Autumn 2007
ISSN 1477-1241

Feedback and Student Retention

1. Introduction

Feedback to students is a vital component of most learning contexts and there are often ways to improve the mechanisms and types of feedback provided. The driver behind a Faculty of Science and Engineering learning and teaching event which took place in June 2007 was to provoke thought about feedback; provide a showcase for good practice in the Faculty; and to provide a forum for discussion between Faculty staff. There was a further intention to consider the links between the early provision of feedback and student retention - particularly for first year undergraduate students. A clear signal about the importance of rapid feedback to first year learners has been sent by a number of recent educational organisations and projects, for example, the well-publicised STAR (Student Transition and Retention) project. It is intuitive that students new to a Higher Education learning environment want and need to know how well they are performing and how they can improve. Ideally, this feedback should be available while the work is still ‘fresh in the mind’ and should provide both constructive criticism and a clear indicator of the quality, strengths and weaknesses of the work. Some good ideas are provided in the document ‘Supporting Students Through Course Design’ produced by the STAR Project. In addition, Brown et al. (2004) provide a useful introduction to good practice in assessment and feedback.

A range of different strategies can be adopted to make feedback work (eg in writing or face-to-face, in print or electronically, visually or verbally etc) all with pros and cons. We have tried to capture a variety of points of view about these issues (sections 1 and 2) to help you decide how best to use feedback in your own teaching, learning and assessment contexts. Box 1 gives an extract from the Academic Regulations and Procedures Handbook (Assessment Practice and Policy, paragraph 5, p4) providing a succinct statement about feedback, its nature and purpose. The statement does not specify how feedback should be undertaken, but rather underlines a need for it to be planned in advance and for those plans to be published. This provides a sound basis for curriculum and programme design though it is accepted that many unit and programme teams will already exceed this baseline standard.

Box 1: Extract from the Academic Regulations and Procedures Handbook

Feedback on assigned work is an integral part of the assessment process and has several purposes:

  • To help students to understand how others have interpreted their work against the given criteria
  • To motivate students to continue to learn
  • To enable students to identify areas for development

Feedback should be available for all assigned work, whether or not the work carries a mark. The nature, extent and timing of feedback on each assigned activity should be clearly indicated in the unit handbook.

In order to achieve the purposes above, the feedback must:

  • Show how the work has been judged against the given criteria
  • Identify areas for improvement
  • Show how the assigned work is linked to future assessments
  • Make suggestions for future work which students could do to improve their performance – eg particular sources, styles, approaches
  • Be provided in a timely way so that the students can apply the learning to their next learning activities


2. The Feedback and Student Retention event

The Faculty of Science and Engineering Innovation and Good Practice Working Group jointly hosted, with the Student Experience Working Group, the Feedback and Student Retention event in John Dalton Central on Tuesday 26th June. The event was a great success, with over 100 members of staff attending.

2.1 Event format

The event opened at 10am with an introductory presentation by the Assistant Dean, Pete Dunleavy. This was followed by a talk that probably generated the most interest and lunch-time discussion, given by a group of four brave students, who presented their perspectives on feedback (see Figure 1).

students from the faculty

Figure1: Students from the faculty giving their views on feedback

There then followed a series of short presentations addressing a variety of topics: generic feedback and time-saving tips (Dawn Nicholson, EGS), Podcasting audio feedback (Atif Waraich, DOCM), automated and online feedback (Alan Fielding, BCHS), peer and self feedback (Mark Langan, EGS), extended induction projects for early feedback (Margaret Fowler, Eng and Tech) and The Shock Absorber Project (Kate Kirk, CPD Unit). Copies of these presentations (as .pdf files) are available via the . Faculty Learning and Teaching web pages. In the afternoon, participants joined one of four discussion groups (see Table 1 and Figure 2)

Table 1: Discussion groups. The outcomes from the lively and productive discussions are outlined in section3.
No Discussion topic Chairperson
1 Early feedback for retention Joyce Overfield (BHCS - Health Science)
2 Induction activities Malcolm Thomson (Engineering and Technology)
3 Good practice in feedback Mike Cole (BCHS - Chemistry Division)
4 Staff development for feedback and student retention Shaheena Abbas (Computing and Mathematics)
Faculty staff in discussion group

Figure 2: Staff from the faculty in one of the discussion groups

The event was attended by 107 staff, mainly academics from the Faculty but including 15 staff from central services (eg CeLT and the library) and other Faculties as indicated in Table 2. All participants were subsequently issued with a Certificate of Attendance for CPD purposes.

