found to have good internal reliability, with the exception of 4, value of feedback, which had a smaller number of items (Rowe et al., 2008). Students were also provided with an opportunity to respond to two open-ended statements: “Feedback is important because …” and “What are your suggestions for improving feedback at [name of institution]?”. Participants were students enrolled in business and commerce-related disciplines, ranging from first-year to postgraduate-by-coursework students (883 undergraduate and 83 postgraduate students respectively). Hence it was anticipated that the surveyed students would have been exposed to a wide variety of types of feedback. There was a fairly even split of males (52 per cent) and females (48 per cent); and domestic (52 per cent) and international students (48 per cent). Of the participants 49 per cent were aged between 21-30 years. Using a randomised block design, the survey was conducted among on-campus students in the second semester of 2007 during lecture periods at two institutions in weeks two and nine of a 13-week semester. Additional details of the procedure and participants are reported in Rowe and Wood (2008b). Regarding the qualitative data from the responses to the two open questions in the SFQ, almost half the students surveyed (42 per cent) responded to the first question (why feedback is important) and 25 per cent responded to the second (how feedback can be improved). It is clear from the students’ responses that many had poor English, reflecting a previously reported finding that only 35 per cent of the sample were from an English speaking background, even though the proportion of domestic and international students was nearly equal (in Macquarie University’s Business and Economics Faculty, where most of the surveyed students were registered, 38.7 per cent of the Faculty’s 2009 intake of domestic students and 92.7 per cent of its international students did not speak English at home (Macquarie University Analytics Unit, at http://mq.edu.au/analytics)). 3. Students’ responses to the question: Why is feedback important to students? Previous research (Weaver, 2006; Pearce, 2008) and our own data (Rowe and Wood, 2008a, b) suggest that students do recognise the value of feedback. Butler and Winne (1995) make the point that traditional research has been too narrowly concerned with the effects of feedback on student learning, and that differentiating the various functions of feedback promises a better synthesis of diverse studies on feedback and instruction. IJEM 25,4 348 Seven predominant themes emerged in the response to our open-ended survey question: “Feedback is important because …” Feedback was perceived to be important: (1) As a guide towards success (that is, good grades) in the course being assessed. (2) As a learning tool. (3) As a means of academic interaction. (4) As a form of encouragement. (5) As an emotion regulator and means of reducing anxiety. (6) As an indication of respect. (7) As a sign of caring. I discuss these themes in the following, roughly in an order in which they become increasingly focused on the personal and emotional aspects of feedback. (1) Feedback as a guide towards good “results” As mentioned previously, our quantitative study indicated two prevalent preference dimensions that students have towards feedback – one inclining towards shallower “results”-oriented learning, and one inclining towards deeper learning and concerned, in particular, with an interest in understanding course material for its own sake. These attitudes emerged in the responses to our open-ended questions too. Our first theme corresponds to the first of these preferences. Here students are concerned with where they have gone wrong with an assessment task and how they might change their approach so as to perform better – that is, get better marks – in future assignments or examinations. The student wishes to learn, but the learning is seen as a means to better grades. There is a concern about getting onto the same wavelength as the lecturer, so as to perform in conformity with what she/he “wants” or is “looking for”. It lets the students know the reasoning behind grades and what needs to be done to improve. It can evaluate my progress so far, show the weakness I get whether I should keep doing [study] in the same way or put [in] more time or change the way I study. It provides an indication of the level of work expected to do well in the subject and helps to highlight strengths and weaknesses. Feedback from lecturers is especially important as they have designed the course content. I like to know objectively what they are looking for. It creates an understanding between lecturer and student as to what is required for the subject. It provides students an insight for students who [are] generally in a very large class, details on where their study is lacking or if they don’t understand a critical feature of the subject. It helps to focus study. We do not wish to suggest that it is unreasonable or “wrong” for students to have the “results”-oriented preferences reflected in the previous comments. This focus is understandable, especially in the first year or among weaker students, and it seems Why students value feedback 349 reasonable for students to expect guidance of the kind these students are asking for from lecturers. Tinto (2003, 2006-2007), for example, suggests that the provision of clear and consistent expectations regarding achievement is one of the five conditions of student success, and argues that the provision of effective feedback in first year is essential in order to identify and support students at risk, reduce attrition rates and establish support that will enable students to continue their studies. Several students emphasised that feedback provided the only opportunity for finding out whether they were on the right path with respect to their academic studies, and to communicate with lecturers and tutors individually. These students wanted feedback to include annotation and not consist simply of giving a grade. It should be personal […] A mark is not sufficient – we need to know what areas to improve on, particularly as those topics are likely to be examinable. Surprisingly few students perceived feedback as a justification of grades awarded. In the SFQ, 60 per cent of students agreed/strongly agreed that this was one of the functions of feedback. A possible explanation for this discrepancy could be the difference in the data-gathering methods used; other researchers have noticed that different methods can result in