This is a postprint. The full article can be accessed thus:
Van Heerden, M., Clarence, S. and Bharuthram, S. 2016. ‘What lies beneath: exploring the
deeper purposes of feedback on student writing through considering disciplinary knowledge
and knowers’. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. DOI:
What lies beneath: exploring the deeper purposes of feedback on student writing
through considering disciplinary knowledge and knowers
Feedback plays an integral role in students’ learning and development, as it is often the only
personal communication that students have with tutors or lecturers about their own work.
Yet, in spite of its integral role in student learning there is disagreement between how
students and tutors or lecturers perceive the pedagogic purpose of feedback. Central to this
disagreement is the role that feedback has to play in ensuring that students produce the ‘right’
kinds of knowledge, and become the ‘right’ kinds of knowers within their disciplines. This
paper argues that in order to find common ground between students and tutors or lecturers on
what feedback is for, and how to both give and use it effectively, we need to conceptualise
disciplinary knowledge and knowers anew. We offer, as a useful starting point, the
Specialisation dimension of Legitimation Code Theory as both practical theory and
methodological tool for exploring knowledge and knowers in English Studies and Law as two
illustrative cases. The paper concludes that this analysis offers lecturers and tutors a fresh
understanding of the disciplinary knowledge and knower structures they work within and,
relatedly, a clearer view of the work their feedback needs to do within these.
Keywords: disciplinary knowledge, feedback, Legitimation Code Theory, student writing.
Feedback plays an integral role in students’ learning and development, because it can make
the tacit expectations of a discipline explicit, which aids in students becoming successful
learners. Yet, in spite of its integral part in student learning, there is dissonance at times
between how tutors or lecturers and students perceive and make use of feedback as a learning
tool. There may be misperceptions about the implicit and explicit goals of the discipline in
terms of student learning, and consequently, the pedagogic role feedback should play. These
misperceptions can lead to a misalignment of feedback practices to their underlying purpose,
and therefore lead to the given feedback being confusing to, or even unusable by students
trying to improve their writing.
Much research has been done exploring student perceptions of feedback, as well as how
students’ and tutors’ perceptions may differ on what is considered to be useful and effective
feedback. Tutors in this study refers to senior postgraduate students who facilitate tutorials in
addition to lectures and other teaching activities. This paper will begin with an overview of
the most relevant or widely cited literature exploring tutor and student perceptions of the
roles, purposes and methods of giving feedback. These perceptions of feedback are connected
to the tacit pedagogic purposes of feedback, which also need to be explored. Often there is a
difference between what students want and what tutors give as feedback, between tutors’
intentions when giving feedback and how students interpret it, and between how feedback is
given and its intended pedagogical purpose. These differing perceptions of feedback may
greatly diminish the effect of feedback as a tool for learning and writing development, and as
such, feedback givers, such as lecturers and tutors, may benefit from considering the
pedagogic purpose of feedback anew.
Central to a reconsideration of the pedagogical role of feedback is the disciplinary
knowledge that students are writing and reading about, and how this knowledge works to
shape the ‘space of possibles’ (Maton 2014, 7) for what kinds of writing and meaning-
making are recognised as valid, and for how valid knowledge can and should be written
about. A great deal of feedback research and practice, though, focuses on either improving
feedback practices themselves (Huxham 2007; Nicol 2010; Hendry et al. 2011) or how to use
feedback to improve student writing (Wingate 2010; Vardi 2012). Knowledge in the
disciplines may be obscured or only tacitly or partially considered in these considerations. In
many instances, research on feedback does not fully consider the concerns of the disciplines
in terms of either who they want their students to become, what they want their students to
know, or how they want their students to construct knowledge.
This kind of ‘knowledge-blindness’ (Maton 2014, 4) means that feedback research and
practice can risk becoming too generic, and can approach feedback for all disciplines on the
basis of issues that may be important to certain disciplines but less important to others,
without the tools to articulate why these disciplinary differences may require different
feedback practices. This is potentially problematic considering that the overall intention of
feedback is to provide students with focused guidance to enable greater epistemic access to
disciplinary ways of writing, reading, thinking and creating knowledge. While great strides
have been made in recent years to advance teaching and learning in higher education
institutions, which in turn has led to more awareness of feedback practices and the need to
overcome genericism, tutor training still tends to happen through tutor induction sessions
outside of the disciplines. In many cases senior disciplinary specialists distance themselves
from training their tutors, leading to a gap in providing tutors with insight into the specific
pedagogical aims of the discipline (Underhill, Clarence-Fincham and Petersen 2014).
