Longitudinal Research and Feedback in Higher Education

David Carless, Professor, Unit Head of SCAPE, The University of Hong Kong

Longitudinal research involves studying individuals or groups over multiple time periods in order to analyze change and development. The temporal element is a particular strength in that the gathering of data from one period to another potentially enables analysis of some of the complexity of change over time (Menard, 1991). Relevant literature suggests three different longitudinal designs: repeated cross-sectional studies; prospective studies carried out from the present into the future, such as following a cohort over a period of time; and retrospective studies, such as oral histories or life histories (Ruspini, 1999).

How long does data collection continue to be classified as longitudinal? A reasonable answer is that longitudinal research normally requires a minimum of three waves of data (Ployhart & Ward, 2011). This can be in a concentrated time period as short as a single semester or spanning a number of years.

Longitudinal research in my specialism of feedback in higher education seems promising, not least because some dimensions of feedback involve gestation and action over a period of time. Hill and West (2020), for example, tracked the long-term effects of a dialogic feedback intervention through a five-year longitudinal mixed methods study. They recommend that program teams offer systematic curriculum-wide opportunities for students to understand the rationale for, and develop, feedback literacy.

In my first attempt at longitudinal feedback research, I documented the feedback experiences of four undergraduate students majoring in education (Carless, 2019, 2020). A key conceptual point was to add nuance to the concept of closing feedback loops in that although acting on feedback is generally a desirable goal, there are also occasions when a feedback loop might be closed simply to please a teacher or finish a task, without worthwhile student development accruing. A proposed alternative to feedback loops is the notion of feedback spirals to emphasize longer-term engagement with feedback inputs of different forms, including puzzles that are not readily solved (Carless, 2019).

My reflection on this study (perhaps surprising to some) was that I felt I needed a smaller sample with more detail and more intensive interaction, rather than a larger number of participants. Accordingly, my second longitudinal research study involved an intensive four-year collaboration with Stephanie Young, a highly motivated undergraduate (Carless & Young, 2023). Our data comprised Stephanie’s reflective journal; our regular documented research meetings and e-mail interactions; and a series of recorded oral feedback seeking exchanges with Stephanie’s teachers. Through analyzing feedback seeking transcripts over time, we were able to identify progress in terms of preparation and management of these dialogic feedback encounters. A conceptual contribution lies in exemplifying links between reflection and feedback seeking in that reflection played a significant role in the development of Stephanie’s feedback literacy (Carless & Young, 2023).

In what Mark Carrigan calls the accelerated academy longitudinal research may seem like a sub-optimal option. Might taking several years to produce a publication slow down career progress? Prioritizing quality over quantity does, however, make a lot of sense and the REF (Research Excellence Framework) in the UK, and the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) in Hong Kong seem to support that position. I leave the final word to a mock RAE panelist who judged my loops and spirals paper as 4* (world leading): “The notion of an ongoing feedback spiral is a distinctive contribution, offering a longitudinal perspective often lacking in educational research.”


Carless, D. (2019). Feedback loops and the longer-term: Towards feedback spirals. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(5), 705-714. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1531108

Carless, D. (2020). A longitudinal inquiry into students’ experiences of feedback: A need for teacher-student partnerships. Higher Education Research and Development, 39(3), 425-438. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1684455

Carless, D., & Young, S. (2023). Feedback seeking and student reflective feedback literacy: A sociocultural discourse analysis, Higher Education https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-023-01146-1

Hill, J. & West, H. (2020). Improving the student learning experience through dialogic feed-forward assessment. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(1), 82-97. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1608908

Menard, S. (1991). Longitudinal research. Sage.

Ployhart, R. & Ward, A.K. (2011). The “Quick Start Guide” for conducting and publishing longitudinal research. J Bus Psychol 26, 413-422.

Ruspini, E. (1999). Longitudinal research and the analysis of social change. Quality and Quantity, 33, 219-227. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1004692619235

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