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Higher education staff would be familiar with the common concern that students don’t make use of feedback intended to help them improve their work. Many researchers have worked on this puzzle over the last decades and found various factors that seem to influence when and why students make productive use of feedback (for an overview see Winstone et al. 2016).

Often the course is set up in a way that students have little opportunity to improve their work and therefore see little reason to engage with the comments they receive (e.g. Taras, 2006). In other cases, students seem to struggle with understanding the meaning of the comments (e.g. Carless, 2006). However, how and why this happens has so far not been understood very well, and it’s hard to design research to observe students’ reasoning about it.

Inspired by this methodological challenge, my colleague Crina Damsa and I focused our recent publication on the question of how students make meaning of feedback comments during an undergraduate course in biology (Esterhazy & Damsa, 2017). In order to make this complex meaning-making process of feedback visible, we selected a course where students received formative feedback from their teacher before modifying and submitting a final draft of their group assignments.

We reviewed the meeting notes and transcribed selected discussion sections of three groups where feedback was discussed, and also reviewed the groups’ actual assignment drafts. We found that students took many rounds of discussion not only to grasp what part of their draft was addressed by the teachers’ comments, but also to identify the knowledge and strategies they needed to draw on in order to improve their work and update the existing text. During these discussions, students had to consider first and foremost their understanding of general concepts and theories from their discipline that seemed relevant for addressing the comment. However, they also needed to make sense of their teachers’ intentions, time and effort needed and even aesthetics of their written output.

Though based on a small case, our study shows that meaning-making is a complex process that is embedded in the disciplinary context and that relies closely on resources the students have access to and the teacher’s guidance and follow-up strategies. This means, in order to help students make meaning of feedback comments we need to design environments that support productive interactions and meaning-making of feedback. How these environments should be set-up and what elements are important is dependent on the discipline and the characteristics of the students involved (for some interesting insights, see David Carless’ lecture on feedback designs for promoting dialogue). Unfortunately, the complex relationship between the contextual factors of a course environment and the ways students engage with feedback is still not well understood.

During my stay at CRADLE, I will be working on a publication focused on the question what makes a feedback environment productive. I hope to draw especially on the expertise of David Boud, Margaret Bearman, Rola Ajjawi and Phillip Dawson, who have contributed a lot to my understanding of the intricate relations between the way feedback is designed and how it is enacted both by students and teachers. Please stay tuned and follow my work on Twitter (@Rachelle_Es) or Researchgate.

This publication is linked to a multi-disciplinary research project that investigates the factors and mechanisms that are relevant for quality in higher education. For more information on the project, please visit our project home page