5.4 Skills of providing feedback

In this section, we look at possible marking approaches in a little more detail. Tutors naturally have individual styles of commenting, so there are no hard-and-fast rules for good correspondence tuition. Whatever type of feedback is included, it is important to bear in mind that the tone can provide much more motivation for the student if it is expressed in a positive way.

Students often spend a significant amount of time on their assignments and have a good sense of achievement when they submit it. Marking comments should therefore be encouraging, even if the student has dropped marks on the assignment.

In her work on a major OU research project into correspondence tuition, Mirabelle Walker (Walker, 2009) investigated student responses to different types of feedback received via comments on their TMAs.

Her findings in An investigation into written comments on assignments: do students find them usable? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   help to give a feel for the kind of comments that students find most useful.

In particular, Walker discovered that:

"...students appreciate motivating comments; the most effective comments for the student’s future work are those that relate to skills development; the most effective comments for helping students to understand inadequacies in their work are those that are designed to help the student bridge the gap between their current knowledge, understanding and skills and those expected of them."

Looking in a little more detail, an analysis of the tutor comments she reviewed revealed that they could be categorised into three types:

Depth 1 comments indicate a problem.

  • ‘More needed here’ (a comment relating to content)
  • ‘Poor structure’ (a comment addressing a skill) are of this type.

Depth 2 comments correct a problem.

  • ‘You should have included something about the actual data rates’
  • ‘Your answer would have had a better structure if you had started with an introductory paragraph and also used shorter paragraphs throughout’ are of this type, as is the insertion of the right answer alongside/after an incorrect one.'

Depth 3 comments not only correct a problem but also go on to explain why. The depth 2 comments above would become depth 3 as follows:

  • ‘You should have included something about the actual data rates here because ...’
  • ‘Your answer would have had a better structure if you had started with an introductory paragraph and also used shorter paragraphs throughout. This is because…'

The research showed that the depth 3 comments can help students understand their feedback, so can be very effective in building a ‘bridge’ between where the student is now and where they need to be.

Often, the students who struggle don’t attend tutorials and their written work is the only opportunity tutors have for providing encouragement. How successful this is may well influence a student’s decision as to whether to continue with the module.

Activity 3

Take a few minutes to reflect on when you have been on the receiving end of written feedback in any context.

How have you felt, what has been useful and what less so?

Does the language used make a difference to how you feel about the feedback?

Post your thoughts to the discussion forum and comment on some other posts. Do you agree with the other posters?

In the following example, which asks the student to write part of a computer program, the tutor has enclosed part of a model solution and shown the student how and why the correct approach works.

Student's attempt

How many Boxes

boxes output: No discount


boxes >4 5% discount


boxes >12 10% discount


>= expression (>=30) -----------> 20% discount

Tutor's response

"This is a good attempt, but the question wanted you to produce something with more detail that was closer to the example I have added here. As you can see it shows the ‘if’ statements and the indentation – indentation might seem unnecessary, but as you develop your programming skills it will help you to read code and to find errors more easily. The sample solution that I have added below shows the level of detail:

if (the number of boxes is 3 or fewer)

inform the customer that they are not entitled to a discount


if (the number of boxes is 11 or fewer)

inform the customer that the volume discount is 5%


if (the number of boxes is 30 or fewer)

inform the customer that the volume discount is 10%


inform the customer that the volume discount is 20%."

In the example above, the student is praised for what they have done, then given further advice and a sample solution. This gives a good sense of dialogue as if the student was sitting next to the tutor having a conversation.

Tutors also often have students whose work is very good and may think there’s not much to add except tick their answers and give some words of praise. However, these students also need an appreciation of their efforts, and perhaps there are places where they can be stimulated to engage in further enquiry.

Some modules have especially challenging problems to attempt, for example, some students may respond eagerly to the idea that they are capable of tackling them. On the assignment, a hint or a question may lead such students in new directions.

One way to stretch a good student is to suggest an alternative answer, as shown in the following example.

Student's attempt

"For the library keywords, I chose to use strings, with a minimum of three characters, and a maximum of 30. I feel this represented a good balance between user freedom and practicality. Hopefully, a three-character minimum will capture typographical errors.

"A 30-character maximum should be sufficient, although pictures related to Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis may cause problems. 30 characters also allow users to use small groups of words as keywords. The alternative was to provide one large string area for multiple keywords. This system is unsatisfactory as it would require the user to separate the keywords with commas or other punctuation."

Tutor's response

"Well, a fair argument but the case where there are more than 30 characters can’t really be ruled out.

"An alternative is to argue that keywords will most likely be passed to a search engine that accepts a single string, so there is no need to provide any greater structure here – a simple string for the whole sequence of keywords is sufficient."

On a more general note, if a question has not been attempted at all, then it is a good idea to try to find out if the student didn’t find the time, didn’t understand what to do, or has lost the confidence to even try. In this way, appropriate support can be provided.

5.3.4 Coordination and monitoring of marked assignments

5.5 Feedback and feedforward