An exploration of the depths of feedback in higher education: Bringing the beliefs of academic teachers to the surface

  • Maxine Gillway

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education (EdD)


The present study brings together the fields of teacher beliefs and feedback in a novel way with a view to exploring what is often described negatively as ‘inconsistency’, but what I conclude is much more positive ‘variability’, in the student experience of feedback. Rather than focusing on the student, as in much recent literature, the focus is on the observation of academic teachers’ beliefs-in-action during written or oral feedback on student written work under different conditions. The inclusion of three cases across different disciplines within one institution allows an interpersonal comparison, while the inclusion of different levels of study, tasks and modes allows for intrapersonal comparisons within cases. Drawing on the critical realist concept of depth ontology, teacher beliefs are conceptualised as real entities that underlie the pedagogical process of feedback and thus have the power to shape any feedback event just as much as other more physical elements of the feedback context. The present study thus adds a vertical dimension to explanations of variability in student feedback experience and contributes to the growing literature on the ecology of the learning context.
As part of a case study approach employing multiple methods, the think aloud technique is not only key in surfacing these beliefs and revealing absences in the vertical relationship between underlying beliefs and visible practice, but also challenges existing theories of think aloud protocols as internal dialogue, revealing a valuable sociocognitive dimension.
The findings reveal that different beliefs surface to different extents under different conditions in both the focus and formulation of feedback, thus adding to our understanding of the complexity of the multidimensional dynamic belief systems. While some of these conditions were part of the research design (discipline, level, task, mode), others emerged during the study (managing dialogue, managing emotion). The study highlights the considerable challenge facing teachers who wish to create the conditions in which all students are able to engage in a quality co-constructed feedback conversation. While confirming both intrapersonal and interpersonal variation in feedback practices, it is suggested that rather than problematic inconsistency, this is a natural diversity resulting from different tasks, modes, levels of study, and interlocutors - and thus should be embraced for reasons of inclusion. This has direct implications for those involved in the policy and practice of feedback in higher education.
Date of Award26 May 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorSantiago Sanchez (Supervisor) & Gail Forey (Supervisor)


  • Feedback
  • teacher beliefs
  • think aloud

Cite this