2.2 Participation

Table 2: Source of participants
Department/School or service No
Department of Computing and Mathematics 28
Engineering and Technology 11
Biology, Chemistry and Health Science 37
Environmental and Geographical Sciences 13
Combined Honours and Foundation 5
Central services (Library and CeLT) 5
Other Faculties (Hollings, Art and Design and HLSS)  


2.3 Event Feedback

Feedback from participants was obtained using a simple questionnaire. Unfortunately only 12 returns were received but they do, nevertheless, provide some very useful feedback on the event and its value. Those that responded learned from the event and found the format good (Table 3). It seems that the aims of some discussions groups were not fully met – probably a reflection of the strength of feeling surrounding some issues and the wide-ranging nature of the topics set. The responses to a series of open-ended questions are summarised below.

Table 3: Responses (n=12) to questions 1 to 3
Strongly agree
Not sure
Strongly disagree
The event was successful, I learned from it
Very poor
How do you rate the format of the event?
Not really
Not at all
Do you feel the aims of your discussion group were met?

a) What really struck you as of importance/ interest from the students’ presentation?

Responses included the need for feedback that is prompt, rapid and consistent; the need to give careful consideration to the implications [for students] of setting work over vacations; and the need to address a student’s difficulties and concerns at an individual level. Three respondents commented on the fact that the student group who presented in the morning were highly motivated and articulate, but perhaps not representative of students for whom retention and progression is a key issue. The authors would like to point out that three of the four students in the group were Student Representatives and sought the views of their peers prior to preparing the presentation. One respondent noted how the student group expressed a desire for peer review/feedback, online feedback, clarity in assessment criteria and an indication of class performance.

b) Please indicate your staff development needs in relation to:

(a) feedback and (b) student retention

There were several requests for WebCT training that focussed on assessment and feedback but otherwise there were no particular themes arising from this question. One respondent requested resources for a project that could explore the reasons behind poor attendance and performance.1 Another asked for training in pastoral care and personal tutorship. A member of the library staff team asked if there was a way that library staff could be better used to help identify struggling students, since sometimes, library staff are able to identify struggling students before departments become aware.

1 See the papers by Nikki Hughes et al and by Helen Rowe in this edition.

c) Please tell us about something you might do differently in your teaching as a result of what you have learned at this event

A number of respondents indicated they would implement ideas raised in presentations (eg podcasting feedback, using generic feedback sheets, re-thinking vacation assignments). Perhaps the most telling response, however, was one that simply said “remember that I am working for the students”.

d) What was the most important/interesting thing you learnt from the discussion?

Two common themes arose from this question. The first was the recognition that all departments are experiencing similar issues in relation to both feedback practice and student retention. Our own view is that there is considerable good practice going on across the faculty – we just need to learn how to share more effectively. The second issue concerned induction activities. There is some agreement that induction weeks are of critical importance because they ‘set the scene’ for all that follows. In particular, the induction period should be smooth-flowing and filled with activities, thus helping students get into the routine of studying.

e) Please name ONE topic you would like to see the subject of a Faculty learning and teaching event in the future

Responses to this questions included WebCT Vista; the findings of the Engineering and Technology extended induction pilot; international exchange; multiple choice questions; and tutorial work. There was also some support for greater communication of good practice across departments. The library team offered staff development (summer 2008) in relation to evaluating the success (or otherwise) of the Infoskills training being provided to first year students (via WebCT Vista) during the current session.

f) What were the best three things about this event?

The things that respondents liked best about the event included the presentations; the discussion groups; networking opportunities; the chance to air views with colleagues; learning about new ideas and good practice; time for reflection; and the chance to hear students’ views. Several respondents also mentioned the lunch!

g) What were the worst three things about this event?

