Charlotte E Taylor

  • Investigating students’ perceptions and use of feedback for first year undergraduate science assignments

    Charlotte E Taylor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, Australia

    Session 4b, Tuesday 16.00

    Research paper

    Theme addressed:

    • Supporting learners

    Feedback is an integral part of the Writing in Biology programme at the University of Sydney, playing a key formative role in the development of academic writing skills. This aspect of the learning process has been extensively evaluated and refined over the past 10 years (Taylor and Drury 2004, Ellis et al 2005), and its importance continues to be highlighted even in a period of cut-backs in face to face teaching. Although the provision of useful feedback is acknowledged as essential by both teachers and students (Orsmond et al 2005), there are logistical challenges in giving individual feedback to 1,000 students during their assignment writing. It is therefore crucial that we understand the effect of feedback on student learning so that we can maintain the efficiency and efficacy of this student-teacher interaction (Lea 2004; O’Donovan et al 2004).

    Quantitative data from 300 first year biology students on their perceptions of the feedback process and their approaches to use of feedback indicate that the feedback process is a positive experience, leading to increased confidence in writing abilities and flow-on effects to future assignments. However a majority of students still approach their writing as a technical process divorced from the learning and understanding of biology, and do not indicate any engagement in reflection and review (Ellis at al 2006). Students acknowledge that that they generally make few to moderate changes, mainly associated with tidying up the text, but with little change to explanations.

    With the advent of electronic submission of assignments (Laurillard 2002), and use of plagiarism software to check for cheating, we have the opportunity to analyse reports in draft and final presentation mode. The plagiarism software Copyfind ( compared each of 50 draft and final reports, and identified sections of the report which had been changed in some way following the initial feedback session. A linguistic analysis characterised the extent and level of changes made to the text. A parallel content analysis determined the level of changes made to the biological explanations within the report. The results indicate that student approaches to working with feedback can be categorised as:

    • use of electronic checks for minor language problems eg spelling and grammar,
    • minor revisions of the text to accommodate problems with word count requirements, including little change to the argument and minor improvements to the language
    • change to the structure of the text through ‘cutting and pasting’
    • improvements in cohesion of the text through modifications in language at the sentence level
    • changes in the biological content through addition of more explanations

    In most cases changes did not encompass major revision of the biological content to enhance argument and include new ideas. Neither did most changes involve a more sophisticated use of language to improve cohesion or explanation. Many of the feedback comments on such requirements appear to have little effect on student revision, presumably because students do not understand how to make such improvements.

    The outcomes of this study have emphasised the need for extensive modelling of the ways in which feedback can be used to make improvements. Accommodating the needs of large student cohorts has necessitated the design of online models, showing the process of changing language and content based on feedback comments.


    • Ellis R, Taylor CE and Drury H (2005) Evaluating writing instruction through an investigation of students’ experiences of learning through writing Instructional Science 33 (1) 49-71
    • Ellis R, Taylor CE and Drury H (2006) University Student Conceptions of Writing Australian Journal of Education 50(1) 6-29
    • Laurillard D (2002) Rethinking university teaching: a conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies Routledge Falmer, London
    • Lea MR (2004) Academic Literacies: a pedagogy for course design Studies in Higher Education 29(6) 739-756
    • O’Donovan B, Price M and Rust C (2004) Know what I mean? Enhancing student understanding of assessment standards and criteria Teaching in Higher Education 9(3) 326-335
    • Orsmond P, Merry S and Reiling K (2005) Biology students’ utilization of tutors’ formative feedback: a qualitative interview study Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 30(4) 369-386
    • Taylor CE and Drury H (2004) The effect of student prior experience, attitudes and expectations on performance in an undergraduate science writing. In G Rijlaarsdam, H van der Beerg and M Cousijns (Eds) Studies in Writing, 14, Effective Teaching and Learning of Writing p 561-574