This paper will therefore argue that the pedagogic purpose of feedback needs to be
reconceptualised, in particular to focus on both knowledge and knowers within the disciplines
in order to reconcile differing purposes of feedback, and in so doing, enhance its
effectiveness as a tool for learning and development. English Studies and Law will be used as
illustrative cases, as these two disciplines provide interesting contrasts: English Studies is a
literature course, in which students analyse, and learn how to analyse texts in various contexts
(Christie 2015). Success is determined by acquiring the necessary critical eye through which
to view texts, as measured through their essay writing. Law, on the other hand, is focused on
training future legal professionals to both know and use the law in specific technical and
procedural contexts, and critical thinking is delimited within this overall focus on procedural
proficiency (Clarence 2014).
Using these disciplines as examples, the paper will enact Legitimation Code Theory’s
(LCT) dimension of Specialisation to conceptually explore and articulate the underlying
organising principles of these two disciplines in relation to both knowledge and knowers, and
then relate these organising principles to the kinds of feedback practices that may best align
with them. The first two sections explore current research on feedback before the paper
moves on to introduce Specialisation and draw implications for feedback practices in English
Studies and Law, and more widely in higher education.
Perceptions of feedback
Research into perceptions of feedback has shown that there are common (mis)perceptions
about feedback held by both tutors and students. Research indicates that many tutors’
perceptions about feedback and its effectiveness tend to be negative, with tutors frustrated by
what they perceive as ‘student indifference to their feedback’ (Burke 2009, 41). Tutor-held
beliefs of feedback include that ‘feedback does not work’ or that ‘students are more interested
in their grade or mark and pay little attention to feedback’ (Weaver 2006, 379). Further,
tutors’ perceptions on how students perceive feedback are linked to how students respond to
their assignments. Duncan (2007, 271), for instance, points out that ‘a substantial number [of
students] do not even bother to collect their work once it has been assessed’, suggesting that
students are not interested in receiving or using feedback. Another common tutor perception
of feedback is that students do not read the feedback they are given (McCann and Saunders
2009, 3). Yet, these tutor-held beliefs about feedback have been shown to be erroneous, as
many studies have shown that students do look to ‘feedback for guidance’ (McCann and
Saunders 2009, 3) and that feedback is considered to be an ‘important and valued component
of student learning’ (Ferguson 2011, 52).
Yet, research suggests that students are ‘broadly dissatisfied with the [quality of]
written feedback they receive’ (Dowden et al. 2013, 349). Research has shown that students
tend to perceive feedback to be too late (Weaver 2006; Huxham 2007), too general or vague
(Higgins et al. 2002; Weaver 2006; Huxham 2007), too negative (Weaver 2006), difficult to
understand (Chanock 2000; Higgins et al. 2001), not detailed enough (Carless 2006), and
difficult to act upon (Poulos and Mahony 2008). Each one of these issues will influence
students’ willingness and ability to respond to feedback; for instance, if it is too late, then
students will not have the opportunity to respond to it, whereas if students find feedback too
difficult to understand then the potential developmental aspects of feedback will be lost.
Moreover, even when students are willing to respond to feedback, they might lack the
necessary guidance to do so. Weaver (2006), for instance, found that even though students do
value feedback, almost 50% of the students in her study had not received guidance on how to
use it. If students are not able to engage with feedback in a manner that is recognised by
tutors (such as re-writing a draft or desisting with a consistent error), its potential for
encouraging further student development will be lost.
Perceptions of feedback on the part of both tutors and students tend to be rooted in its
perceived pedagogic function. Adcroft (2011, 414), for instance, compared what he terms the
‘mythologies of feedback’ that students and tutors have and found that ‘there is a gap in
understanding and expectations of feedback between academics and students’ (408), which
creates a ‘dissonance’ (414). In particular, his study showed that ‘[t]here is significant
dissonance as the two groups in the study perceive and interpret the same feedback events in
very different ways’ (Adcroft 2011, 414). Specifically, he states that
academics view feedback as being much more important as a mechanism for, and
contributor to, learning than students do and see it as much more powerful in improving
performance and changing behaviour than those whom the feedback is intended to help
(Adcroft 2011, 416).
