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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Student optimism and appreciation of feedback

Mel Ziman
School of Exercise, Biomedical & Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University
Jan Meyer
School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia
Kayty Plastow,
Carrick Institute Grant, The University of Western Australia
Georgina Fyfe
School of Biomedical Sciences, Curtin University of Technology
Sue Fyfe
School of Public Health, Curtin University of Technology
Kathy Sanders and Julie Hill
School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia
Richard Brightwell
School of Exercise, Biomedical & Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University

Optimism and self confidence are important factors in learning outcome and key determinants in student success at a tertiary institution. One factor that contributes to reduced success of students with lower confidence levels is the impact of feedback on their learning, and in turn this affects its value for these students. In addition large classes are a challenge for students with low self confidence and online feedback may offer a less confrontational strategy. In this study we investigate student response to feedback, in particular students' perceptions of the value of online feedback, relative to their self confidence as indicated by self predictions of grades. The student cohort is a large and diverse group of undergraduate students studying first year human biology in three Western Australian universities.

Results show that self confidence, sex, age and previous experience of feedback influence the way in which students value and use the feedback they receive. Optimistic students with confidence in their learning see many ways in which feedback can be useful to their learning. These students also tend to use feedback more constructively to improve learning outcomes. Students with little confidence in their learning ability are negatively affected by some forms of feedback and see fewer benefits in the feedback they receive. These results suggest that students with lower self confidence would benefit from more opportunities, at an earlier stage of their studies, to learn to reflect on feedback and build skills to use feedback constructively. The authors of this paper propose strategies to implement this support in large first year classes, using online assessment.


Assessment provides a framework for sharing educational objectives with students and for charting their progress. Feedback on performance, in class, on assignments or online, is aimed at providing students with the tools to restructure their understanding, enhance their skills and build more powerful ideas and capabilities (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). Feedback on formative assessment in particular is provided with the intention to empower students to become self regulated learners. It influences how students feel about themselves (Young 2000) which, in turn, affects what and how they learn (Rosenberg et al, 1995). However, research has shown that external feedback can affect motivational beliefs and self confidence negatively as well as positively (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).

The self confidence of students plays an important role in the success or failure of a student in the learning process. In fact, several studies indicate that the major factors in determining whether a student passes or fails are self confidence, motivation and willingness to engage in the range of learning activities provided for them (Black and William, 1998; Robey et al., 2006). Students high in self esteem evaluate their own performance favourably and are likely to be more successful as a result relative to students with low self esteem (Jussim et al., 1987; Lane and Lane, 2001).

Factors that impact strongly on self confidence include prior performance and success at previous learning institutions (Nicol and McFarlane-Dick., 2006). Research from Australian and overseas universities consistently indicates that secondary school results are very strong direct predictors of tertiary performance (Pargetter at al, 1998; Krause et al, 2005). Prior results and experiences also influence students' choice of tertiary institution in Western Australia; admission to Western Australian tertiary institutions is determined according to an academic performance index. Alternately students may be ranked according to a combination of indices, such as the score of some form of scholastic aptitude test, school recommendations, and other relevant experience or submitted folio of work. Students with alternate entrance qualifications or lower Tertiary Entrance Ranks (TER) tend to choose or be chosen by Edith Cowan University (ECU) rather than the University of Western Australia (UWA) or Curtin University of Technology (TISC, 2006).

Particularly relevant to this study are findings that students high in self esteem interpret a teacher's evaluative feedback more favourably than do students with low self esteem (Jussim et al., 1987; Young 2000). For students with low self esteem, feedback can further impact on the learners' motivational beliefs and confidence levels. The impact can, however, be modulated depending on the way it is provided by teachers. For example, feedback given as grades alone is reported to have especially negative effects on the self esteem of low ability students (Craven, et al, 1991; Dweck, 2000). The implication of these studies for teaching practice is that motivation and self esteem are more likely to be enhanced when a course has many low stakes tasks with feedback geared to providing information about progress and achievement, rather than high stakes summative assessment tasks where information is only about success or failure or about how students compare with peers (Perrenoud 1991; Farrell and Leung, 2004).

