With Ryerson’s D2L system, it can take several clicks before students are able to access an attached feedback file. (Angela McLean/Ryersonian)

A significant number of post-secondary students don’t open assignment feedback from instructors, according to a new academic study.

The study, conducted by researchers from Western University and Queen’s University Belfast, found that 42 per cent of assignment feedback is not opened when students are able to view their marks first.

While this means the majority of feedback—58 per cent—is opened regardless of students knowing their mark, there are still hundreds of files left unread.

For Paul Mensink, researcher and assistant professor in Western’s Department of Biology and the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, this presents a “double whammy.”

“Many students aren’t getting that valuable feedback that’s going to help them with the learning process and staff are spending lots of time providing that feedback that never gets opened,” he said.

Mensink has personal experience with low open rates on feedback. This inspired him to study the extent of the issue outside of his classes, and outside Western.

“I was providing feedback to students with track changes in Word but then just out of curiosity I went back to see how many students actually accessed all of those comments that we put in there and it was really low,” he said. “It was less than half for sure and in some cases, depending on the class, it was much lower than that.”

Data for feedback open rates amongst Ryerson students wasn’t specifically available, but the students and instructors the Ryersonian spoke to suggest similar results would be found.

Samanah Ali, a second-year journalism student, said she strongly values assignment feedback but knows people who don’t — and she understands why.

“I think it’s because not everyone is studying to gain knowledge and experience; many people just want the formal ‘qualification’ to get a job,” she said. “I personally love feedback because I’m here to gain knowledge. If I don’t get feedback or even good enough feedback, I often go and ask for it — especially when I don’t think I deserve the mark I got.”

Students can also feel discouraged from opening feedback when they know the comments will lack educational value or contain personal bias. Ali shared an experience of receiving feedback “that was loaded with the instructor’s political views.”

This raises the question of what “feedback” actually means to students.

“I think teachers don’t give feedback at all, and if they do they don’t give adequate feedback,” said Kendra Fernandes, a fourth-year professional communication student. “For instance, they don’t tell us how to improve, they only tell us what is wrong with our grade.”

Mensink agreed this is an issue.

“There’s a huge sort of discussion going on about what is the best type of feedback to give and how we do this in an appropriate way and how it becomes more of a dialogue between the instructor and the student, rather than you just receiving information,” he said.

“But I think the first step in that is making sure that people actually look at the feedback first.”

However, this is easier said than done.

There are several reasons why students may not look at their feedback, in addition to prioritizing their grade. One of those is simply not being able to find their feedback in their learning management system.

With Ryerson’s D2L system, it can take several clicks before students are able to access an attached feedback file.

“There are people who see their feedback and don’t click it, but now how long are you going to have to go in there and search for it?” Mensink said.

He said one solution here is making it as simple as possible for students to get their feedback.

“It’s subtle things in the process that maybe we’re not saying and subtle barriers in the system,” he said. “Kind of like how we recall cars, let’s recall learning management systems and see, is there anything we need to fix here.”

Knowing students’ patterns, Mensink wants learning management systems like D2L to offer instructors the ability to release feedback ahead of, or alongside grades. His study found that when assignment grades were embedded inside feedback files, the number of students who didn’t access their feedback dropped to 17 per cent.

D2L did not respond to the Ryersonian’s requests to understand if this function is available or in the works.

In the meantime, some professors, including here at Ryerson, have begun to circumvent the systems by providing feedback and grades in other ways, including by email or summarizing key lessons in class.

Jane Griffith, an assistant professor at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communication, says this study and student response goes to show more research needs to be done.

“Clearly there needs to be greater attention to any barriers students may be facing to reading, understanding and responding to feedback,” Griffith said. “Professors and teaching assistants put considerable time in providing feedback, so ensuring students are able to access it greatly matters.”

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