Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Pilot Study Findings

It’s Good to Talk: Feedback, Dialogue and Learning


Our research project is based on research findings from other studies on feedback which suggest that students needed dialogic feedback in order for it to be effective (Hounsell, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Nicol, 2009) and that few students currently have opportunities for this type of feedback. Therefore the project aims to develop a number of feedback models which would encourage feedback-dialogues. Two traditional subjects History and Politics were chosen to be part of the study, perhaps because these subjects still often use traditional transmission teaching methods (Booth, 2003) such as the lecture and traditional assessment methods, such as the essay. It was also important for our study to take into account the university context, for example the current state of feedback practices within each institution (De Montfort, London Metropolitan and Warwick).

De Montfort

The university context of De Montfort is small cohorts (approximately thirty) of ‘non-traditional’ students, who are often the first person in their family to attend university. There is a well-established and effective tutorial system particularly in History for these students and this is reflected in the high score the department receives for feedback on the National Student Survey.


The university context of Warwick is larger cohorts (approximately one hundred) of ‘traditional’ students. These students are very high achieving A Level grade students who see Warwick as an alternative to Oxbridge. The students are often taught by postgraduates in the first year and the large number of lecturers teaching one module can make receiving feedback difficult. There is a wide variation in satisfaction levels between the History and Politics department. This is particularly problematic for joint honours students.

London Metropolitan

The university context of London Metropolitan is large cohorts (one hundred plus) of non-traditional students, including mature students and international students. These Politics/International Relations students are very keen to receive feedback, but receiving written feedback is a challenge and therefore verbal feedback is even more difficult to encounter.

Any models that are to be developed need to build upon the current context of the institution in order to be effective, therefore this project is not recommending a ‘one-size’ fits all approach, but rather a range of platforms in which to support feedback-dialogues.

Background literature

Research on feedback has started to query the extent to which feedback delivered through transmission is effective for student learning and development (Bloxham & Campbell, 2010, p. 291) This type of feedback process has been characterised as ‘monologic’ communication (Lillis, 2001, Millar, 2005). Our NTFS funded project ‘It’s Good to Talk: Feedback, Dialogue and Learning’ aims to develop models of feedback which are dialogic in order to improve student learning. Several studies, such as Gibbs & Dunbar-Goddet (2007) have already commented on the benefit of feedback-dialogues for students. Carless (2006) emphasises the importance of ‘assessment dialogues’ between students and tutors as a means to tackle students’ misunderstanding regarding feedback and assessment processes in general and the differing perceptions of students and staff.

Students in Bloxham and West’s (2007) study identified dialogue with tutors as a key aid in negotiating the meaning of both assessment guidance and written feedback. The National Union of Students (NUS) has also issued a feedback charter emphasising the need for students to have opportunities to discuss feedback with tutors (Porter, 2009 in Burke & Pieterick, 2010). Indeed consecutive National Student Surveys (2005-2009) have continued to highlight student dissatisfaction with feedback. However, as Nicol (2008) argues increasing feedback will not satisfy students because they seek dialogic not monologic communication. However in most current higher education contexts, the prospect of tutor-student dialogues appears enormously resource heavy.



This pilot study was intended to form the reconnaissance stage of an action research project. Action research is a popular methodology within education research as it aims to improve aspects of practice. The founding father of action research Kurt Lewin (1946) wanted to take the principle of an experiment in a laboratory into, for example the classroom. Action research has strong emancipatory principles, allowing the practitioner to research, develop and reflect on their own practice (Carr &Kemmis,1986; Somekh, 2006). There are traditionally several stages to a piece of action research these are reconnaissance, planning, preliminary research, formulating research questions, implementing, observing, recording and reflecting (Cousin, 2009, pp.157-158). And this enables the researcher to identify and address the issue in question, this is done on a cyclical basis to enable subsequent refinements to be made to the practice. There are three types of action research: emancipatory, technical and reflective. As this project has been designed with a research assistant working with several practitioners, an action research model which combines both technical and reflective practices is recommended. This methodology builds upon other assessment research which has also adopted this model, for example Swann and Ecclestone, (1999).

Research methods

The reconnaissance stage of our project has incorporated two key research methods:

semi-structured interviews (Cresswell, 2003) and questionnaires (Denscombe, 2003). Both research methods have been used with both students’ and lecturers’. This has enabled us to understand commonalities and disjunctures between attitudes towards feedback approaches from both groups and any key issues that may emerge. The semi-structured have had the advantage of providing qualitative data whilst also allowing for the issues that were considered to be important to each group to be heard. The questionnaire data has provided an overview of student and lecturers perspectives in a quantitative form, whilst the open-ended responses have allowed for qualitative data to be included in this large data-set. Appendix a provides an overview of the data collected.


The findings reported in this section of the pilot study focus on the student and lecturer participants from De Montfort University only to concentrate on the issues raised from two different perspectives. However, the initial findings overview (see separate document) includes a commentary on the differences between the three institutions.