Developing and managing multiple formative assessments for the large classes now common in the higher education system requires an enormous effort on the part of the lecturer as they must design consistent effective feedback and evaluate its effectiveness while taking all student needs into account (Sadler, 1998; Peat and Franklin, 2002; Yorke, 2003). One way this can be achieved is by designing online feedback for online formative assessments. Students with lower confidence in their learning may find online feedback less intimidating and all students could be expected to benefit from instructive feedback on multiple formative assessments (Shannon, 2004). With this in mind we investigated the views of a large cohort of human biology students with respect to experience of online assessment and the perceived value of obtaining online feedback for their learning, relative to their confidence levels as expressed through their own predictions at the outset of the unit of the marks they expected to receive. Expectations of success are a reflection of self confidence (Lane and Lane, 2001; Baumeister et al., 2003) which allowed us to use predicted grade as a measure of self confidence as performed previously by Balch (1992). Responses were measured by means of a questionnaire and tested for statistical significance.


To identify how confidence levels (expected grades) impact on feedback issues, we used a questionnaire survey instrument adapted from Glover (2004), to reflect issues identified as important to our students in a series of 14 x 20 minute focus group interviews.

Themes identified in the focus groups matched those previously identified by Sheffield Hallam University (Glover 2004). After trialling the questionnaire on a separate group of third year students, a number of modifications were made; it was shortened and simplified so that it was clearer and easier to answer quickly and the focus was changed from feedback in general to student views of online assessment.

The sections in the final questionnaire were

  1. General demographics
    1. age,
    2. sex,
    3. experience of study at university,
    4. mode of attendance,
    5. language spoken at home,
    6. disability and
    7. an estimation of anticipated mark in the unit. At all institutions, the overall mark for the units was made up of a variety of assessments.

  2. Feedback in relation to online assessment
    1. level of experience of online feedback,
    2. the extent ("not at all", "some", "a lot") to which the feedback was useful in relation to each of 14 different aspects of learning. These encompassed understanding why the grade or mark had been awarded, how well the student was going, where they had gone wrong, how to improve, how to prepare for examinations and their motivation for learning. In addition, specific subject knowledge, course content and generic skill improvement such as development of intellectual, learning and academic writing skills were included.

  3. Past experience of general feedback included questions on
    1. satisfaction with timeliness,
    2. satisfaction with amount of feedback, and
    3. how feedback was used by the student.

  4. Anticipated feedback: We asked respondents what forms of written, verbal and online styles of feedback they expected to receive in the unit. We also included open ended questions on the type of feedback found most and least useful. Members of the project team administered the questionnaire to first year human biology students during class time midway through first semester. The human biology students were predominantly BSc (Science) students at all universities but the cohort included several paramedical science (ECU), health science (UWA, Curtin and ECU), occupational therapy, physiotherapy and pharmacy students (Curtin).


Notes from the focus group sessions were text coded and analysed using NVivo 7.0 (QRS International, 2006) text management software. The survey items were analysed using the statistical package GenStat 8.1 (2006). Differences between groups (for example, institution, expected grade) were assessed by one and two way ANOVAs with age, previously shown to be a strong influence upon attitudes to feedback, taken into account (as an age adjusted mean).. Responses from students which were the same all the way down the column of questions relating to one type of feedback, including the question at the top concerning level of experience with that type of feedback, were excluded from the analysis, as were those from students who failed to indicate their status with respect to the issue in question. Chi square tests were used to assess differences in frequencies.


The study was conducted across three institutions. Questionnaire returns were obtained from 1099 students (ECU 114 students, Curtin University 564 students, and UWA 421 students) representing just over 50% of the total enrolment in human biology first semester units at the three institutions. The demographic profiles of the students surveyed are set out in Table 1.

