Jill Millar

  • Painting by numbers: assessment feedback and improving learning

    Jill Millar 
    Oxford Brookes University

    Session 5a

    Wednesday 5 September 2007, 09.30-10.30

    Research paper

    Themes: Better understanding of the discipline

    This paper offers a Foucauldian approach to the nature of coursework feedback, and questions its capacity, in Sadler’s words, to “improve and accelerate learning” (1998, p.77). Does written feedback operate to improve learning, supporting a better understanding of subject and discourse? Or does it act to exclude students from full participation in the academic community, requiring them instead to try to follow instructions to improve their grades- the equivalent of a kind of academic painting by numbers?

    For feedback to improve learning it needs to be understood. The limited research that has been done in this area found that students claim to understand their feedback but has not investigated how far their confidence is justified. For instance, while students may be aware that discourse requirements shape feedback (Woodward Kron 2004), it is less clear how far they understand how and why they are expected to conform to those requirements. The potential for students to misunderstand feedback and to treat it as a set of unquestioned instructions is compounded by the finding of Brown and Glover that written feedback can lack explanation (2006). This supports Sadler’s suggestion that staff may be comparing student work against a “reference framework” that is “unarticulated” to those being assessed (1998, p.79), particularly since, as Woodward Kron indicates, students tend not to be seen as apprentices within the academic community (2004).

    The paper describes a qualitative investigation into coursework feedback, focussing on the extent to which it was articulated and understood by staff and students. Building upon classification strategies developed by Brown and Glover (2006) and Hyatt (2005), the coursework feedback given to undergraduate students on 3 business school modules was analysed in terms of the language used, the depth of explanation available, and the tone adopted. Qualitative interviews with staff and students were also conducted to explore the meanings attributed to the feedback by both its givers and its recipients.

    The paper suggests that there was a tendency to use terms with specific academic content expressed as a requirement, such as “more analysis”, and that such terms were not always understood by students, even where they initially said that they understood (and would follow) their feedback. In addition, the meaning of concepts such as a “polished analysis” (a criterion identified in modular feedback forms)often eluded staff and students alike, but did not appear to have been discussed by them.

    The paper concludes by developing a Foucauldian interpretation of the research findings. The work of Foucault has rarely been invoked in pedagogic analysis, but his perspective has an explanatory power when applied to the operation of coursework feedback, including the way in which the deployment of academic discourse in coursework feedback acts as a disciplinary technique, measuring and judging students, while excluding them from a full comprehension of and involvement in the academic community. Taking this approach such coursework feedback can be seen to inhibit understanding, and at best to support an unquestioning painting by numbers approach to learning. Applying Foucauldian ideas of resistance also help to explain why students do not engage with their feedback, and point to strategies for identifying a better quality of feedback which does support subject learning.


    • Brown, E. and Glover, C., (2006) Evaluating Written Feedback. In Bryan, C. and Clegg, K., (eds) Innovative Assessment in Higher Education. London: Routledge
    • Hyatt, D., 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), pp. 339-353.
    • Foucault, M., (1977) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin
    • Sadler, D.R., 1998. Formative Assessment: Revisiting the Territory. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5 (1), pp. 77-85.
    • Woodward- Kron, R., (2004) ‘Discourse communities’ and ‘writing apprenticeship’: an investigation of these concepts in undergraduate Education students’ writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 3, pp.139-161.