Lecturer as ‘expert’

The students were familiar with having tutorials to discuss their feedback, for example they were able to ask questions. However, the students’ comments indicated that the dialogue they had was one-sided, with the lecturer taking on the role of ‘expert’.

Normally when I get my coursework back they normally go through it and tell me what’s wrong and how I can improve it. (Rosie, interview)

For some students, particularly younger students, they found this one-sided relationship unproblematic because they felt they benefited from the lecturers telling them how to improve.

I think it has helped me a lot, my grades used to be in the 50s and now they are up to 60s, 70s so they have improved. (Rosie, interview)


Mature students were not as comfortable with this transmission style of verbal feedback, sometimes feeling they did not agree with the tutor feedback or that they did not have control over the conversation.


I’ve heard from other people that History lecturers can be a bit more their view is the right view in their attitude but the experience that I’ve had is that they will listen and you can argue your point. (Jaz, interview)


However, the lecturers themselves did not perceive their feedback strategies as that of an ‘expert’. For the lecturers they believed feedback to be a two-way process with the student and tutor working together to improve feedback. This indicates that there may be a discrepancy between the student and staff perspective in the way in which feedback-tutorials are conducted.


I don’t see it as a one way process that happens at set times and that’s it. Rigid. I think for me it is something that’s ongoing throughout the year constantly. It’s not just built around their coursework or exams but feedback two ways on what I’m giving them, how they are responding to it, can I tweak what I’m doing but also how they’re responding to it. How they are feeling about the work that come in, an ongoing two way. (History Lecturer)

Lecturer and student perspectives also appeared to differ in terms of students’ capabilities of being involved in peer feedback sessions. Many students seemed keen to be involved in peer feedback and often used their own student network to give each other feedback on their assignments.

Peer feedback is good and I sort of have gone through my essays and read through my friends essay and she goes through mine and I live with her and someone is on my course so we help each other with our essays and stuff. (Scott, interview)

Overall, students had generally not experienced peer feedback within their modules formally, but students who had had these opportunities spoke of them very positively.

Well on one of the modules with *Tutor in *subject we did a couple of things. We did seminar papers in the second year. I passed my essay and that was posted on AR, the online message board and we discussed it in the seminar and this year we did a Wiki project so we could have a go at that... I felt good. There were people commenting on my work on the Wiki project online that said it was good so that made me feel nice about it and then the seminar paper was good because other students brought out some of the things that were lacking and we discussed it so that I got different views about it, the situation that was. (Scott, interview)

Some lecturers, on the other hand, felt that students could not be objective and would not have the knowledge to give each other feedback accurately.

There’s also kind of peer feedback, as well, I suppose, in there, it’s not assessed and it’s very informal but when they do presentation part of that is that they must ask a question and feedback on someone else’s presentation as well. So it doesn’t necessarily work that well because they are aware of commenting on their friends. What works more effectively is that I also give them an anonymised essay by a students from a previous year, one example of a 1st class and one example of a fail or something like that and talk about it in the groups and they are much more honest in criticising them because it’s anonymised so that works very well as anonymous peer feedback.( History Lecturer)


Questionnaire data?


The findings from De Montfort indicate that the tutorial system is effective and that students and lecturers have a good relationship. However, for older students there appeared to be some resentment towards lecturers as experts and a wish for a more collegial dialogue. The students’ interviewed reported positive experiences of informal and formal peer feedback opportunities. However, some lecturers appeared reluctant to develop more formal opportunities for this as they did not believe students had the capability or objectivity needed for this to be effective.

In light of these findings, I suggest that there appears to be a range of levels of feedback-dialogue:

  • Level 1 - a tutor-student discussion of feedback (tutorial). Predominately tutor lead, essentially transmission, but with opportunities for the student to ask questions and seek clarification.
  • Level 2 - student - tutor discussion of feedback (student instigated meeting). Student led, going deeper into issues surrounding feedback. Level 2 might be motivated by dissatisfaction or challenging of the grade, alternatively it may be highly motivated students who recognise the inadequacies of Level 1.


  • Level 3 - Tutor-student discussion of feedback (more equal contribution, learning from each other). I envisage Level 3 as the 'most engaged' and the issue then is how to develop strategies to instigate this level of dialogue. This may also be the closest to Habermas’s ‘ideal speech act’ because it is the closet to be based on equality and is applicable also to student to student dialogue.


For the students at De Montfort because tutorials are well established it appears that opportunities for greater equality in the feedback-dialogue process between lecturer and student or student peer feedback should be focused on. An example of how student-lecturer feedback could be developed is through the use of interactive feedback pro-formas (Bloxham & Campbell, 2010). In this study students were asked to comment on their own assignments (self-assess) and ask questions about their assignment, so that feedback was specifically tailored to them. Brannon & Knoblauch (1982) comment on the ‘gap’ between what the writer is trying to achieve and what the reader reads. Therefore, they recommend a commentary between the writer and reader to bridge the gap between ‘current and desired’ performance (Sadler, 1989).