This suggests that students and tutors do not necessarily perceive feedback, especially its
purpose, in the same manner, which may greatly reduce the intended effect of the feedback. It
is thus important to consider pedagogical purposes of feedback and how these might interplay
with the perceptions of it.
The pedagogical purposes of feedback
Broadly speaking, there are two main forms of feedback which correspond to their functions,
namely, evaluative feedback and developmental feedback (frequently referred to as
summative and formative feedback). Evaluative feedback looks back on a completed task and
indicates how successfully a student has completed it, through identifying students’ academic
strengths and weaknesses (Higgins et al. 2002; Weaver 2006). Evaluative feedback may, for
instance, tell a student that his conclusion is poor or that his introduction is weak, but does
not necessarily explain further or provide advice on how to improve these aspects of his
writing. Evaluative feedback may come across as corrective; indeed, correction is one of the
sub-functions of evaluative feedback (Ivanič et al. 2000; Price et al. 2010). The problem is
that if feedback only corrects then it has limited capacity for aiding ongoing student writing
Developmental feedback, on the other hand, has two main sub-functions: developing
students’ ability to complete future tasks more successfully, and assisting with student
development and learning. Ideally, feedback should look forward; that is, it should feed into
future assignments (Orsmond et al. 2013). As Crisp (2007, 579) points out ‘feedback should
not only aim to assist students to complete a similar task successfully at some stage in the
future, but ideally should also be transferable to other tasks that they might be expected to
undertake’. Instead of just correcting errors and/or listing what students have done wrong,
feedback should ideally assist students in developing their academic skills. The
developmental aspect of feedback is not just limited to assignment completion, but may also
apply to students’ metacognitive development (Murtagh and Baker 2009), knowledge
acquisition (Poulos and Mahoney 2008), as well as potentially leading to behavioural changes
in students’ approaches to learning (Adcroft 2011). Parkin et al. (2012, 963) point out that
feedback ‘can be one of the most powerful ways in which to enhance and strengthen student
However, the developmental aspect of feedback is often not fully realised. For example,
evaluative feedback is easier to provide than developmental feedback; it is easier to identify
and correct errors than it is to give advice on how to avoid them in the future. Students may
also look to feedback as only a corrective tool as they do not necessarily understand the
developmental function of feedback. This corrective view of feedback is one legacy of
primary and secondary school practices of teaching and learning, as in most schools, students
are not necessarily taught how to produce knowledge of their own, but to rather reproduce
knowledge. Kapp (2006, 48) points out that in the South African context, as an example,
students have to move from a ‘rote-learning mode’ in high school to ‘engaging in close
analysis of texts and in analysing and synthesizing multiple points of view’ at university
level. In other contexts like the UK, feedback is likely be used in a corrective or instructive
manner at school, as knowledge tends to be transmitted from teacher to student in a linear
way. This is a result of students being viewed as ‘receptacles of transmitted information’ in
school, whereas at university students are viewed as ‘[potentially] active makers and
mediators of meaning within particular learning contexts’ (Higgins et al. 2002, 53). The
feedback given at tertiary level will thus try to facilitate cumulative development in students.
What underpins both of these functions of feedback is another implicit function of
feedback, which is that it is used to 'induct' students into what Lillis (2001,76) calls
‘institutional practices of mystery’. Academic practices, and specifically writing conventions,
tend to be presented as natural and obvious to students by those for whom they are natural
and obvious. Feedback is an effective way of inducting students into these practices, yet
feedback practices have as much of an obvious, taken-for-granted aspect to them as other
academic practices. Moreover, as there is a ‘dominant subject specific discourse’
underpinning feedback (Higgins 2000, 3), it means that tutors give feedback from within a
particular disciplinary discourse in order for students to gain access to that discourse, to be
inducted, and to become successful writers, readers and graduates. Ironically, however, tutors
who do not see the discourse as strange or new and give feedback that does not make the tacit
more explicit (Jacobs 2007) may inadvertently alienate students from the very discourse to
which they need to gain access and work within. As Bloxham and Campbell (2010, 291)
[a]chieving success as a higher education (HE) student, measured essentially
through the capacity to write satisfactory assignments and examinations, is
perceived as a complex task … It involves the learning of tacit knowledge, new
social practices and forms of expression, and negotiating the meaning and
demands of individual assignments with tutors and peers.
