Student engagement: Facilitating critical and criteria-based feedback in large cohorts to improve writing skills

In another of our regular Teaching Innovation Award project blogs, Amanda Harrington explores a key area of student learning engagement.


I am an Occupational Psychologist working in the School of Business and Economics.  Like many of you reading this, I want to find ways of engaging and motivating students in large cohorts.  In 2013, with a previous TIA, I started setting up student study groups, encouraging them to meet between lectures.  Based on positive feedback about the value of these groups, I have continued using this approach with large cohorts.

The TIA money will be used to pay student researchers to run focus groups and to help analyse those data.


  • To develop an approach to formative feedback that is time-efficient for the lecturer, and is practical within large cohorts
  • To help students with the skills required for essay-based exam papers, and in so doing ensure that their writing abilities impress potential employers both during their placements and at work. (I haven’t begun to think about how to follow up results on a longer-term basis yet!)


  • To develop students’ skills in critical, criteria-based self- and peer-feedback to improve essay-writing in large group teaching.
  • To establish processes of writing practice and feedback, for use within and between lectures not only to improve essay-writing skills but also knowledge of the module’s content.
  • To facilitate such positive experiences of voluntary self-directed study groups in their first semester, that students continue using this approach throughout their degree.


The project focuses on a first-year module in Organisational Behaviour, in the School of Business and Economics, attended by 300 students.  It is assessed with a 2-hour exam, where students choose two out of a choice of four essay-based questions.

The intention is for students to write essay plans and practice essays throughout the semester, to give each other feedback about their writing and to identify how to improve their own essay writing.

Progress so far:

Week One:  In the lecture, it took 5-10 minutes to have the 300 students form ‘Self-Directed Learning Groups’ of 4-6 students.  These groups sit together in the same seats every week.  All group work is done in these groups.

Students were introduced to a structure for giving feedback and advised, for the first week, to concentrate on giving each other positive feedback only.

‘Homework’ included each student to write an essay introduction and then to discuss this introduction in their Self-Directed Learning Groups.

Week Two:

We discussed what an introduction needs to cover.  I showed one possible introduction, stressing that there are many ways to write an introduction.

‘Homework’ included students writing an explanation for two theories from week 2, to share these explanations within their Self-Directed Learning Groups and to give each other feedback on these.

Week Three:

A slight disappointment, as I had hoped to receive some examples of student writing.  However, on moving around the lecture theatre and in email exchanges with some students, it is clear that a lot of groups have at least produced some written work, and discussed their writing in groups.

In the lecture, in 10 minutes, Self-Directed Learning Groups produced a one-page essay plan for one of two exam questions, about last week’s topic.  Groups were invited to volunteer their essay plans so I could give them feedback.  I gathered about 10 and worked through ALL of them, identifying at least one positive point from each plan.


Next week, one of my students from a previous year has agreed to present his experience of working in a Self-Directed Learning Group and how this impacted on his writing.


If you have read this far and want to discuss any of these ideas, do email me :

Amanda Harrington