What if early feedback made your students work harder? (Spoiler Alert)

One of the ways that we come up with questions for our freshman and senior surveys is by asking advisers about the concerns that students express to them. If we start to hear a particular theme, we try to find a way to capture that issue in a single question. Then, with the data from that item, we can test to see (1) if it really is a common problem or concern, and (2) whether that issue correlates with other experiences or the broader learning outcomes that we know are important for student success.

This is how we developed the freshman survey item to which students agreed or disagreed on a five point scale, “I had access to my grades and other feedback early enough in the term to adjust my study habits or seek help as necessary.” Numerous students had claimed that they didn’t know that they were struggling in one or more of their classes until very late in the term. They suggested that it wasn’t as if they had known their grades early in the term but hadn’t sought out academic support, but rather that they had either not been assigned enough (or more often, any) graded work to know their academic standing or that their homework wasn’t graded and returned or posted until well after the middle of the term. By the time they received their first substantive grade it was often well past the drop or withdrawal date and there was little time to recover. Moreover, these students often felt the late term pressure and in most cases had emotionally “given up” on the class.

So we inserted this item into last year’s freshman survey. Of the 286 responses, the answers were distributed like this:

  • Strongly Disagree – 30 (10%)
  • Disagree – 64 (22%)
  • Neutral – 77 (27%)
  • Agree – 89 (31%)
  • Strongly Agree – 22 (8%)

After seeing an even more “normal” distribution of responses (i.e., a bar graph of the responses that looks like a bell curve) from this year’s new mid-year freshman survey, I decided that it would be worth looking in more depth at this data to see if this item might be predictive of any other important important student-faculty interactions.

In fact, there were several student-faculty interaction items that were significantly influenced by early access to grades and feedback.  In each case, the more strongly students agreed with having access to grades and feedback, the more strongly they agreed with each of the following statements.

  • My one-on-one interactions with faculty have had a positive influence on my intellectual growth and interest in ideas.
  • My professors were interested in helping students grow in more than academic areas.
  • Faculty and staff at Augustana treated me like an individual.

Moreover, these statistically significant relationships held even after we controlled for incoming ACT score, parents’ education, and the Student Readiness Survey scales for academic habits, academic confidence, and persistence and grit.

By itself, these findings are important. But we found one other result that seems particularly useful. Even after controlling for the effects of the pre-college characteristics listed above, early access to grades and other feedback produced a statistically significant effect to a question that asked, “How often did you work harder than you have in the past in order to meet your instructor’s expectations?”

In other words, students who had access to grades and other feedback early enough in the term to adjust their study habits also indicated that they worked harder than they had in the past to meet their instructor’s expectations.

Why might this be? It might be because the early feedback gives students a chance to check themselves and reflect on their current level of effort. Furthermore, if the feedback comes in the form of an actual grade, it’s data that is difficult to ignore (we all have seen students demonstrate impressive levels of denial or willful blindness). This finding might also reflect the likelihood of an educational environment that emphasizes a continual exchange between the teacher and the student. This kind of environment is much more likely to result in a deeper level of student engagement in a course.

Yes, this finding isn’t absolute proof.  And yes, this is a statistically significant finding from only one cohort of freshmen.  And no, you’ll never get smoking gun evidence that one pedagogical practice will transform your most curmudgeonly student into a singing apostle for your discipline. However, this finding does comport with a compellingly large body of research on effective pedagogy for engaged student learning.

So you want your students to work harder in your class? Insert a substantive graded assignment early in the term. Turn that assignment around quickly with some extended formative feedback. Students will use that feedback to better grasp the degree to which they are working hard enough to meet your expectations. With that information they can adjust their efforts or seek out that academic resources might help them increase their likelihood of success.

Make it a good day,

Mark

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