discrepant results (Zacharias, 2007). (2) Feedback as a learning tool A few students perceived feedback as means of gaining a better understanding of the course material, where the purpose seemed to be understanding for its own sake – the second of the two preference dimensions to learning I mentioned as a theme emerging from the quantitative data. I should add, however, that relatively few students expressed this attitude in the open-ended question responses. The following are some of the comments of those who did: It is a way of clarifying any gaps in knowledge concerning the subject. [Feedback is] a measure of progress and subject understanding. It gives me an understanding of my comprehension of course material. Without [feedback], university becomes an exercise in turning up to get a grade, not an education. (3) Feedback as a means of interaction and participation in the learning process The need for personal interaction with the lecturer and a sense of personal participation was a theme that emerged frequently in the students’ written comments. The following comments explicitly connect good teaching practice with interaction and dialogue: Interaction is NECESSARY to education. Smaller classes of lecture improve interactions and participation between lecturer and students. IJEM 25,4 350 It is the way we actually study, through interactions. [Feedback is] a way you communicate with both lecturer and tutor. It’s like a bridge between [the] lecturer and me. These comments support research findings suggesting that tutors’ reluctance to interact with students creates barriers to learning (Pearce, 2008). They also support the notion of a “pedagogy of relation” and a participatory model of communication founded in the idea that students learn from practical engagement with their subject – a view based on the assumption that individuals need to interact in order for learning to occur (Biesta, 2004; Bingham and Sidorkin, 2004). A concern with interaction and participation is also given attention in the research of Pearce (2008), who notes that tutors often practise a “transmissive” mode of teaching, characterised by one-way communication, which can potentially marginalise and alienate students, and limit possibilities for developing the reciprocal relationships and participatory communication that students find valuable. The term “engagement” was only linked to feedback by a small number of students, even though timely and effective feedback has been identified as one dimension of student engagement (Solomonides and Martin, 2008). It may be that students are not familiar with this term, instead using terms such as “interaction” and “participation”. (4) Feedback as encouragement “Motivation” and “encouragement” were terms commonly used by students, with a large number attributing their own lack of motivation to not being provided with enough feedback on their progress. [Feedback] […] motivates me […] helps me to feel like an individual in the masses. It’s a vital […] motivator to improve. [Feedback] motivates and encourages students in the right direction. I individually get something and it motivates me. It’s affirmation for my achievements. It’s a form of encouragement. These responses chime with students’ comments in the focus groups, and to a lesser extent in the quantitative survey, where motivation was linked to direct encouragement provided by tutors when they affirm students’ achievements in the classroom. The responses also support published research linking learning with motivation (Linnenbrink and Pintrich, 2002; Biggs and Tang, 2007) and with perceptions of academic support (Drew, 2001). The connection between learning and motivation should however not be oversimplified. It appears that motivation serves an important learning function on many levels. For example, within the context of learning and achievement, a surface approach to learning has been most strongly correlated with “extrinsic” motivation, that is, the drive to attain a separable outcome. Gaining a degree and employment opportunities on graduation are examples of Why students value feedback 351 extrinsic outcomes, which may motivate students. “Intrinsic” motivation, by contrast, refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable. This type of motivation, as evidenced by students who study because of the pleasure and sense of satisfaction gained from completion of the task itself, has been most strongly (and positively) correlated with a deep approach to learning (Entwistle, 1987). Different motivational frameworks will affect individual students’ responses to feedback in diverse ways. For example, if a student receives a poor mark for an assessment task and feels angry, this could either prompt the student to invest more effort in future assessments and strive for higher grades or, conversely, to become discouraged and lose interest. The response will depend on a number of factors, including the student’s learning orientation (whether it is “deep”, “surface” or “achievement” oriented), their motivations and goals (such as the pleasure gained from completing the task, the reward of good marks, or a sense of being valued), and other individual variables (for example, self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy) (refer to Ryan and Deci (2000) for a discussion of some of these factors). Like emotion, the term “motivation” is complex and this study was not intended to fully capture the many distinctions of student meanings regarding motivation. However, it is worth mentioning that emotions and motivation are related in several ways (see Frijda, 2000). (5) Feedback as an emotion regulator and means of reducing anxiety We were surprised by how frequently students responding to the open-ended questions drew a connection between feedback and emotion – something not reflected in the quantitative data. In the published literature the finding that feedback has emotional implications is not new, although this dynamic is not currently well understood (Moore and Kuol, 2007; Va¨rlander, 2008). The general connection between emotion and learning has been the subject of a number of published studies (Drew, 2001; Pekrun et al., 2002; Park, 2004; Ja¨rvenoja and Ja¨rvela¨, 2005; Pekrun, 2005; Ainley, 2006; Beard et al., 2007; Crossman, 2007; Moore and Kuol, 2007). We have already seen implicit emotional content in the themes so far discussed – in particular, the concern with feedback as encouragement. In our student responses positive emotions were generally linked to the feelings elicited when feedback was received, and