Unpublished papers

On this page I have added some of  my writings that have been unpublished. To make it easier to navigate, I have used subheadings.


You are welcome to use this paper freely but I would appreciate it if you could cite it as:Norton, L.  (2019) Personal reflections on feedback. Retrieved (insert date i.e. month, day, year) from http://linnorton.co.uk/

‘Feedback that encourages students to become judges of their own work: some musings’

Much has been written about feedback in general, but the clear consensus is that there is a need to   shift our approach from thinking about feedback as information we provide to our students (monologic/directive/one way) to thinking about feedback more as a process (dialogic/participative/two way) in which we help students to judge the quality of their own work.

‘…It emphasises dialogue which could be with a teacher, peer, other contact, or the self through some form of inner dialogue; and emphasis is placed on what students do with feedback in relation to their current or future work and/or in terms of modifying the kinds of learning strategies they are adopting’. (Carless ,  2015:192)[1]  (my underlining).

I have underlined the above phrase as for many years I have tried to encourage ‘meta-learning’ in students (not always an easy task as it’s not a comfortable term); some prefer fostering students’ meta-cognitive or learning to learn skills but the following definition might show what I am trying to get at here:

‘An awareness and understanding of the phenomenon of learning itself as opposed to subject knowledge.  Implicit within this definition is the learner’s perception of the learning context which includes knowing what the expectations of the discipline are and, more narrowly, the demands of a given learning task’. (Norton, Owens & Clark, 2004)[2]

Whatever the term, it is important because students with a high level of meta-learning are able to assess how effective their learning approach is and are able to regulate it according to the demands of the learning task.  However, students low in meta-learning will not be able to reflect on their learning approach or the nature of the learning task set and are less able to successfully adapt when studying becomes more difficult and demanding.

Relating meta-learning to feedback the question becomes how do we encourage our students to understand that the demands of an assignment are just part of the bigger picture of their overall learning development?  If they, and we, simply concentrate on the assessment task itself (including assessment criteria), then are we in danger of legitimizing a mechanistic and strategically orientated approach to learning? Sadler ( 2013)[3] argues that we need to start thinking beyond this rather narrow issue of how feedback can be improved and communicated to the broader issue of how assessment itself frames learning… I like this very much but am conscious that looking beyond how to improve feedback is probably not possible in the current HE climate.

An interim position might be then to think of sustainable ways of enabling our students to become more effective in judging the value of their own work and that encourage meta-learning.


‘Written feedback’

Jolly and Boud  (2012)[4] have written an interesting chapter on written feedback exploring its pros and cons as well as making suggestions about how we might improve it.  A standout point for me was  what they said about trying to avoid ‘final vocabulary’[5]  Their argument here is that there are certain words and phrases in our feedback that leave our students no room to manoeuvre, negotiate or act on our comments. These can be positive (e.g.  Good, Excellent, Well done, I like what you’ve written here; A nicely constructed argument) or negative (e.g.  Poor, You’ve missed the point; Read more) but the point about them is they shut down rather than open up students’ ability to respond.

Jolly & Boud argue that such feedback is not helpful because:

  1. It lacks any supportive content and is mainly a one way process (feedback as telling/monologic)
  2. It says little, if anything about what the student might do in future work
  3. It inhibits the possibility of dialogue

I am taken by this as it resonates with some of the principles of counselling which stress the importance of open-ended questions or comments that prolong dialogue (and empower the counsellee) rather than comments which bring everything to a grinding halt, and affirm our position as experts who hold all the answers …. or I am overstating the case here?

Jolley and Boud suggest that rephrasing some of our statements to questions can be an effective way of opening up dialogue. They give the example of how the comment ‘The level of detail is poor’ can be rewritten in the form of questions such as ‘What missing details could you usefully include?’  or ‘You have identified three factors contributing to xxx but what others are there? How might you fully justify each of the ones you have included?’

 I have tried this approach with some third year undergraduate Education Studies students with somewhat mixed results, but I felt there was enough potential in it to pursue with some of the feedback I give at doctoral level.


[1] Carless, D. (2015) Excellence in university assessment : learning from award-winning practice. London: Routledge

[2] Norton, L., Owens, T. & Clark, L. (2004)  Encouraging metalearning in first year undergraduates through reflective discussion and writing.  Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 41, 4, 423-441

[3] Sadler, D. R. (2013) ‘Opening up feedback: Teaching learners to see’. In Merry, S., Price, M., Carless, D., & Taras, M. (Eds.) Reconceptualising Feedback in Higher Education: developing dialogue with students. (Ch. 5, 54-63). London: Routledge.

[4] Jolly, B. & Boud, D (2012) Written feedback. What is it good for and how can we do it well? Ch.7., pp104-124 in Boud, D & Molloy, E. (Eds) Feedback in Higher and Professional Education. Routledge

[5] The concept of final vocabulary

‘All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes… A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as ‘true’, ‘good’, ‘right’, and ‘beautiful’. The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, ‘Christ’, ‘England’, … ‘professional standards’, … ‘progressive’, ‘rigorous’, ‘creative’. The more parochial terms do most of the work’.  (Rorty 1989, p.73)

Reference: Rorty, R (1989)Contingency, irony and solidarity Cambridge University Press


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