The things that respondents liked least about the event were the fact that there were no concrete answers to be found to the problems discussed and a lack of discussion about solutions used at other Universities; noise in The Street; the timing of the event (outside the academic year); and people bunching around coffee and buffet tables and displays! One respondent was clearly also distressed by the absence of one presenter due to sickness!

h) Add any other comments or suggestions that you think may be helpful

Additional comments were mainly positive and complimentary about the event. It was suggested that a future event have an external speaker. It was also suggested that a student survey be conducted to evaluate the reasons for non-attendance and non-engagement. (This has been undertaken by Nikki Hughes et al for the university foundation year- see their paper in this edition)


2.4 Reflections on the event

In conclusion, ‘Feedback and Student Retention’ was a successful and thought-provoking event that created an excellent forum for discussion and discourse across the Faculty. Suggestions made for future staff development activities will be fed into the Faculty-level CPD project. Presentations and other resources arising from the event will also be made available on the Faculty web site but there are also plans to contribute to the CeLT web resources on ‘Feedback’. Perhaps the most significant output from the event will be a greater awareness among all participants of the issues surrounding feedback practice and student retention. It is hoped that this will lead to the enhancement of learning and teaching provision across the Faculty and an even better quality experience for our students.


3. Outcomes of group discussions

The viewpoints reported below are designed to generate discussion. Groups tackled the issues in their own ways and this is reflected in the nature of their reporting styles. Please refer to section 4 for a synthesis of those suggestions considered highest priority in policy development.

3.1 Early feedback for retention
(Chair: Joyce Overfield)

3.1.1 When is ‘early’?

  • Early for retention means near the start of the first term.
  • Early in time for the next assignment.
  • No specific timing but research indicates that feedback on the first assignment should be rapid and timely.

3.1.2 Practicalities

  • Barriers associated with regulations such as a 3 week turnaround for marking.
  • Coursework receipting office difficulties (eg missing work, opening times).
  • Significant administrative roles for teaching staff in the first term (eg QAP) when there should be greater focus on feedback.
  • Staffing levels for large classes and
    e-submission problems.

3.1.3 Student assignments/tasks for feedback

  • The online environment can provide immediate feedback.
  • Groupwork (eg posters), tutorials and practical classes.
  • Peer assessment.
  • Problem-based learning.

3.1.4 Resources

  • Increase staffing by making use of postgraduates (but provide staff development for postgraduates and Associate Lecturers).
  • Make use of all staff during the early weeks of the first year (but what impact could this have on 2nd and 3rd year students?).
  • Staff development for increased use of the VLE for feedback.
  • Resources for feedback events (eg residential fieldwork during induction)

3.1.5 Cross-Faculty policy

  • Revisit the two week extra time for handing in (absolute deadlines) that are used for some assessments.
  • Resources are needed for staff development (eg e-resources, student counselling for year one tutors).
  • Staff from support services (eg coursework receipting office, Information and Communication Technology Services) Technology and Communication Service, Student Support) used to inform policies and train staff.
  • Establish a faculty policy on the timing of first feedback


3.2 Induction activities
(Chair: Malcolm Thomson)

This discussion focussed on two major areas, (i) the initial induction period and (ii) the extended induction period.

3.2.1 Initial induction period

  • Needs to be well structured with a full timetable of events and activities since this is what students from schools and colleges are used to.
  • Lecturers should give an overview of their particular unit with reference to its relevance in a Programme context and in a professional context.
  • Students should not be overloaded with information.
  • Students could be helped to identify with peer groups. For example. ‘speed meetings’ to identify similarities (ie live in the same halls, come from the same towns, share sporting or musical interests, vegetarians etc).
  • To avoid students getting ”lost”, groups could be sent on fact finding quizzes round the University Campus and City locations.
  • Make greater use of the student mentoring system to encourage contact between 1st year students and year 2/3 students.
  • Social events need considering but it may be better to delay this until later in the Autumn term.

3.2.2 Extended induction period

  • Attempt to reduce the culture shock - teach in small groups as much as possible in the first instance since this is what students are used to.
  • Consider basing the first few weeks around project work - this helps address the group size issue, helps form peer academic support groups, introduces subjects with a lighter touch and hopefully engages and motivates students early.
  • Foster staff/student relationships (this may help with some discipline issues) - a formal, structured personal tutor scheme can also be effective and this can be achieved using a group approach rather than an insistence on individual contact.
  • A structured ‘communication’ or ‘reading’ week occurring half way through the Autumn term is recommended - this acts as a natural break for students to receive feedback, reflect on early studies, work on PDPs, revisit study skills issues (eg report writing) and generally ensure they are up to date with work within a structured and supported environment. An important point here is that less quantity of early work may well translate to greater understanding and higher quality.
  • The number of assignments should be limited so that students do not feel overwhelmed.

3.2.3 Staff Development Issues

  • Identify staff with the right talents and interests to work with Year 1 students and recognise/reward staff who are prepared to engage in this role.
  • Provide staff with appropriate training for pastoral care roles.