to the teacher’s emotions: It makes me feel special. It encourages me to improve my study and [I] feel re-motivated from it. It lets me know the areas of work I’m not yet covering and shows that the staff are interested in the progress of my studies. By validating good work and thereby generating positive emotions, feedback can be expected to increase the student’s sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem. But negative emotions were mentioned more often in our study than positive ones, and there were frequent references to anxiety in particular. Feedback was perceived as a way of reducing anxiety and other negative feelings such as uncertainty, a finding also made by Drew (2001). Typical comments in this category were: IJEM 25,4 352 It calms your nerves and answers questions/queries you have. It allows for improvement, understanding and closure. It takes out the guesswork of where you have done wrong or what you are required to do next time. Reduces stress. A lack of feedback was also linked to negative feelings: “The sound of silence” is not a happy song. The calming and reassuring effect of feedback can be expected to decrease negative emotions such as anxiety, confusion and fear, by clarifying where the student stands with regard to course expectations and the student’s ability to cope. This regulatory function is important because positive emotions are thought to facilitate learning, while negative emotions are thought to inhibit it (Fredrickson, 2001; Park, 2004). This does not preclude the possibility that negative emotions such as anxiety and fear can sometimes have a positive effect on learning and performance (Stanley and Burrows, 2001). (6) Feedback as an expression of respect Some students felt that the feedback they received showed insufficient respect for their work or for the viewpoints expressed in that work, or insufficient recognition of the effort they had invested in an assessment task – a theme that also emerged in the focus groups and quantitative data results. Some relevant comments were: Respect student’s opinions. I deserve more than just a grade about my assignments when I have put so much effort into finishing them. Any level of effort should be reviewed and responded to. It is important to consider the possibility that these comments – and especially the reference to respect in the first response – may indicate a clash of learning cultures. A feature of the western academic tradition is that academic disagreements are generally regarded as impersonal, and are perceived to rest simply on questions of evidence and clear reasoning. Discussions about academic or intellectual questions are thus conducted in a relatively impersonal tone. This may not be universal, in that in other traditions intellectual disagreements may sometimes have a strongly personal element. Our speculation is that this feature of the western intellectual tradition may create misunderstanding among students from other traditions, where academic viewpoints may be regarded more personally. (7) Feedback as an expression of caring Teven and associates (Teven and Gorham, 1998; Teven, 2001) found that undergraduate students perceived teachers as caring when they encouraged and responded to questions, and gave good feedback; and uncaring when they gave negative responses or were unresponsive or miserly in the provision of feedback. This conclusion was supported by our students’ responses in the focus groups, and again in their responses to our open question on why feedback is important: Why students value feedback 353 [Feedback] tells that the lecturer or tutor cares about students’ work. It tells me the staff are concerned about their students. Both the lecturers and me care about the subject [and] that’s a way of communication between us. One voice, however, seemed to be insisting that feedback is not a favour to students but one of the obligations of competent teaching: [Feedback is a] sign of how well you do your job [and] not directly a sign of caring. We speculate that the significant number of students who felt that feedback was a sign of caring indicates that many undergraduate students see the lecturer in a guardian or even quasi-parental role, where the student looks to the teacher for the fulfilment not just of their educational needs but also some of their social and emotional ones. We are inclined to link this with the fact that a large proportion of our students are international – a group which is likely to be especially vulnerable to feelings of isolation and loneliness, particularly in their first year. The significance of feedback as an opportunity for personal contact has been highlighted in several studies (Drew, 2001; Crossman, 2007; Cameron, 2008; Pearce, 2008). 4. Conclusions Our students’ responses to the statement “Feedback is important because …” offered confirmation of two findings from earlier parts of our larger study – first, that many students value feedback as a means of achieving better academic results, and second, that some see it as a way of gaining a better understanding of course concepts and ideas viewed in their own right. In both of these cases feedback is perceived as a direct aid to the learning process, by virtue of being a conduit of information and clarification regarding course content and lecturers’ expectations. What was more surprising was the number of responses attributing a variety of personal and emotional functions to feedback. The majority of responses, overall, were concerned with the effect of feedback on learning, or were raised in the context of learning issues. But many also pointed to a strong connection between feedback and students’ social needs. A visual representation of our findings is presented in Figure 1. First I will comment on the learning issues then turn to social concerns. Most students who emphasised the interactive and participatory aspects of feedback saw these as a part of a healthy learning process. They appreciated feedback as a form of intellectual interaction with the teacher – a means of moving away from a teaching model where the student passively absorbs information to one in which learning has a dialogical form. In emphasising the importance of feedback as an opportunity for a more interactive relationship with the teacher – one in which the latter responds to the former as an individual – the students appear to be calling for a more active and participatory form of learning. They want to be brought into a direct relationship with the teacher, and to be engaged in the learning process as