A range of feedback-dialogue models will be instigated to encourage dialogue whilst taking into consideration the university/student feedback context. For De Montfort, this is likely to focus on greater equality in feedback-dialogues between students and lecturers and more formal opportunities for peer feedback. However, at Warwick and London Metropolitan their university contexts may require different strategies.


Bloxham, S. & Campbell, L. (2010) 'Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: exploring the use of interactive cover sheets', Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (3), pp. 291 — 300


Bloxham, S & West, A (2007) Learning to write in higher education: Students’ perceptions of an intervention of developing understanding of assessment criteria, Teaching in Higher Education, 12(1), 77 – 89

Booth, A (2003) Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding, London: Routledge

Brannon, l. & Knoblauch, C.H. (1982) On students’ rights to their own texts: A model of teacher response, College composition and communication, 33(2), pp.157-166


Burke, D. & Pieterick, J. (2010) Giving Students Effective Written Feedback, OUP


Carless, D. (2006) Differing perceptions in the feedback process. Studies in Higher Education, 31, (2) 219-233.

Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming critical: education, knowledge and action research, London: Falmer Press

Cresswell, J.W. (2003) Research Design: qualitative, quantitative and mixed method approaches, London : SAGE, 2nd ed

Cousin, G. (2009) Researching learning in higher education: an introduction to contemporary methods and approaches, London : Routledge

Denscombe, M. (2003) The good research guide: for small- scale social research projects, Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2nd ed


Gibbs, G., and H. Dunbar-Goddet. 2007. The effects of programme assessment environments on student learning.

pf2656lr (accessed July, 2010).


Hounsell, D. 2007. Towards a more sustainable feedback to students. In Rethinking assessment

in higher education, ed. D. Boud and N. Falchikov, 101–13. London: Routledge.


Hounsell, D., V. McCune, J. Hounsell, and J. Litjens. 2006. The quality of guidance and feedback


Habermas, J. (1979) Communication and the evolution of society, London , Heinemann Educational.

Lewin, K. (1946) Action research and minority problems, Journal of Social Issues, 2 (4), pp.34-46

Lillis, T. M. (2001) Student writing: access, regulation and desire, London : Routledge.

Millar, J. 2005. Engaging students with assessment feedback: What works? A literature review. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.


Nicol, D. 2008. Re-designing assessment and feedback: A learning-centred perspective (Centre for Teaching, Learning & Assessment Colloquium, Assessment and High-Quality Learning). Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh.



Nicol, D. 2009. Assessment for learner self-regulation: Enhancing achievement in the first year using learning technologies. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 34, no. 3: 335–52.


Nicol, D. J and Macfarlane – Dick, D (2006) Formative assessment and self – regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218

Sadler, D.R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems, Instructional Science, 18, 119-144.

Somekh, B. (2006) Action research: a Methodology for Changes and Development, Maidenhead: Open University Press

Swann, J. & Ecclestone, K. (1999) Improving Lecturers' Assessment Practice in Higher Education: a problem - based approach. Educational Action Research, 7, (1)


Appendix a

Institution DMU London Met Warwick
Student interviews 8   4
Staff interviews 12 3  
Focus groups   1 1
Student questionnaires 112 188  
Staff questionnaires     16

Table 1. Overview of data collected by university institution

Appendix b. Student information

Student name Pseudonym Year Subject Uni Gender Age Ethnicity
Rachel Rosie 2 History DMU F T W
Raj Jaz 2 Hist&Ed DMU M M A
27/05 Scott 3 Hist&Eng DMU M T W
Rob Dave 1 Hist&Ed DMU M M W

Appendix c. Pen-pictures

Rosie is a second year History student, retaking this year due to illness. She has found tutorials beneficial with her grades having increased significantly, giving her a strong incentive to continue to engage in this dialogic feedback process.

Jaz is a mature-student studying joint History and Education He feels that he receives more feedback in Education Studies, but is not too concerned as he is confident enough about being pro-active about getting feedback from the History lecturers. He believes they are more than willing to discuss feedback, but the student needs to take responsibility for initiating this exchange.

Scott is a final year student who has studied joint History and English. His experience of feedback-dialogues has been much more consistent in History because the lecturers have stayed the same and this has enabled him to build up an effective relationship with them over the three years and has made him feel more comfortable in approaching them. The rapid turnover of staff in the English department has meant he has found it difficult to build relationships with lecturers.

Dave is a mature student who has left 20 years in the retail industry to study at university. This has been a huge change for him and he has felt that the university is not geared up for mature students and that the evaluation sheets do not result in practice improving. He has wanted to have more dialogic feedback with other students, for example in seminar presentations, but has found that younger students are reluctant (he suggests a lack of confidence) to engage in these types of practices.