Written feedback to students: an opportunity to build the field of HPSR
Socially and relationally we can, and indeed we do, build the field of health policy and systems research (HPSR) in many different ways. We conduct research with colleagues from other countries or disciplines. We attend conferences. We write and review for, and read, academic journals. And of course, we teach.
When it comes to teaching, we often think about the content we want to focus on, our style of teaching and the competencies we would like to build in our students. However, this blog focuses on the written feedback that educators give on students’ work, an often-neglected aspect of teaching, to argue that it too has an important role to play in building the field.
When we write comments on students’ work, a lot is going on all at once. An example of this is the work of Hyatt, who analysed feedback on master’s-level assignments and developed seven categories of feedback, with various sub-categories. Kumar and Stracke looked at the comments on a single PhD thesis and categorised them as referential, directive and expressive.
|Type of comment||Purpose|
|Phatic||To create and maintain a good social and academic relationship between the educator and student, for example by expressing interest, praise or encouragement.|
|Developmental||To help students with future work, through comments that offer alternatives to what the student wrote, suggestions and recommendations about what to do, posing reflective questions, or additional academic insight.|
|Structural||To improve the organisation of entire assignments, for example the links between the introduction, main text and conclusion, or individual sentences, for example with respect to their length or cohesion.|
|Stylistic||To improve the use of academic language by commenting on punctuation, choice of terminology, grammar, spelling, referencing and presentational aspects such as page numbering, subtitling, word length and acronyms.|
|Content||To improve the accuracy and appropriateness of the assignment, for example by commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of the content.|
|Methodological||To improve research-based assignments by commenting on the philosophical or epistemological approach, procedures around issues such as sampling, and process issues such as timeframe and feasibility.|
|Administrative||To deal with administrative requirements of the particular course, for example whether the student submitted the correct number of copies.|
|Source: Hyatt DF. (2005). ‘Yes, a very good point!’: a critical genre analysis of a corpus of feedback commentaries on Master of Education assignments. Teaching in Higher Education, 10(3): 339-353.|
Although one might want to tinker with the detail of some of the categories, a key lesson from work such as this is that the role of written feedback is not just informational, but also interpersonal and social. It goes beyond reactions, suggestions or advice for better assignments because it also allows the educator to negotiate a relationship with students and to adopt certain standpoints, even if implicitly, about the nature of the field and academic life, as well as the subject being taught.
This interpersonal and social dimension is explicitly present in Hyatt’s phatic comments and abundantly clear from the work of those such as Hyland and Hyland, who have documented ways in which educators hedge and mitigate their comments in an attempt to minimise the force of their criticisms and ensure positive relationships with students. Beyond the informational, which is of course important, this interpersonal and social dimension suggests various aspects of marking practice to be mindful of; aspects that can help to build the HPSR field.
Praise and criticism in feedback
First, we should use our written feedback to provide some measure of praise and motivation to students. Some of the research on praise and criticism in feedback has shown a very strong focus on what students did poorly or incorrectly, while other studies have confirmed how negative feedback can undermine students’ positive attitudes, confidence and motivation. Appropriately encouraged and supported students are key to the future uptake and vibrancy of the field.
HPSR classrooms are often filled with students from very different educational cultures and distinctive disciplines - economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, public health, epidemiology - who are asked to think about unusual things and undertake assignments their experience might not have prepared them well for.
A fair amount of praise and encouragement, instead of just adopting the marking posture of the critical judge of standards, can therefore be relevant to keeping students interested and motivated to work through the challenges they are likely to encounter. In this way, our feedback practice can complement other features of good teaching such as student participation and interaction in the classroom, which are also known to stimulate the desire to learn more, especially when students receive encouraging feedback on their questions and reflections.
Interestingly, providing praise and positive feedback seems not at all straightforward. Hyland and Hyland documented various ways in which educators mitigate their criticisms, for example by pairing praise with critical remarks, using hedges such as “a little”, “possibly” or “sometimes”, and asking questions instead of making direct comments. While some students highly value positive feedback, others seem to discount it completely as a mere attempt at mitigation. As the authors say, students are very good at “…recognising formulaic positive comments which serve no function beyond the spoonful of sugar to help the bitter pill or criticism go down”. Praise, to work best, should therefore be sincere, specific and linked to clearly identifiable pieces of the students’ work, not vague and formulaic.
Power in feedback
Actors and their power relationships are in the DNA of HPSR: we research it, we factor it in when we work in our research consortia, and it is relevant to how we mentor and support emerging researchers and educators to take their rightful place in the field. It is therefore, second, also something that we should be mindful of in our marking practice, which is often situated in very unequal power relations. Progressive notions such as the value of different perspectives or equity, which so permeate our other endeavours, should not be forgotten in the practice of giving feedback.
One of the risks in our written feedback practice is that we construct ourselves as unquestionable authorities. We can, for example, do this by peppering the text with instructions and words such as “should”, “must” or “ought” and by writing the feedback as a monologue from the educator to the student without making it clear that there is space to question the perspective of the educator and enter into a dialogue. Such practices can have the effect of closing down discussions with students, limiting their critical awareness and reflexivity, and turning them into disempowered actors who must simply learn and reproduce our rules, viewpoints and judgements.
This would be a huge missed opportunity because capacities such as reflexivity and the ability to discuss across boundaries are valued in HPSR generally and should therefore be role-modelled in marking as well, and because, as Hyatt argues, written feedback “…does more than merely assess; it facilitates learning and plays an induction role into the academic discourse community as well”. Too much power and too little reflexivity and discussion can only hamper this field-building opportunity in marking practice.
Transparency in marking
Linked to the ideas of reflexivity and inviting a dialogue with students, it seems important to use our written feedback to be as explicit and transparent as possible about key concepts that are central to the field and against which students are assessed.
I was surprised by a study that looked at the idea of “analysis” (students are frequently instructed to prepare an analysis, or criticised for being too descriptive and not analytical enough) and found that about 50% of the participating students did not understand this idea like their markers did. This got me thinking about HPSR: as an emerging and inter-disciplinary field, do we have terms that are frequently used, but that actually carry very different meanings for different people?
Such confusion might, of course, exist because concepts are inherently ambiguous and open to contestation or interpretation, or because they have different meanings in different disciplines. Either way, as practitioners in dialogue with each other or as educators in dialogue with our students (from different disciplines) through our written feedback, the field can only benefit from us being as explicit and transparent as possible about what we mean by terms that we might take for granted. How else can students be fully inducted into the central notions of the field and eventually fully participate in co-creating these meanings?
Marking and providing written feedback is very much a social and relational process through which we not only give information, but also induct students into the discourse community that is HPSR. It is important to take account of this social, relational and dialogic aspect because it can help us to build our field by, among other things:
- Supporting and motivating students, on whom the future of the field depends, and making engagement with our field a positive and empowering experience;
- Providing one of many avenues through which we can role-model important values such as a sensitivity to power imbalances, reflexivity, and openness to dialogue; and
- Fully inducting students into the discourse community that is HPSR, including clarifying and negotiating terms that are key to both students’ assessments and what it means to be part of HPSR more generally.
Ermin Erasmus, CHEPSAA coordinator