individuals, rather than being merely a member of a group. This supports Bingham and Sidorkin’s (2004) notion of a relational pedagogy. It was gratifying to note that many students valued and desired interactive learning, although there was an implication that the teaching practices they IJEM 25,4 354 were encountering were not interactive enough. For example, some regretted being in very large classes where there is limited scope for interaction between individual students and the lecturer. Although most of the students who raised the question of participation and interaction were primarily concerned with these as a feature of learning, it is nevertheless true that, like all human interaction, contact with lecturers and other students in a classroom is a social phenomenon, and it seems likely that some students were also expressing a desire simply for more social interaction with their fellow students and teachers. The students who emphasised the motivational aspect of feedback, and saw good feedback as encouragement, as well as those who pointed to feedback as a factor in reducing anxiety or a source of reassurance, were also primarily concerned with the learning process. When students say that they feel encouraged by generous feedback, they appear to be referring to intellectual encouragement: we can interpret them to be saying that this kind of interaction with the lecturer enhances their confidence in their own academic ability, and therefore increases their enthusiasm for the subject, and perhaps for other intellectual work. Again, their comments about the importance of feedback as an emotion regulator and reducer of stress seem for the most part to be concerned with their learning, where anxiety and other negative emotions are taken to be an obstacle to engagement with the discipline. We can also deduce from these responses that feedback is an important factor in the general emotional wellbeing of students. For most students, after all, studying is their primary occupation, and the pleasure and satisfaction they get from their studies is likely to be a major contributor to their general sense of happiness. So here again, it is reasonable to infer a message that feedback plays a larger role in students’ lives than a merely educational one. Turning to the responses, which emphasised feedback as an indication of respect, or as an acknowledgement of effort, it seems fair to say that these students were focused Figure 1. Functions of feedback Why students value feedback 355 primarily on the personal and social aspects of feedback, rather than its specifically educational significance. To respect or acknowledge someone is to treat them as an equal, and it is unlikely that students who raised this factor were asking that their teachers treat them as intellectual equals, and far more likely that they were asking for “respect” or “recognition” in a more general, social sense. One way a lecturer might fail in the latter case, especially when teaching very large classes, is by treating students merely as names on a very long class list – for instance, offering feedback merely in the form of a grade, with no comments or only cursory ones, and with none that engage with the student’s individual insights or mistakes. It is of course academically helpful to the student if feedback is individualised, but our suggestion is that failing to provide personalised feedback is not merely academically unhelpful but can also be experienced by the student as personally demeaning. With large class sizes and high student-to-staff ratios, students can easily feel isolated – a nameless member of a featureless group (White, 2006). We believe that the students’ insistence on respect or recognition is a signal to teachers that feedback is a way for them to address these feelings of isolation by engaging with students as individuals. This engagement will naturally revolve around the academic subject being assessed, but nonetheless it can also serve the social function of engaging with the student in a one-on-one relationship that the student values for its own sake. Turning, finally, to the students who spoke of feedback as an indication of caring, it seems likely that these students were referring to the personal dimension of feedback – that is, as a form of contact with the teacher not merely as an academic mentor but as a “mentor” in the broader sense of a guardian or warden, hence someone with a concern for the students’ broader wellbeing. It seems very likely that undergraduate students who have proceeded to university immediately after school and are living away from home, and international students – who are not only away from their families, but removed from their home countries – could be looking for precisely this kind of relationship with lecturers. Feedback provides a small but significant opportunity for fulfilling that role. In general, our study shows that feedback has a wide variety of functions in the lives of students, and that these are not limited to the implication of feedback for learning in particular, but range over a number of factors affecting the student’s general wellbeing. Our results support the idea that, even from a learning perspective, it is important to take into account that students are not just learners but people, and social beings in particular. They are likely to succeed best as students in an environment where their broader human needs are met. 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Student perceptions of tutors’ written responses”, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 31 No. 3, pp. 379-94. White, N.R. (2006), “Tertiary education in the noughties: the student perspective”, Higher Education Research & Development, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 231-46. Zacharias, N.T. (2007), “Teacher and student attitudes towards teacher feedback”, Regional Language Centre Journal, Vol. 38 No. 1, pp. 38-52. About the author Anna Rowe is a Doctoral Student enrolled in the Department of Business, in the Faculty of Business and Economics, at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Her research is in the area of student and teacher experiences in higher education. She is interested in perceptions of the learning experience, in particular emotions, and how people’s beliefs and understandings facilitate and/or hinder the learning process. Her other areas of interest include: the role of relationships in teaching and learning; feedback; inclusive practice; and graduate attributes. 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