Table 1: Demographic information from the student survey sample

Age mean yrs
(n answered)
Age group expressed as
a percentage of sample
in each institution
16-18310 (74.2.%)356 (63.2%)30 (27.8%)696
19-2190 (21.5%)154 (27.4%)29 (26.8%)273
>2118 (4.3%)53 (9.4%)49 (45.4%)120
Gender expressed as
a percentage of sample
in each institution
Male167 (40%)158 (28%)48 (42%)373 (34%)
Female254 (60%)406 (72%)66 (58%)726 (66%)

There were relatively few differences between the students at Curtin University and UWA, the chief being the high proportion of new school leavers (16-18 year olds) at UWA (74% of UWA respondents, at Curtin 63%, chi squared = 13.15, 1df, p < 0.001) and of students who spoke a language other than English at home at Curtin (27% of respondents, 18% at UWA, chi squared = 12.80, 1df, p < 0.001).

However, ECU students differed from their counterparts at other universities in several important aspects; ECU students were older (F = 139, 2df, p < 0.001), with relatively few school leavers (16-18 year olds - chi squared = 67.87, 2df, p < 0.001) and more mature age students than Curtin or UWA (>21 years - chi squared =144, 2df, p < 0.001), were more likely to be in paid employment for more than 20 hours per week (30%, UWA 9.5%, Curtin 4%, chi squared = 56.81, 2df, p < 0.001) and to be studying part time (8% of ECU students, 1% UWA, 2% Curtin chi squared = 21.33, 2df, p < 0.001).

ECU students tended to have had more experience in the university system (41% first enrolled before the current year, 17% at UWA, 10% at Curtin, chi squared = 66.38, 2df, p < 0.001). They anticipated receiving significantly less written feedback than UWA or Curtin students (mean 6.4 items, UWA 7.17, Curtin 6.84, F = 5.95, 2df, p = 0.003), but in the case of the female students at least, tended to put what feedback they did receive to a wider variety of constructive uses than those at the other universities (mean 2.66 uses, UWA 2.23, Curtin 2.56, F =30.47, 2df, p < 0.001).

Edith Cowan University students were more positive in their view of the helpfulness of the feedback associated with online assessment than students from the other universities. They were significantly less likely to dismiss any feedback they received as being of no help (age adjusted mean 3.076 items, UWA 4.52, Curtin 3.58, p < 0.05 on post hoc LSD - the differences between these age adjusted means reflect the differences that are influenced by institution rather than age) and more likely to rate it as being "some" help (age adjusted mean 4.685 items, UWA 3.01, Curtin 3.488, p < 0.05 on post hoc LSD). The growth in the appreciation of the range of possible uses of feedback with age and experience previously demonstrated by Fyfe et al (2006) was even more pronounced amongst ECU students than amongst those at the other institutions (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Levels of appreciation of the applications of feedback according to experience of feedback and institution. The maximum possible number of aspects of learning helped was 14 for each of 12 types of feedback (168).
The students from Edith Cowan had a greater regard for the helpfulness of individual printouts (a hard copy version) of their results than Curtin and UWA students and a greater regard for having their own areas of weakness on the test pointed out to them (Figure 2). They were relatively unimpressed with helpfulness of simply being told the right and wrong answers to the quiz (Figure 3).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Relative appreciation of different types of feedback by institution, ranked
by order of ECU scores (*=p<0.05, **=p<0.01 on individual ANOVAs of types of feedback)

Figure 3

Figure 3: Proportions of students from each institution by rating of
level of helpfulness of simply being informed of right and wrong answers