3.3 Good practice in feedback
(Chair: Mike Cole)

  • There was a lively debate that focussed on the nature of learning outcomes – and perceived difficulties with mapping them onto assessment. The authors point out that there is considerable information and debate in the literature about the curriculum design and the relationship between learning outcomes and assessment (eg Hussey and Smith 2002). This includes the seminal works of John Biggs who has provided a very useful framework for ‘constructively aligning’ learning outcomes and assessment and teaching practices (for a starter reference try Biggs 2003).
  • The concept of providing early feedback was generally supported and was a practice considered to be worthwhile. There are many ways of maximising the impact of feedback on learning. For example, under the appropriate circumstances, one suggestion was to encourage students to collect and reflect upon their feedback by withholding their grade until the student had met the tutor face-to-face.
  • There was a general consensus that feedback opportunities were more effective when units were designed with smaller, regular ‘chunks’ of assessment rather than one or two major pieces of assessed work. There was support for the role of peer assessment, as well as for ‘mock exams’ (for formative purposes) to enable students to improve preparations for summative examinations.


3.4 Staff development
(Chair: Shaheena Abbas)

Key issues in sharing and disseminating good practice were highlighted:

  • Disseminating good practice faculty-wide.
  • Help with the unfamiliar pedagogic language used in educational journals and in social science-related disciplines.
  • Focus on the importance of valuing achievement including incentives and parity with subject based research.

The group made a number of suggestions towards developing a faculty policy on sharing and disseminating good practice:

3.4.1 Good practice

  • Dedicated time for staff development.
  • Long and short term opportunities for staff to participate in learning and teaching knowledge and skills exchange schemes.

3.4.2 Support structures

  • A quality and well maintained faculty intranet for accessing resources on good practice in learning and teaching.
  • A community of Departmental learning development groups, whose work should be aligned with the University and Faculty Learning and Teaching strategies.
  • Development of (existing) staff mentoring scheme.

3.4.3 Celebrating staff achievement

  • Departmental recognition and reward for staff achievement in learning and teaching.
  • Faculty showcasing of student work as examples of good teaching practice.


4. Conclusions and recommendations

The Feedback and Student Retention event gave voice to a very wide range of views which are summarised in this article. A synthesis of those issues deserving the highest priority in terms of policy development and implementation is as follows:

  • Use programme review as an opportunity to design and implement aligned curricula where the nature and purpose of both assessment and feedback is made explicit and transparent.
  • Move towards quality rather than quantity in terms of learning goals, with sufficient time in the curriculum for reflection and feedback.
  • Ensure early feedback in all units with clear, high quality, constructive feedback for learners particularly at Year 1.
  • Re-consider (and audit) induction activities with a view to maximising academic and social integration, and explore possibilities for induction-related activities that extend further into the academic year.
  • Identify and remove barriers that prevent effective, timely feedback.
  • Provide appropriate CPD for staff (eg ideas for effective and timely feedback; considering feedback at a curriculum level; use of MLE for efficient, rapid feedback).
  • Create a foundation for (ongoing) development and sharing of good practice and the recognition and rewarding of staff and students.


5. References

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning Teaching for Constructive Learning. [Online] [Accessed 31st October 2007].

Brown, S. A., Race, P. and Smith, B. D. (2004). 500 Tips on Assessment. Second edition. RoutledgeFalmer, Oxon. [Also available as an e-book via the MMU library catalogue].

Hussey, T. and Smith, P. (2002). The trouble with learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(3), 220-233.

The STAR Project (Student Transition and Retention) [Accessed 31st October 2007].

6. Acknowledgements

In addition to the willing participants, this event could not have taken place without the generous assistance of all of the speakers (Pete Dunleavy, Alan Fielding, Margaret Fowler, Kate Kirk, Mark Langan, Dawn Nicholson and Atif Waraich), the students (Shahid Alam, Edward Charnley, Annabel Latham, Helen Mairs), the discussion group chairs (Shaheena Abbas, Mike Cole, Joyce Overfield and Malcolm Thomson), Barbara Furnival (Principal Faculty Administrator) the catering staff and various other individuals who helped make the event such a success.

About the Authors
photo of Dawn Nicholson

Dawn Nicholson
Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, Faculty of Science and Engineering

telephone: 0161 247 6232

photo of Dawn Nicholson

Mark Langan
Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, Faculty of Science and Engineering

telephone: 0161 247 1583

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