For students, then, one of the most important and difficult tasks is navigating their
specific disciplines’ writing conventions; conventions that tend to stem from not only the
knowledge that is being written about and disseminated, but also from the discipline’s sense
of who its knowledgeable insiders are, and how they represent and further the values and
practices of the discipline (Jacobs 2013). Feedback is perhaps best suited to facilitate this
navigation, especially since ‘face-to-face student-tutor contact time is diminishing, leading to
a greater reliance on written correspondence’ (Higgins et al. 2002, 54). Feedback should
ideally not only induct students into academic and disciplinary discourses, but simultaneously
make tacit disciplinary academic practices and expectations more explicit. In a discipline like
English Studies, where ‘[a] powerful invisible pedagogy often applies, [so] that what is
evaluated as success is tacitly understood, rather than clearly articulated’ (Christie and
Macken-Horarik 2007, 157), feedback thus has an especially important pedagogic role to play
in communicating not only what kinds of knowledge count, but also what kinds of knowers
successful students need to become.
However, if tutors are not able to critically ‘see’ and assess the kinds of value they
assign or deny to both the knowledges students include in their writing, as well as the ways in
which they attempt to represent, critique and discuss that knowledge (indicating their
development as disciplinary knowers), their feedback giving practices may remain only
peripherally useful to those students. Tutors therefore need to consider what specifically the
pedagogic purposes of the discipline itself are – what specifically are we looking to do with
students in our disciplines? Do we merely want to create proficient writers focused on
learning a set canon of knowledge, or do we want to nurture particular kinds of thinkers or
future researchers related to the wider field our disciplines connect with, like academia or
legal practice? Tutors thus need to consider what counts as legitimate knowledge in the
discipline, as well as legitimate ways of expressing what is known, for it is only by
considering what counts as knowledge and knowing in the discipline that they can adequately
consider how this may be conveyed to students through feedback.
Conceptualising knowledge as both a subject of study as well as an object of study can
be difficult, especially when working with student writing that focuses to a large extent on
students’ own construction of knowledge, and how they may or may not be doing so in
relevant ways. A first step towards connecting feedback with knowledge in the disciplines is
to understand knowledge as emerging from socio-historical contexts, but not being reducible
to those contexts (Maton and Moore 2010). In other words, while we construct knowledge
within our own lived contexts and therefore it is always fallible, there is an ontologically real
world we can know, which makes it possible for us to make intersubjective judgements about
knowledge claims (Bhaskar 1998). In relation to the pedagogic aim of feedback as being able
to provide students with the means to access, and work successfully within, disciplinary
knowledge structures, we need to consider how the knowledge they engage with, and the
socio-historical contexts in which it is produced, shape their scholarly or professional
identities in particular ways, as well as the written artefacts they produce, such as essays and
Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) provides us with a conceptual framework that can
explore a teaching practice like feedback-giving in a way thay enables us to unpack and
critically consider the kinds of knowledge and also the kinds of knowers valued and
developed within the discipline. The following sections will demonstrate how we can use
LCT, specifically the dimension of Specialisation, to explore the knowledge and knower
structures of Law and English Studies, and consequently expand and better nuance our
understanding of the pedagogic purposes of feedback.
Legitimation Code Theory: Specialisation
Legitimation Code Theory, or LCT as it is known, is a conceptual and analytical ‘explanatory
framework for enactment in and (re-)shaping by substantive research studies’ (Maton,
2014:15). LCT is ‘a multidimensional conceptual toolkit for analysing actors' dispositions,
practices and contexts, within a variegated range of fields’; these are conceptualised in terms
of legitimation codes where ‘each “code” represent[s] in effect a currency proposed by actors
as the ruler of the field’ (Maton 2014, 17-18). In essence this means that LCT can uncover
and articulate what counts as marking out belonging and not belonging in a specific field. Far
from being hegemonic and unchanging, however, these ‘currencies’ can be challenged and
changed; however, before changes can be proposed, we need to be able to articulate the
means of establishing legitimacy in the field.
