What lies beneath tutors' feedback? Examining the role of feedback in developing 'knowers' in English Studies

Full Name: 
Dr Martina Van Heerden

Feedback plays an important role in student learning and development in higher education. However, for various reasons, it is often not as effective as it should be. Many studies have attempted to ‘solve’ the feedback situation by finding new ways to give feedback, or by exploring the various perceptions around feedback to see where the problem lies. In many of these studies, however, the purpose of feedback within disciplines are taken for granted or not actively made visible.

This study therefore explores how (or whether) the practice of feedback aligns with the often hidden, taken for granted purpose of feedback in a discipline. The study focused specifically on English Studies, an undergraduate first year literature course at the University of the Western Cape. As the nature of the discipline is often invisible, even to those who are familiar with the course, the study drew on Legitimation Code Theory, and specifically the dimensions of Specialisation and Semantics, to make the invisible purpose of the discipline more visible.

In so doing, it sought to enable a clearer understanding of what the purpose of feedback should be; namely, consistent with the underlying purpose of the discipline. English Studies was classified as a rhizomatic knower code, which means that what is valued in the discipline is not possessing knowledge as a study-able concept, but rather possessing the required aptitudes, attitudes, and dispositions. Feedback plays an important role in developing these knower attributes.

The study took a qualitative case study approach to obtain a full, detailed account of tutors’ feedback-giving practices. Data was collected from a small group of participant tutors, via questionnaires, focus group meetings, individualised interviews, and written feedback on sample essays provided by the tutors. 962 comments, spread over 65 essays, were analysed.

The study found that, in terms of Specialisation, there was a misalignment between the purpose and the practice of feedback: feedback did not predominantly and/or progressively focus more on making the knower code more visible. Instead, the feedback was largely focused on a relativist code and a knowledge code. This indicates that students may be being misled about what is valued in the discipline.

Additionally, in terms of Semantics, it was found that the feedback, given on single-draft submissions, would be more useful in a drafting cycle and that learning from the feedback was made difficult by the context-dependent comments that were either too complex to be enacted, or would be more appropriate in a drafting cycle. Ultimately, it was found that if there is not a careful consideration of what feedback should focus on, students may be misled about what is valued in the discipline. This could have effects beyond merely passing or failing the course.