Let's talk about feedback!

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! This week I’d like to ask you to venture with me into a territory where we don’t always feel very comfortable: the complex world of feedback. While we all agree feedback is very important for learning, we are often overwhelmed by the time it takes us to give “proper” feedback and to intentionally design feedback opportunities in our courses, besides the obvious end-of-assignment moment. Like with many topics I tackle in this newsletter, there is no “one fits all” recipe. We often learn by doing and reflecting on what we do. So here are some of my reflections, complemented, as always, by a compilation of resources. This time I am happy to put together an exquisite collection of the latest research on the topic, which I warmly recommend you take the time to read one of these cold winter days. Also, if you have the chance, do follow the authors on Twitter (links provided), I promise it’s worth it as they will often take you on a thought-provoking journey! On a different note, this week “The Educationalist” was featured in “The Post-Pandemic University” blog: https://postpandemicuniversity.net/2021/02/09/the-educationalist-more-than-a-newsletter/. Have a nice rest of the week!

What we talk about when we talk about feedback

Feedback is often a resource-intensive and time-consuming process. Nevertheless, feedback offered throughout the duration of the course (formative feedback), is a crucial element in the learning process. Together with the feedback given at the end of the course (summative feedback), it provides the students with a clear understanding of their progress and motivates them to improve. Developing a feedback culture, whereby feedback is used as “feedforward” and used to enhance learning, should be an important feature of the academic environment.

5 things to remember about formative feedback

  • It requires a change of mindset from “correcting” students’ work to actively engaging them in evaluating and advancing their learning;

  • Offer feedback in a timely and personalized manner;  try to avoid using a “one fits all” approach;

  • The feedback needs to be specific and closely related to learning goals so that it can allow students to improve;

  • Use constructive language; identify at least one positive aspect and point it out;

  • Use the feedback process to your advantage: it can provide you with an indication of how much the students have understood and give you time to adapt your teaching “strategy” during the course.

Feedback as a process

In order to make sure our students, as well as we, make the most of the feedback process, we need to try to let go of some well-entrenched ideas, as hard as it may be. So here we go:

  • good feedback is not a series of fragmented comments on various tasks;

  • good feedback is not an “end point”; it’s actually more like one point in a loop;

  • good feedback is not simply an addendum to assessment; it needs to be considered in its own right, as a valuable process that contributes to learning;

  • feedback should generate questions rather than give answers;

  • sometimes less can be more; but this often goes against our instinct to help students by explicitly correcting their mistakes or pointing the, to the right answers.

We need to see feedback as a continuous flow, a dialogue between us and our students, that is meaningfully embedded in the fabric of the course. Also, it’s important to remember that this process also includes what takes place “in-between” giving and receiving the actual feedback: how we process information, what role emotions play, how we make decisions based on feedback, etc. These less visible aspects are an integral part of what feedback actually means for learning.

Feedback by design

To ensure the feedback process fulfils its potential we need to think about it intentionally already at the course design stage. Course design is very important in creating a variety of feedback opportunities. We can design different task patterns that enable students to reflect on and incorporate the feedback at various points throughout the course/ programme. These can even apply to tasks that take place in different study years. Some examples:

  • a series of connected tasks where students receive feedback (from instructor or peers) and incorporate it in the next step;

  • breaking a larger task in two or more parts, with actionable feedback opportunities after each part and clear ways for students to implement it in the subsequent parts;

  • a “draft & rework” pattern- also for larger tasks, like research projects, with feedback opportunities on the draft.

Mapping these feedback opportunities throughout the course, or even programme, is a good approach that enables us to be coherent in our design. I think trying to visualise the process can really help us ask the right questions and see where we can improve.

Feedback literacy

While we are talking a lot these days about student-centred learning, when it comes to feedback we still tend to see it (mostly) as a teacher-led process.

In order for it to be effective, feedback needs to be more like a dialogue, a partnership between teachers and students and among students. We need to make sure students see the value of feedback and learn how to engage with it. Feedback can play an important developmental role, especially concerning metacognitive skills.

Self-assessment and peer feedback are also important aspects of the process. Engaging students in assessing their work or having it assessed by their peers requires some initial preparation and instruction time as students need to make themselves familiar with giving constructive feedback. Once they understand the process and benefits of self-assessment and peer feedback, students take responsibility for their learning process and teachers’ role is transformed into one of a coach.

What students do with feedback is very important. Here are some ways to train students to receive and use feedback:

  • Incorporate peer feedback: train students to give feedback to their colleagues; this skill will prove very relevant in their lives and careers;

  • Give them time to reflect on the feedback received from you and their peers; let them review their work and maybe even write a short self-assessment piece;

  • Encourage them to use feedback to improve their work; they need to set concrete goals and identify areas where they could improve until the following assignment.

Feedback “toolbox”

Feedback can prove to be more effective when provided using various media. The multimodality also allows for increased accessibility (e.g. for students with a disability, students with dyslexia). whether you teach online, face-to-face or in a blended manner, you can use technology tools to diversify the type of feedback you offer- from the more traditional comments in written form, to integrating audio/ video feedback or using screencasting for precise and quick feedback.