For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on one dimension of the framework, that
of Specialisation, which explores the organising principles that denote what makes a field or
discipline ‘special’. In other words, it conceptualises the underlying principles that legitimate
specific practices or forms of knowledge, and specific actors and their dispositions (Maton
2014). Specialisation is underlined by the ‘simple premise that practices and beliefs are about
or oriented towards something and by someone. They thus involve relations to objects and to
subjects’ (Maton 2014, 29, emphasis added).
LCT, in drawing an analytical distinction between knowledge and knowers,
distinguishes between epistemic relations and social relations. Epistemic relations (ER) are
‘between practices and their object or focus’ and are about ‘knowledge and its object of
study’ and focus on ‘what is legitimate knowledge’ (Maton 2014, 29). In teaching and
learning the emphasis would be on procedural or technical knowledge, and applying this in
accepted ways, as one would when preparing legal briefs for court proceedings in Law, for
example. Social relations (SR) are ‘between practices and their subject, author or actor’ and
are about ‘knowledge and its authors/subjects’ and focus on ‘who is a legitimate knower’
(Maton 2014, 29). In teaching and learning the emphasis would be on modes of thinking, or
ways of deconstructing texts and thinking about them, as one would to make a new argument
in relation to a set question in English Studies, for example.
Combining epistemic relations and social relations gives us different specialisation
code modalities. Each relation can be stronger or weaker relative to the other, and can be
plotted along a continuum of relative positions - this allows for a wide range of possible code
modalities to be realised. There are four specialisation codes: knowledge codes (ER+, SR-),
knower codes (ER-, SR+), élite codes (ER+, SR+) and relativist codes (ER-, ER-), indicated
by different relative strengths and weaknesses of epistemic relations and social relations (see
figure 1). This paper, given English Studies and Law as illustrative cases, explores the
implications of giving students feedback within a knower code and a knowledge code
[insert figure 1 here]
Figure 1: Heuristic specialisation plane for English Studies and Law (cf. Maton 2007, 97)
It is important to note that LCT delimits focus and basis in determining the
specialisation code. Further, there are always knowers and there is always knowledge, but
seldom are the two equally valued in disciplinary teaching and learning practices. Knower
codes base ‘claims on a legitimate kind of knower. This knower may claim unique
knowledge of more than a delimited object of study’ (Maton 2014, 32). A knower code
emphasises the development of particular dispositional or aptitudinal knowledge, and
downplays the learning of particular procedures or techniques by which one develops
expertise. In English Studies, teaching and assessment are focused on asking students to read,
deconstruct and consider written texts in particular ways. The focus may be on working with
texts in particular ways, yet the basis on which student success is judged is not following a
particular procedure; rather the basis of success is showing a certain kind of critical, literary,
analytical disposition towards knowledge (Christie 2015). It is thus about developing a
particular kind of “knower-ness” in order to cultivate the kinds of thinkers and writers who
can legitimately produce knowledge in the field. English Studies may thus be termed a
knower code, as it exhibits weaker epistemic relations and relatively stronger social relations
Knowledge codes base their claims to legitimacy on knowers grasping and using
particular forms of procedural or technical knowledge, downplaying the development of
personal aptitudes or characteristics of knowers (Maton 2014). Again, the code is determined
by the basis for legitimacy rather than the focus. Thus, while the legal curriculum may focus
at various different points on students’ developing professional aptitudes, or learning legal
theory, the basis for recognising them as successful law graduates will, in the end, be their
technical skill and ability in researching, reading and utilising the law to reason out, using
contextually accepted procedures, an evidenced, defensible conclusion, judgement or position
(Clarence 2014; Clarence, Albertus and Mwambene 2014). Law can thus be termed a
knowledge code, because it exhibits stronger epistemic relations and relatively weaker social
relations (ER+, SR-) (see figure 1).
