Orsmond,P. & Merry,S. (2009) "Processing tutor feedback: a consideration of qualitative differences in learning outcomes for high achieving and non high achieving students" This is an excerpt of a draft paper, that was presented at a conference (EARLI 2009), and is expected to be substantially revised and then published.

It is argued that students' initial attitude will greatly influence how tutor feedback will be used to improve future course work. The cause and effect of this can however be questioned.

Orsmond and Merry tried to evaluate how high and non-high achieving students used tutor feedback. They set out to analyse:

1. If there is a difference how high achieving and non-high achieving undergraduates use self regulatory processes when evaluating tutor feedback

2. Do external regulatory processes influence learning of tutor feedback

3. The role of social interaction in learning

To do this, they used 36 3rd year biology undergraduates from 4 UK universities. The study consisted of separate focus groups of high and non-high achievers from three of the universities, and in-depth individual interviews with student from the fourth. The students’ marks were used to determine if they were in the high achieving or non-high achieving group. (Not stated how high marks needed to be considered high achiever)

The design consisted of asking the students how they handled tutor feedback and their deeper understanding of what it meant. Issues discussed consisted of:

1. How the feedback was read and interpreted

2. How they improved future work due to feedback

3. If they spoke to peers or staff about their work

4. If discussion helped them understand their feedback

1. Internal regulatory processes

For the first question, it was found that self regulatory processes were present in the high achieving group, which could grasp wider concepts and variations of the feedback. They were also the group that seemed to use the feedback properly. The non-high students did not. While the high achievers said that they used the feedback to improve present work, future work or get a deeper understanding of the subject, the non-high achievers reported that their main goal was to not get lower grades than they had gotten previously.

2. External regulatory processes

When analyzing the effect of external regulatory processes, both groups showed that they were able to identify first class essays, but only the high achieving group could use this as a reference to in turn produce good essays.

It was found that non-high achievers did not understand that a solid grasp of a subject did not automatically mean a good grade. The high achievers knew that the information must be presented in a certain way and could better handle to change their work to suit the tutor.

Both groups could identify hidden curriculums in as assignments, but only High achievers were willing to challenge the tutor’s view of how something should be done and the concept of right and wrong. This group seemed to be better at analyzing which parts of the tutor’s feedback that was of importance, and which could be ignored. The non-high achievers accepted the tutor’s view, as this is the important one to get them better marks, and did thereby want to understand all feedback fully.

The high achievers applied the feedback to different areas of future work, indicating that they understood the underlying meaning of if, while non-achievers tended to only use this information to improve similar tasks. When asked how they handled not getting any feedback at all but the grade, the high achieving group said they could find any information they wanted elsewhere, whereas the non-high achievers felt lost.

3. Role of interaction

Both groups said they used peer discussion to understand subjects and feedback, but only high achievers discussed specific feedback openly. By doing this, they seem to understand it better. The non-high achievers spoke to peers about what the tutor might want, rather than the topic. This group was found to be less willing to talk to their tutor about any issues concerning their work, as they believed this would mean that they would need to seem knowledgeable of the topic.

It was thereby concluded that having a more holistic view of the task at hand and the feedback given on it will produce a better end product and future results. The high achievers seemed to have a more positive and interested view to begin with, and would then be more inclined to explore issues further, giving them more background information, giving them deeper knowledge, motivating them to investigate it further.

Further reading:

Marton, F., and Säljö, R, (1976b) On qualitative differences in learning II – outcome as a function of the learner’s conception of the task, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46: 115-127.

Orsmond, P., Merry, S, & Reiling, K (2005) Biology students’ utilisation of tutors’ formative feedback: a qualitative interview study, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 30: 369- 386.

Orsmond, P., Merry, S. & Sheffield, D (2006) A quantitative and qualitative study of changes in the use of learning outcomes and distractions by students and tutors during a biology poster assessment, Studies in Educational Evaluation, 3: 262-287.

Orsmond, P and Merry, S. (2010) Feedback alignment: effective and ineffective links between tutors’ and students’ understanding of coursework feedback., Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education: 1-12