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Interacting with students

A recurring theme within research and discussion in higher education is the need to embed feedback within dialogue and interaction between students and their teachers. Where feedback is a ‘one-way street’ (Nicol, 2009) or ‘unilateral dialogue’ (Crisp, 2007), or is seen as little more than ‘common-sense’, it fails to connect, because students don’t have the grasp of conventions and standards within the discipline or subject area that underpin their tutors’ comments. Reporting on the experience of one group of undergraduates, Lillis and Turner noted:

“Terminology widely used by tutors and/or in guidelines to name academic writing conventions raised more questions than answers. For example, knowing they had to write an introduction told the students little about what was required in an introduction; calls for the need to cite authorities and sources did not help them to work out when it was likely to be necessary to refer to sources; calls for the need to avoid plagiarism did not help them to work out what counted as plagiarism, nor how to write in their own words.” (Lillis and Turner, 2001, p. 55)

Although these particular undergraduates were ‘non-traditional entrants’, their uncertainty about what messages tutors meant to convey in their feedback comments seems common to many and perhaps most students, as has been repeatedly observed (see for example, Hounsell, 1987; Lea and Street, 1998; Norton, 1990; Chanock, 2001; Higgins et al. 2001; Carless, 2006).

This section of the website explores ways in which greater dialogue and interaction could help to make feedback more transparent and accessible to students. One approach aims to put in place assessment dialogues between staff and students. Another is through activities which give students direct experience of engaging with criteria and standards, with the aim of developing a better joint understanding of the expectations which underlie tutors’ feedback comments. A third takes the form of reviewing progress with students, a sort of MoT of where their strengths lie and where they could most aim to improve.

The remaining two instances of interaction are supervising undergraduate final-year projects and feedback in postgraduate supervision. Each is of special interest because they represent feedback opportunities that are typically much more interactive than is usually the case in the early years of undergraduate study. How can staff and students make the most of these opportunities for interaction, and what wider lessons might be learned?


Carless, D. (2006) Differing perceptions in the feedback process. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 219 – 233

Chanock, K. (2000) Comments on essays: do students understand what tutors write? Teaching in Higher Education, 5(1), 95-105.

Crisp, B. (2007) Is it worth the effort? How feedback influences students’ subsequent submission of assessable work. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(5), 571-581

Handley, K., Price, M. and Millar, J. (2008) Engaging Students with Assessment Feedback: Final Report for FDTL5 Project 144/03. Oxford Brookes University: Oxford.

This report discusses the outputs from the FDTL project focusing on ways of engaging students with feedback in Business schools, although the findings have much wider applicability across the university subject areas. It also emphasises cost-effective feedback practices to improve student learning without increasing staff time.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P. & Skelton, A. (2001) Getting the message across: the problem of communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education, 6(2), 269-274.

This article outlines ideas emerging from ongoing research into the meaning and impact of assessment feedback for students in higher education. It argues that new models of communication are required to understand students’ responses to the language of tutors’ comments, and that issues of discourse, identity, power, control and social relationships should be central to any understanding of assessment feedback as a communication process.

Hounsell, D. (1987) Essay-writing and the quality of feedback. In: Richardson, J.T.E. et al., eds., Student Learning: Research in Education and Cognitive Psychology Milton Keynes: SRHE & Open University Press, pp. 109 – 119

Lea, M.R. and Street, B.V. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.

Lillis, T. and Turner, J. (2001) Student writing in higher education: contemporary confusion, traditional concerns. Teaching in Higher Education 6(1), 57-68.

Nicol, D. (2008) Learning is a two-way street. Times Higher Education, 24 April 2008.

Nicol, D. (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5), 501-517

Suggests a range of ways in which feedback dialogue can be enhanced when student numbers are large without necessarily increasing demands on academic staff.

Norton, L.S. (1990) Essay writing: What really counts? Higher Education, 20(4), 411-442.

Reviewing progress with students

Text to follow.


Brass, K. (1999) Using timely feedback on student progress to facilitate learning. Paper given at the HERDSA Annual Conference, July 1999, Melbourne.

This paper discusses the implementation of mid semester reviews with Art students, and outlines the benefits of the system for both underachieving students and those who are doing well.

Driessen, E., van Tartwijk, J., Vermunt, J. and van der Vleuten, C. (2003) Use of portfolios in early undergraduate medical training. Medical Teacher 25(1) 18-23

Medical students completed a portfolio to encourage reflection on their practice. Central to this process were meetings between students and their mentors to provide feedback on the portfolio as it was being compiled.

Murdoch-Eaton, D. (2005) Formal appraisal of undergraduates – worth the effort? 01(8) 29-30. Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine.

A report of an initiative where Medical students reflect on their progress and meet individually with a senior member of staff to review their progress.

For a longer version see:

Murdoch-Eaton, D. and Levene, M. (2004) Formal appraisal of undergraduate medical students – is it worth the effort? Medical Teacher 26(1) 28-32.

Tatner, M. (2007) Individual progress interviews as a method of effective student feedback. Practice and Evidence of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 2(2), 151-156.

Students studying 3rd year Biosciences were each given a 15-minute review of their progress with a member of staff, at which their portfolio of work and grades was discussed. The pros and cons of doing this are discussed in this article.

Engaging with criteria and standards

There is abundant evidence that feedback in higher education lacks transparency (see also ‘Involving Students in Feedback’).  For many students, feedback ‘becomes lost in prose which they may hard to untangle’ (Castle et al., 2008).  But a growing consensus has also emerged that a productive way forward is through assisting students to become ‘more discerning connoisseurs of academic standards’  through developing a firmer grasp of the criteria and standards that underlie feedback comments (Sadler, 1989, 1998; Hounsell, 2008;  Bloxham and Boyd, 2007).  So how could a focus on connoisseurship be pursued?

One avenue lies in strategies which call for greater student interaction with criteria prior to submitting assignments.  In one case-example, students had to complete and submit an ‘essay feedback checklist’ alongside their assignment (Norton, 2004); however, this could encourage anxiety and preoccupation amongst some students with relatively trivial  issues, and led to a modified approach foregrounding assessment criteria as ‘learning criteria’.  In another, a ‘bespoke feedback sheet’ is used to enable students to review their work prior to submission against a set of assessment criteria jointly developed by staff and students (Castle, 2008).  A third case-example relies on ‘interactive’ assignment cover sheets designed to encourage students to reflect on the assignment criteria and highlight those aspects of their work where they would particularly like feedback from the tutor (Bloxham and Campbell, 2010.)

A second pathway is to offer students scope for constructive negotiation, albeit with markedly differing emphases.  In one instance in the Performing Arts, assessment criteria and grade descriptors were held constant but students could negotiate the relative weighting given to each criterion to reflect the distinctive features of their design project (Kleimann, 2007). In another instance involving statistics and biology students, the approach adopted had mixed self and peer assessment with the development of criteria generated or selected by  the students concerned  (Poon et al, 2009).

A third possibility also entails a blend of strategies.  The outstanding example of this multi-pronged approach is a sustained series of R & D initiatives in the Business School at Oxford Brookes University to engage students with assessment criteria and standards.  The strategies adopted mix explicit articulation with tacit communication via interaction and practice-focused experiences — w

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