Purpose – Feedback is a central element of the learning experience yet, until recently, few studies have focused directly on what students think about feedback. This paper seeks to address this issue. Design/methodology/approach – Data collected as part of a larger study investigating reasons for consistently low ratings of feedback across the higher education sector are reported. The larger study includes Rowe and Wood's Student Feedback Questionnaire (SFQ), which gathers quantitative data on student perceptions and preferences for feedback, but also includes two open-ended questions inviting students to give written comments on why they believe feedback is important, and how the feedback they are getting could be improved. Findings – Focusing on responses to the first open-ended question and viewing comments in the context of the larger study and its findings, an analysis is offered of the students' responses, extracting seven different student conceptions of the function of feedback. Research limitations/implications – Feedback serves a wide variety of functions in the lives of students, not limited to the implication of feedback for learning. Students are most likely to succeed in an environment where their broader social needs are met. Originality/value – The findings reported in this paper contribute to an area of educational research previously neglected, drawing attention to: the importance which students attach to feedback as a teacher's personal response to them as individuals; and the need to take into account students' perceptions – both positive and negative – of the emotional aspects of feedback.