New study shows significant amount of online feedback unopened by university students

A new study led by researchers from Western University and Queen’s University Belfast shows that many students do not even open the feedback that is provided by their instructors online. The study also suggests that male students with low grade averages are far less likely to read feedback from faculty, but luckily there is a simple way to lessen this discrepancy.

Paul Mensink, an assistant professor in Western’s Department of Biology and the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, explores the use of educational technology to enhance learning outcomes for students.

Collaborating with Karen King from Queen’s University Belfast, Mensink used educational data mining to quantify student access of online feedback files posted to a learning management system. Learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Docebo) are widely used by instructors across the post-secondary education sector to manage courses and upload assignment feedback online. Mensink found that when students could see their mark before opening their feedback, 42 per cent of instructor feedback, which equates to hundreds of feedback files, was never accessed by students. This represents a critical breakdown in the feedback cycle for students and also demoralizes faculty that spend hours providing feedback on assignments.

The possible solution, according to Mensink, is simple and easy to implement – final assignment grades should be embedded into online feedback so that students have to access feedback files to obtain their mark and review instructor comments.

“It’s like grocery stores placing milk in the back, left corner. Even though you may initially just go in to get your milk, you normally pick up other things along the way. In this case, even if students access their feedback only to receive their mark, they are going to see their instructor comments and hopefully take them on board,” says Mensink.

Proving this methodology, the study showed that when assessment marks were integrated into the feedback, the proportion of unopened feedback dropped significantly to only 17 per cent.

graph from study with numerical evidenceOne of the most troubling findings of the study was that male students with lower grades were the least likely to access feedback, which means students that could benefit the most from reading feedback are not even looking at it. However, integrating marks into assignment feedback meant that males were more than 27 times more likely to access their feedback file. Interestingly, embedding marks into feedback showed relatively little impact for female students.

The study also showed that placing assignment deadlines near the end of the semester, as is commonly done in many courses for major assignments, reduces the likelihood that students will access feedback at all.

The findings were published in the journal, British Journal of Educational Technology.

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