In both cases, what is valued as the basis for determining what is legitimated in the
discipline can be further conceptualised as a ‘gaze’ (Bernstein 1999, 165), or a way of seeing
the world, that students needs to cultivate or develop through training over the course of their
studies, and beyond. A significant element of cultivating the gaze in academic disciplines that
involve a great deal of writing, like English Studies and Law, is feedback, either written or
oral. Cultivating the desired gaze can be optimally facilitated through feedback, as it can be
created as a site of ongoing communication between tutors and students about students’
thinking and writing in relation to the underpinning code, which may lead them closer to
accessing the discourse and becoming successful knowers in the discipline.
In order for students to be successful knowers in English Studies, they need to develop
a cultivated gaze (Luckett and Hunma 2014, 5). It is thus not impossible for students to attain
knower-ship of the subject, but it does take time and requires a sustained relationship
between students and disciplinary insiders, almost as apprentice and master (Bernstein 1999).
The challenge in knower codes that require the cultivation of a gaze is that this relationship is
often a tacit one, where knowledge is gathered by students along the way, rather than
explicitly formulated and relayed through pedagogy (cf. Bernstein 1999). If the process of
building towards the ideal knower of English Studies is so time-consuming and tacit, many
students may not be able to become the right kinds of knowers within the time allotted to an
undergraduate degree. This is further exacerbated if feedback is unable to fully communicate
to students, explicitly, what count as the right kinds of dispositions, aptitudes and knowledge
within the discipline and the wider institutional context such that it enables students’ ability
to understand and more consciously develop these.
English Studies has traditionally had a tacit, but rather powerful ‘ideal knower’ as its
goal, in terms of the aptitude, disposition and character that a student should possess. Christie
(1999, 173), for instance, points out that English Studies ‘seek[s] to develop pedagogic
subjects who take up particular values and adopt particular perspectives upon human
activity’. This ideal knower may be constructed by tutors based on their own internalised
understanding of what being this knower entails. Tutors’ perceptions of the aptitudes,
attitudes and dispositions that the ‘ideal knower’ has to possess may then be filtered through
the feedback that students are given, especially since knower-ness in English Studies is
largely measured through essay writing. However, as this paper posits, the cultivation of this
gaze may be interrupted if feedback from tutors miscommunicatess the legitimate basis for
achievement through focusing, for example, on grammar over students’ critical response to a
Law, by contrast, tends to value a trained gaze (Clarence 2014), as knowers develop
competence through applying their minds to learning and mastering the procedures and
principles of legal reasoning and research, and applying these in accepted ways to make and
defend arguments. The training of this gaze also takes time, but as the procedures and
principles may be codified in relatively explicit ways, it is potentially more open to learning
(Maton 2014). Feedback in the case of a trained gaze also needs to communicate the
legitimate basis of achievement to students, thus it needs to focus on what is important for
students to know and demonstrate. In the case of Law, the feedback needs to be able to guide
the development of students’ ability to reason through applying and analysing legal statutes,
case law and so on.
If we consider English Studies and Law through the lens offered by Specialisation -
respectively as a knower code that specialises the dispositions and aptitudes of students
through cultivating a particular gaze over time, and as a knowledge code that specialises the
technical and principled ability and actions of students through training their gaze over time -
we can re-think the pedagogical purpose of feedback within these disciplines. This may
enable those who read and comment on student writing to move towards a deeper, discipline-
focused understanding of why they give particular forms of feedback, what they would like
students to do with that feedback, and how they can best use it to develop the gaze
legitimated in their discipline over time. In other words, this paper conjectures that, by
aligning more explicitly and conciously with a discipline’s specialisation code, feedback can
better enable access to and successful acquisition of a disciplinary gaze.