The most outstanding way in which the ECU students differed from the others, however, was in their estimation of how well they would perform in the human biology unit they had just started. Even with the general influences of age and experience upon such estimations taken into account, ECU students were significantly less confident of achieving a high mark (age adjusted mean 64.4, UWA 70.4, Curtin 70, F = 16.92, 2df, p < 0.001), especially in the case of female students (age adjusted mean 63.6, UWA 70.6, Curtin 70, p < 0.05 on post hoc LSD). ECU was the only university at which females expected to do significantly less well than males (p < 0.05 on post hoc LSD; ECU male mean 65.6%, UWA 70.3%, Curtin 70.3%). A significantly (chi squared = 36.14, 4df, p < 0.001) higher proportion (19%) of students from ECU expected no more than Pass grades (compared with UWA 6%, Curtin 9%), and a significantly lower proportion (38%) expected Distinctions or better (compared with 66% UWA and 64% Curtin; Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Self predictions of performance in first year human biology by institution

In fact, the ECU students' average expected mark (64.92) did not differ significantly from their achieved average (62.58) and was higher (p < 0.05 on post hoc LSD) than the actual averages obtained by UWA (61.63) or Curtin (57.63) students, whose expectations were significantly higher than their achievements (p < 0.05 on post hoc LSD; Figure 5). It was interesting to note that even ECU students predicted receiving more Distinctions or High Distinction grades than were achieved, however (Figure 6).

Figure 5

Figure 5: Predicted and achieved class average marks for first semester human biology 2006

Figure 6

Figure 6: Predicted and achieved distributions of grades for first semester human biology 2006

These results raised the question of how much of the difference between ECU and other students in expressed faith in feedback related to their life circumstances and experience and how much to their initial lack of confidence. We have considered the influences of life circumstances, age and experience previously. In this paper we examine the relationship between confidence at the point of entry to a unit and appreciation of feedback.

While Edith Cowan University had a higher proportion of students expecting relatively low grades, their students constituted less than a quarter of the 9% of the whole student cohort expecting to get no more than a Pass.

Students with low (Pass or Fail grade) initial estimates of their performance were older on average than other students (mean 20.36 years, Credit 19.28, Distinction HD 18.88, F = 7.46, 2df, p < 0.001). There was, in fact, a linear growth with age in the tendency to anticipate relatively low grades; 7% of school leavers, 10% of 19-21 year olds and 20% of mature age students anticipated failing or receiving no more than a Pass grade.

Those anticipating no more than a pass did not differ from the more confident in sex, mode of enrolment or disability status, but they were relatively more likely to be speakers of a language other than English at home (27% cf 22% whole sample chi squared = 14.57, 1df, p < 0.001). This is not to say that LOTE speakers were generally less confident of their performance than native English speakers. Quite the reverse, on average they expected to perform better (mean mark 71.4 compared with 69.1 for native English speakers, p < 0.001), with a significantly higher proportion expecting to receive Distinctions or High Distinctions (70% compared with 60% of native English speakers; chi squared = 14.57, 1df, p < 0.001). Nearly all of the students indicating that they spoke one South-East Asian language at home, for example, expected to get 90% or more at the end of semester.

Students who expected to perform well (Distinction or High Distinction level) anticipated receiving significantly more types of feedback (17.7 types vs 16.7 Credit, 16.8 Pass-Fail F = 3.74, 2df, p = 0.024), particularly verbal chi squared.9 vs 2.5 Credit, 2.7 Pass-Fail, F = 4.83, 2df, p = 0.008) and online (7.8 types vs 7.3 each, Credit and Pass-Fail, F = 3.48, 2df, p = 0.031). There was no difference in satisfaction with the amount or timing of feedback or in the number of ways feedback was used with expressed confidence in performance, however.

Students claiming to have minimal or no experience of feedback overall expected to obtain significantly lower marks than those indicating any significant degree of feedback experience (F = 3.12, 3df, p = 0.025; Figure 7).

Figure 7

Figure 7: Relationship between the level of feedback experience and expected grade
(bar indicates pooled standard error)

Of particular interest were the differences in the perceived helpfulness of feedback of students with different degrees of confidence in their performance (Figure 6). Students who expressed relatively low confidence in their performance were more dismissive overall of the uses of feedback - rating it of "no help" in relation to more aspects of their learning (mean 50.8 items, Credit 41.7, Distinction /HD 39.9, F = 4.26, 2df, p = 0.014), and "a lot" of help in relation to fewer aspects of learning (mean 38.6 items, Credit 44.7, Distinction/HD 49.4, F = 4.18, 2df, p = 0.016) than students expecting Credits, Distinctions or High Distinctions (Figure 8).

