The problem with written feedback
Pressures of time and money already encourage many of us to teach in large groups of anywhere from 60 to 300. Consequently, there is relatively little personalised interaction between individual students and teachers. One act of communication between student and teacher that remains highly personal, however, is the feedback that we give to students on written assignments. Giving good feedback is obviously an important duty, but it is not an easy task. I find it quite time consuming to write comments that point out shortcomings, praise successes, and yet also strike a friendly and approachable tone.
I’ve known some academics who prefer to meet with individual students to give them feedback. I found this a very stressful way to get feedback when I was an undergraduate myself, and I think the only thing that stayed with me from one occasion was embarrassment and irritation at myself that I didn’t explain myself better when the lecturer pointed out what he thought was a fallacious argument (it probably was, but I didn’t accept that at the time!). Notwithstanding that issue, getting 60 or more students to arrange individual interviews is particularly cumbersome and inconvenient, particularly at my university, where many students do not spend much time on campus except for when they have to attend classes.
With these concerns in mind, I was excited to try video feedback. The idea was introduced to me by two colleagues in the Faculty of Education, Mike Henderson and Mike Phillips. Their method involved providing a five minute video recording, done very simply with a webcam, and either emailing this to students or uploading it privately to an online learning system like Blackboard or Moodle. Both Mike and Mike reported that their experience with video feedback had been very positive.
I was initially attracted to the idea because I thought that it might save me some time – after reading the essay, I’d need five minutes to make a video, plus a couple of minutes to upload, as opposed to ten or so minutes for written comments. If I could save some time without a significant loss of quality in my feedback, that seemed like a good idea. But I was worried that I would not be able to give quite as much substantive feedback to students in that time. I therefore expected that the response from students would be mixed. Some would like the extra personalisation, but others would regret the loss of detail.
One more factor influenced me to try video feedback: I sometimes find myself tempted, when giving written comments, to do a thorough copy-editing job on the students’ work. This is a mistake. By making numerous corrections of small linguistic conventions, I undermine the impression that I am engaging closely with the student’s argument. Besides, students in higher education should come to us with at least passably adequate knowledge of grammar, punctuation and other conventions. For them to get significantly better than passable, they need to study the relevant conventions – they’ll learn much more from self-directed study than they will get from reading my grumpy squiggles in the margins.
I hoped that using video would help me stick to this resolution. If I am trying to say something useful to the student in just five minutes, then I will be much less motivated to draw to their attention an incorrect apostrophe on page 4.
Finally, I also liked the idea that video feedback can be replayed and analysed at the student’s own pace. Unlike an interview in the professor’s office, there is much less at stake, and this should make the experience less stressful, and more pedagogically valuable.
And so I tried it out: I’ve used it in most classes where I have to mark a reasonable number of essays since. It has been, by and large, a clear success. It was quite thrilling to see how emphatically so many of the students expressed their preference for video feedback.
First, many students commented on how much more personal the feedback was compared to receiving written comments
- It was satisfying to watch my marker engage with and evaluate arguments made in my essay. Written comments often feel impersonal, so this was a refreshing way to receive feedback. Thanks!
Some students mentioned that the more personal dimension made the feedback more motivating for them.
- Since a marking in video format is much more personal, the hard critiques of my essay sunk in more than they would from a written marking and really brought attention to what areas my essay didn’t deliver in.
Second, although I thought I was giving less detailed feedback, a number of students commented that they felt they got more substantive feedback in my short videos.
- With video feedback it is possible to give a larger quantity of feedback than it is with written comments.
- Feedback was great, using a video allowed Toby to cover a lot more areas in which my essay could be improved than he could have in a written marking. I understood why I got the mark I did, areas I could have improved in and areas where I did well.
- It was by far the most comprehensive analysis and feedback on any essay that I have ever submitted. I felt that the feedback that I received was hugely beneficial.
Third, students seemed to appreciate the effort I had made in using video feedback, even though I had partly chosen to do it for personal time-saving reasons!
- I just wanted to say that I was extremely impressed by the pedagogy behind video presentations. I really do want to impress just how fundamentally beneficial the five minutes of Toby’s thoughts were - the most effective feedback I’ve had since sitting down for thirty minutes with my English teacher in Year 12.
That said, it clearly didn’t work for everyone. Some students reported being very sensitive to criticism, and that they found it harder to receive my feedback in the video format. While I thought it might be easier to receive critical feedback in video format, because I could modulate my tone of voice more readily than my written tone, this appears not to have been the case, at least for a couple of students:
- I didn’t like getting video feedback – I get quite anxious about getting marks back, so written comments work for me. It means that I can take comments at my own pace and go back to the feedback in more detail when I’m comfortable with how I’ve gone overall.
- However, on the downside, I did find the experience of the video far more confronting and unfortunately had a more emotional response to the criticisms than I believe I would have experienced had I received the feedback in the toneless written format. I felt that written comments would allow me to look at the criticisms in a more removed and methodical way. This may however be more a reflection of my personality than a flaw in the format itself.
For now, when opportunity presents itself, I’m going to offer students a choice. It’s not particularly difficult to offer written feedback for those who prefer, and it seems a shame to forgo video feedback for the many students who appear so enthusiastic about it.