In English Studies, students need to demonstrate the ‘capacity to articulate moral
positions and principles by reference to the literary text’ (Christie 2015, 159). Further, in a
context like South Africa where curricula are being reformed to reflect current social
concerns (Guraba 2015), what may be further valued is students’ ability to articulate critical
positions in relation to decolonisation, racism, and sexism understood within this context. By
seeing these elements of the knower code of this discipline as part of the knowledge and
knower structure of the discipline, tutors could adapt the feedback they give students to
reference these underlying, tacit aims, more clearly. Tutors, for instance, could use guiding
questions (e.g. What specific examples of sexism can you find in the text? Can you relate
these to the society or community you live in?) to help students move beyond superficial
engagement with a text and simultaneously help them to develop the necessary critical
disposition and gaze. They could, further, explicitly indicate that students need to move
beyond personal opinions alone to basing their opinions or positions in relation to literary
texts (see Christie 2015) or encourage students to move away from merely reproducing
knowledge from the text to a more nuanced production of knowledge about the text. The
questions and dialogue they open up with students through feedback, whether written or oral,
could more overtly indicate the values of the discipline in terms of the ways students read,
deconstruct, make sense of, and reference literature in their own writing. Conversely, if tutor
feedback focuses too much on easily-corrected aspects, like language use and grammar, it
may convey incorrect messages as to what is truly valued in the discipline. Tutors in English
Studies thus have to walk a fine line between being language editors and facilitating students'
ongoing learning and development.
In Law, what is valued is the ability of students to follow accepted processes of
reasoning to solve a range of legal problems in a manner that exhibits clarity of reasoning,
accuracy, attention to detail and precise use of terminology (Clarence, Albertus and
Mwambene 2014). Thus, feedback could be tailored to focus less on telling students to
construct clear sentences or use correct grammar as arbitrary requirements of writing in
English, and could rather focus students on using concise, grammatically correct sentences as
being essential to realising clarity of meaning and attention to detail, both important aspects
of working in the legal field. As developing procedural and technical knowledge and
comptence is part of the basis for legitimate achievement in this discipline, tutor feedback
could enable students to see where they have gaps in their reasoning, or application of legal
statutes or case law, for example. Rather than indicating where a student has simply failed to
include information, feedback could be refocused, again, to explain to students why leaving
such a gap leads to a breakdown in the logic of their argument, thus orienting students to the
basis for successful participation in this discipline.
By being able to conceptualise the code of the discipline they work within, specifically
the basis for legitimacy that indicates the code and what form this takes in their context, those
giving feedback on student writing may be more able to move whether in giving evaluative or
developmental comments, towards more strategic feedback that shows students, consistently,
what the basis for achievement is, and how they can begin to more consciously acquire the
Tutors and lecturers in many disciplines tend to walk a fine line between providing evaluative
and developmental feedback on student writing. This is especially challenging for tutors and
lecturers who are unable to articulate clearly what makes student writing successful, and what
counts as legitimate forms of knowledge, and demonstrating knowledge through writing. If
those giving feedback focus on less important aspects of success in their feedback as a result
of this, they may inadvertently miscommunicate the basis for achievement to students,
interruptng their consistent growth and development as successful knowers.
Maintaining a balance in feedback between correction and development is also made
challenging by a growing awareness that for some students the feedback given will not be
enough to help them become the right kind of knower. This indicates that there is at times a
gap between what feedback should do pedagogically and what it can do in the contexts in
which it is given and received. Given that the cultivation or training of a gaze that will
transform students from novices into experienced knowers able to contribute to their
respective fields of research and practice is a tacit, lengthy process, and can take even more
time for students from poorer literacy backgrounds that are not congruent with the literacy
demands of higher education (McKenna 2004), we do need to be realistic about what
feedback can actually achieve.
This paper contends that feedback has an increasingly important pedagogic role to play
in university teaching and learning as it may be one of the most feasible ways to create
authentic knowers in the field, especially in contexts characterised by large classes and many
written assignments. However, feedback can only play this role effectively if students and
tutors are in agreement with what the pedagogic purpose of feedback is. Thus, the pedagogic
purpose of feedback needs to be (re)conceptualised: firstly, to make more explicit that what
the discipline requires of students’ writing, reading and thinking work is related to the
development of a disciplinary gaze; and secondly, to create an effective feedback dialogue
between tutor and student that shows students what constitutes the gaze, and guides them in
developing it across different levels of study over time. Therefore, if we carefully consider
‘what lies beneath’ our feedback practices, using a conceptual toolkit like Legitimation Code
Theory, and Specialisation in particular, we may be better able to show students through our
feedback what constitutes valid knowledge and values, relevant ways of knowing and
demonstrating knowledge, and how they need to reflect this in their own written and related
reading and thinking work.
We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their useful feedback. No funding was
utilised or financial interest gained in undertaking this research.
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