Figure 8
Figure 8: Variations in perceived overall level of helpfulness of feedback by anticipated level of performance in first year human biology (bars indicate standard errors, maximum possible items helped 14 for 12 types of feedback = 168)
The exceptions to this generalisation were in relation to the perceptions of students with low performance expectations of the usefulness of receiving information about the distribution of class marks, identification of their individual areas of weakness and directions as to how to address those weaknesses, in which they did not differ from students expecting higher grades, and in their unwillingness to dismiss as of no help individual printouts of their results, in class reviews of assessments and the opportunity to practice with the online test items before formal assessment, which they dismissed as being of "no help" in relation to significantly fewer aspects of learning (ANOVA p< 0.05 on post hoc LSD tests) (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figures 9 and 10: Variations in relative ratings of helpfulness of different types of
feedback by anticipated level of performance in first year human biology

Experience with feedback impacted significantly on expected outcome and therefore on confidence levels, that is, those claiming least experience with feedback predicted the lowest marks for themselves, whereas those expecting high distinction claimed significantly more experience with feedback than did the students expecting low grades. This was the case at all institutions with ECU showing the clearest effect (p<0.001). (Figure 10).

Figure 11

Figure 11: Experience of feedback influences expected grade


Results presented here show that students display significant differences in expectations of learning outcome depending on their age, experience of feedback and tertiary institution. Older students on average have lower expectations of their learning success than younger higher achievers, yet optimism in relation to learning success improves with increased experience of feedback (Fyfe et al., 2006). Interestingly however, even with confounding variables of age and experience taken into account, ECU students have significantly lower expectations of their success than their counterparts at UWA and Curtin.

Studies have shown that a student's initial attitude is a significant predictor of subsequent grade achievement (House, 1995). For ECU students this would imply that lower confidence levels would lead to lower success rates than students at other universities. As it turns out, the ECU students are actually more realistic in their estimates of success than those at UWA and Curtin and equally as successful. The more accurate prediction of grades by ECU students may, in part, be due to their more advanced age and experience - more experience in the tertiary system and greater experience with feedback. In line with this, ECU students also displayed positive views on the helpfulness of feedback associated with online assessment. They were significantly more likely to rate feedback as being "a lot" of help and less likely to dismiss any feedback they received as being of "no help". That this greater consideration of feedback was related to their greater experience of it was borne out by the demonstration of the importance across institutions of age and experience in the growth of an appreciation of the range of possible uses of feedback over time (Fyfe et al 2006).

This positive attitude towards feedback displayed by ECU students regardless of their self confidence levels may be attributable to more formative feedback strategies currently in place at ECU. This survey was conducted very early in first semester of first year before any of the students had done much at all in the way of online assessments yet at this time ECU was the only institution providing feedback explaining why wrong answers to their online quizzes were wrong. Further support for the important role of experience of formative assessment on outcome and attitude was similarly shown in a recent study by Peat et al., 2005; students actually benefit more from formative assessment resources in second semester when they have had experience of the feedback and time to become more independent and critical of their own performance (Peat et al., 2005).

An important aspect of this research was the way in which self esteem impacts on learning at a tertiary institution. Individuals with low self esteem tend to embrace failure as a reflection of their low ability, which reduces their self efficacy and impacts on learning and academic performance causing these students to give up (Young 2000). By contrast, students with high self esteem evaluate their own performance favourably and attribute failure to external factors (Lane and Lane, 2001; Russell-Bowie, 2001; Baumeister et al., 2003) and as a challenge or an obstacle to be overcome improving motivation (Nicol McFarlane-Dick, 2006).

