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The personal dimension in


teaching: why students value
feedback
Anna Rowe
Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Why students
value feedback

343
Received July 2010
Accepted July 2010

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 Woods 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
teachers 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 Timperleys (2007) definition will be adopted. They define
feedback as information provided by lecturers and tutors on students performance or

International Journal of Educational


Management
Vol. 25 No. 4, 2011
pp. 343-360
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
0951-354X
DOI 10.1108/09513541111136630

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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 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 students
preferences regarding teaching in general and assessment in particular are likely to

Feedback A
Preference dimension (deep approach)

Feedback B
Preference dimension (surface approach)

General feedback in class helps me to learn


independently
I like it when tutors guide us to work out the
answers ourselves
Participating in classroom discussion is the most
effective way to learn
It is more important for me to see the reason why I
received a particular grade than to know how
other students went
I learn more when my tutor focuses on the
questions I got wrong
I learn better when the lecturer encourages me to
think deeply about the subject matter
Written feedback is better because I can refer to it
later

It is boring when lecturers provide general


feedback to the class
The grade is more important to my learning than
feedback
I do not like it when teaching staff encourage
questions in class because it wastes time
Feedback is only useful when it is positive

Why students
value feedback

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I prefer general feedback in class because it is not


personal
I prefer it when tutors just give us the answers
Written feedback is unreliable because tutors
have different marking criteria

reflect the learning environment that the student finds most familiar, and that the
students 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,

Table I.
Sample of items in the
feedback preference scale

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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 persons 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 Varlander, 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 Universitys 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

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). Tintos 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 Tintos
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.

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(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 Universitys Business and
Economics Faculty, where most of the surveyed students were registered, 38.7 per cent
of the Facultys 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.

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 dont 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

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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.

It is the way we actually study, through interactions.


[Feedback is] a way you communicate with both lecturer and tutor.

Why students
value feedback

Its 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.
Its a vital [. . .] motivator to improve.
[Feedback] motivates and encourages students in the right direction.
I individually get something and it motivates me.
Its affirmation for my achievements.
Its 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

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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 students 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; Varlander, 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; Jarvenoja and Jarvela, 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 teachers
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 Im 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 students 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:

It calms your nerves and answers questions/queries you have. It allows for improvement,
understanding and closure.

Why students
value feedback

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 students 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 students 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:

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[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] thats a way of communication between
us.

354

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 Sidorkins (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

Why students
value feedback

355

Figure 1.
Functions of feedback

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

IJEM
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356

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 students 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 students
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. As Crossman (2007, p. 325) has
noted, higher education institutions would do well to consider further how teaching
and learning occurs in a particular human context in which individuals interact,
conduct relationships and experience feelings about those relationships.

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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 peoples 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.
Anna Rowe can be contacted at: anna.rowe@mq.edu.au

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