Reading: Towards Sustainable Feedback

The way one teaches is inevitably coloured by one’s experiences as a student, and for me formal feedback was always enormously important. I pored over it, both for the obvious pleasure of compliments when a task was done well, but also to glean insights and advice for how I could improve in the future (I willingly admit I was, and still am, a nerd). When the feedback was cursory or ill thought out I found the experience disappointing and it made me less inclined to try as hard on future assignments for that teacher. I recognise that this isn’t the case for all students (or many at all) but this experience still influences the way I approach writing feedback. I want to explain and to some extent justify the grade that has been given, but I also want to provide advice and guidance where possible so that the student can continue to develop their course work, whether for their own benefit or for wider audiences.

As I result I tend to put more time and thought into it than is maybe sustainable for my practice as a teacher, particularly when it comes to marking smaller assignments or ones where there are many to get through. Conscious of this I have started to think about strategies that might make the delivery of feedback more effective and perhaps also more useful to my students. Ideas for this have come from a few sources, including colleagues at UAL and at other institutions, and from discussions with some of my students. For the benefit of this journal I am going to focus here on a paper by David Carless, Diane Salter, Min Yang and Joy Lam which proposes and advocates for a more sustainable feedback model based on research and interviews with award winning lecturers. While they conceive of sustainable in primarily in terms of a student’s lifelong learning, some elements of what they propose might I think also be adapted to make the feedback process more sustainable for tutors as well.

The piece opens by acknowledging the importance of feedback, with a critique of current feedback practice, and by repeating the often heard (although not universally accepted) mantra that students tend to value feedback less than teachers. Crucially they explain this as being less to do with the inherent usefulness of feedback, than with the way it is currently practiced in higher education. A particular issue they identify is the ‘finality of one-way written comments’ and also the lack of training and opportunities for students in how to use and act upon feedback. They also identify the swelling of higher education as a particular problem for tutors looking to provide suitably personalised student feedback. What the authors ultimately call for is not just the usual small scale tinkering with the feedback process, but a more thorough reconceptualization of what constitutes feedback.

For the authors, a key element of making feedback more sustainable is to make it less one way and more dialogic. They suggest that such an approach ‘can guide students on what is good performance by facilitating discussions of quality in relation to specific assignment tasks, and also support them in developing enhanced ownership of assessment processes.’ This is important, because it to some extent shifts the emphasis from the tutor to judge and deliver feedback, and moves some responsibility towards the student to self-regulate. A large part of how this happens rests in the way assessment is carried out, the authors suggest. The traditional single assessment point followed by feedback is likely to be less effective than a structure that allows an opportunity for an initial assessment and feedback, followed by time for changes and then a second assessment. They argue that ‘this development of self-regulative capacities is the essence of sustainable feedback.’

From this introduction the article then enters a review of the practices of a number of award winning teachers at the University of Hong Kong, the results of which were then subdivided into a series of categories for further analysis:  The themes addressed were two-stage assignments and their role in facilitating feedback, dialogic feedback through oral presentation tasks, the use of technology to facilitate feedback, and finally notion of student self-evaluation. For reasons of length I won’t get into analysing each of these categories in great detail, but will make a few observations for each. In terms of two stage assessment, several of those interviewed reflected on the positives of this approach. One pointed out how previously feedback could feel like ‘throwing a stone in the sea’ with little idea whether it was acted on. Another reflected on the heavy marking workload of dual submission points, but argued that it was worth it for the resultant learning benefits they saw in students. Peer review was mentioned as a potentially useful technique at the first stage of assessment, although there was also a recognition of the difficulties of motivating students to participate in peer feedback (an issue which might be addressed with recourse to peer mentoring techniques).

In terms of dialogic feedback, many of those surveyed employed oral presentation as a method of assessment. One tutor reported videotaping these presentations and then asking the students to effectively self-assess, reflecting on their own performance (by his own admission not an uncontroversial approach). Another reported using frequent, short presentations as an assessment tool, stating that it’s value also lay in building up public speaking skills which were key to the subject they taught. Moving on to technology supported feedback, this was quite widely used. One teacher advocated online feedback, with students given the opportunity to post drafts of assignment work and view and comment on those by other students. He characterised feedback as a scaffolding or support which tutors give to students, but also cautioned against students becoming over dependent on ongoing feedback and argued they should be asked to also find the answers themselves. Adding an example from my own experience, colleagues at Ravensbourne College have experimented with using recorded feedback for students. They have found this reduces the burden on tutors, and engages students better than written feedback.

The final section of the paper discusses examples of student self-evaluation. One informant suggests this is helpful because it reduces the amount of guidance provided by the teacher and pushes students to find answers themselves, achieving both the goal of equipping students with lifelong skills and reducing the burden on tutors. One example of this is the use of pre-assessment workshops, used as a way to help students evaluate their learning, the informant writes that ‘my strategy is that the same question has to be asked twice, so students can realize what they have learnt.’ Another informant emphasised the importance of ‘feedback in real time’ asking constant questions in classes as a way to assess student understanding and offer them opportunities to question in return. He also coins the idea of ‘provocative feedback’ intended to open a dialogue or discussion. These approaches, like any, can introduce tensions, the same informant writes that ‘initially, I would think that they are probably a bit disappointed because they expect the teacher to teach them. In the end, they value the fact that you respect what they brought to the class’.

Altogether this paper provides a number of ideas for how feedback might be more evenly distributed throughout the teaching process, to the potential benefit of both students and tutors. For students, such distributed and dialogic approaches offer more opportunities to understand feedback, incorporate it, and adapt their activities as they work. For tutors, it potentially opens up more sustainable models of feedback, which in various ways place more of the onus on students to self-evaluate and discuss feedback, reducing the burden on tutors to provide a stream of specific, dense information at the end point of grading and marking.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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