The impact of feedback is also quite different for high and low esteem students. High self esteem students view even negative feedback as useful whereas low self esteem students can view feedback as negative and personal (Nicol McFarlane-Dick, 2006). This was clearly evident in the student responses received as part of this study; students displaying high levels of self esteem, regarded negative feedback as helpful 'because it motivates me to overcome hurdles', 'helps me to strive to do better', 'gives a better indication of how I really am going', whereas students with low self esteem, regarded negative feedback as 'hurtful', 'intimidating' and 'depressing', 'hurts on the inside', 'gets me down' and 'makes me not wanna learn' (students providing negative comments were not necessarily from ECU).

Our finding regarding the way in which self confidence affected perception of feedback and impacted on the subsequent use of the feedback, is particularly noteworthy for teachers and students. The fact that students with low self esteem made the least use of feedback and valued types of feedback less is possibly typical of individuals with low self esteem who have lower expectations of their performance (Todd et al., 1993) and subsequently display reduced effort, underestimate their capabilities and establish less challenging or mediocre goals for themselves. By contrast, people with high self esteem generally undertake challenging goals and are motivated to pursue their goals and to persevere in the face of obstacles (Indermill, 1996).

The vast difference between actual and predicted grade observed in this study could be a source of distress for some first year students. Provision of more feedback during semester may more adequately guide student learning to achieve the desired level of performance.

Thus it appears that all students particularly those with low self esteem and less optimism need to be given opportunities to gain experience in uses of feedback and be provided with information about the uses of feedback to positively influence their learning and performance (Fyfe et al., 2006). For teachers, the type and method of feedback provided is important. Praising effort and strategic behaviours and focusing students on learning goals leads to higher achievement than praising ability or intelligence which can result in a learned-helplessness orientation. In summary, 'feedback which draws attention away from the task and towards self esteem can have a negative effect on attitudes and performance' (Black & William, 1998).

To counter these and other difficulties, online feedback is currently being introduced to all formative tests in the human biology units at the three institutions, funded by a Carrick Institute Grant. In implementing this online feedback we are focussing on making it positive, personal (but anonymous/not confronting) and individualised ie, students only get feedback on THEIR answers. These changes are important for low self esteem students as it avoids the practice of giving grades alone, which has been shown to have negative effects on self esteem. It is anticipated that online feedback for formative tasks will improve student confidence and learning outcomes. Evaluation of the introduction will include an online exercise to encourage self reflection with respect to feedback so as to better prepare students in the use of feedback.


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Authors: Mel Ziman, School of Exercise, Biomedical & Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University
Jan Meyer, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia
Kayty Plastow, Carrick Institute Grant, The University of Western Australia
Georgina Fyfe, School of Biomedical Sciences, Curtin University of Technology
Sue Fyfe, School of Public Health, Curtin University of Technology
Kathy Sanders, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia
Julie Hill, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia
Richard Brightwell, School of Exercise, Biomedical & Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University

Corresponding author: Mel Ziman is Senior Lecturer and Postgraduate Coordinator in Human Biology at ECU. Mel teaches developmental genetics and pharmacology. She leads a research team of postdoctoral researchers, PhD, MSc and BSc Honours students whose main focus is developmental genetics, stem cell differentiation and melanoma detection. Of particular interest to Mel is the use of research to inform teaching and the introduction of research skills to undergraduate students. Mel believes fervently in building the self esteem of ECU students. Postal: Dr Mel Ziman, School of Exercise, Biomedical & Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University, 100 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup WA 6027. Email: m.ziman@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Ziman, M., Meyer, J., Plastow, K., Fyfe, G., Fyfe, S., Sanders, K., Hill, J. & Brightwell, R. (2007). Student optimism and appreciation of feedback. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/ziman.html

Copyright 2007 Mel Ziman, Jan Meyer, Kayty Plastow, Georgina Fyfe, Sue Fyfe, Kathy Sanders, Julie Hill and Richard Brightwell. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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Created 14 Jan 2007. Last revision: 26 Jan 2007.