This reflection on the role of feedback in education is based on a mailing list discussion as part of the SAFRI programme, as well as on a few of the assigned readings. I thank the organisers of the session, as well as all the participants in the conversation.
Guidelines for effective feedback
The assigned readings seem to focus on providing readers with a list of guidelines for providing effective feedback and while this list is not exhaustive, it serves as a starting point. Feedback is better when:
- It is promptly given
- It is specific to the task being assessed, and to the objectives that were set (of course, this assumes that the student has set objectives for the task)
- It is performance-based i.e. the feedback is along the lines of what you did, as opposed to who you are. One participant made the point that while it is performance-based, it is done to improve performance, and not to evaluate it
- It does not focus on too many things
- It helps the student plan for future learning
- Feedback should seek to encourage self-assessment, self-reflection and self-awareness
- Should / Could be better received if the supervisor / clinician allows the student to comment first e.g. What did they think went well? What did they think could be improved? (one participant said that “…a lot of feedback that I have to give to students is actually on written assignments [which]…means that we cannot start with the student’s agenda. There is no interactive discussion, no possibility to listen, respond to non-verbal cues, observation, etc.”
- Positive feedback should be given first (builds self-esteem and encourages better performance)
- This positive feedback should not be followed with a qualifier e.g. “You did well, but…”
- “Listen and ask, don’t tell and provide solutions”
I’m glad someone pointed out that this (long) list is wonderful in ideal situations but is impractical in many real-world situation, which is where we find ourselves most often e.g. large student:teacher ratios, overloaded faculty and limited time to spend with students. On further reflection, it seems clear that this issue is not specific to feedback, and affects almost everything we want to do as teachers. The problem with teaching is that the way we want to do it (i.e. small groups with focused attention) doesn’t scale very well and we need to come up with a fundamentally different approach to teaching. My own view is that the internet and various associated technologies can enhance communication in ways that do scale, and that therein lies part of the solution.
Complexity in feedback
My own initial thought on a list of guidelines was that it was a wonderful “how to” for providing effective feedback to students. However, as I progressed through the conversation, I began to have my doubts, starting with this one. I worry that having a list of guidelines may deceive us into thinking that if we follow the list then we’ve given good feedback. This is like a student thinking that following a list of questions is a good way to conduct an assessment. Giving feedback seems to be a dynamic process, affected by context (e.g. social / cultural background, type of placement / task) and an understanding of the person/ality receiving it. Someone suggested that the complex process of giving / receiving feedback was also about the identity and character of the receiver and that “…in order to protect the integrity of their beliefs and knowledge, [they] will reject corrective feedback and find ways to devalue it”. Some studies have identified the importance of eliciting thoughts and feelings before giving feedback, which might go some way to alleviating this.
One of the participants insightfully related this back to the MBTI session in March, where it was clear that “knowledge of personalities is useful when giving and receiving feedback. What we know about ourselves and others is important feedback management”. In relation to this, another participant raised the point that “…the issues of culture, gender, religion, belief, age are very important in feedback. Also, feedback for average students is different than feedback for failing students [as well as for] students who think they’re doing well [but] are actually failing”. I think it’s important to note that feedback is dynamic, contextual and complex.
I found a common theme in the conversation that went along the lines of “feedback drives learning”. This may be a matter of semantics but I’d like to challenge the idea that it does drive learning and suggest that it can drive learning. This may seem pedantic but I think it’s important, because when we say (or imply) that it does, we’re operating under the assumption that all feedback is equal, which it clearly isn’t. This was pointed out by several participants, who suggested that feedback can be inappropriate “…because of how, when or where it is presented”. Some teachers seem to be guilty of using feedback to highlight their own skills and knowledge, while at the same time making it clear that the student lacks these things (or in one horrifying example, actively humiliating them).
When using my own experiences to make a point, I often include examples of my mistakes. I think that as role models, we need to model our failures (and to elaborate on how we moved past them) as well as our successes. Students seem to have an idea that we’re infallible, which unfortunately makes them believe they must be too. If we can highlight that we’re also subject to errors of judgement and prone to forgetfulness (a big one for me), we show them that we’re human and go a long way to establishing trust.
Feedback as a skill
There was a suggestion that giving “feedback is a skill that has to be learnt” and that we should emphasise its importance. This was taken further with the idea that receiving feedback is also a skill that needs to be learnt (e.g. listening, reflecting, analysing), and that we need to spend a lot more time preparing students to receive feedback effectively and with the right attitude / mindset. One participant spoke of students who receive feedback defensively, negating it whether it was appropriate or not. I liked the idea raised that feedback should not only emphasise knowledge, but also more generic skills like effective communication, conflict resolution, etc.
Feedback in teaching and learning
It was pointed out that feedback is not only about a student-teacher interaction, it can also be between peers or colleagues. In fact, feedback is “…for helping all who are interested in self development and actualization of goals, not only students”. This suggests to me that feedback between peers could be an important component of peer teaching, an area of that I’m increasingly interested in.
Feedback should also be given to students who are performing well. This will help to dispel the notion that feedback = criticism. It was pointed out that as teachers, we often have a tendency to focus on the student’s weakness (I know that I’m guilty of this), possibly as a remnant of our own experiences of being students, when this is how we received it. One of the dangers of focusing on the negative only, is inducing a lack of confidence on the students part, where they become incapable of identifying their strengths. Thus, feedback should be used to highlight strengths as well as weaknesses, in order to promote learning.
Feedback and evaluation
Before beginning, see the third point in the guidelines. All too often (as was pointed out by some participants), feedback = marks, and there is no action required after receiving the mark (or if there is, the response is along the lines of “What must I do to get a higher mark”). I wonder if we’re not the problem. We make the assumption (and model behavior showing) that feedback and marks are related, whereas they don’t need to be. Marks are quantitative, while feedback is qualitative. Marks are summative, feedback is formative. Apples are apples and oranges are oranges. When one person is evaluating another, there’s no real objectivity, and so quantitative measures of competence don’t seem to me to be a good fit.
We should distinguish between formative and summative assessment, and their relative relationships to feedback. In formative assessment, feedback is essential as its nature is to facilitate learning. In summative assessment, feedback is irrelevant because the nature of the examination is to evaluate, which we’ve seen is not the role of feedback.
I think we need to get away from this idea that feedback and marks are necessarily related. Of course they can be, but it doesn’t mean they must be. We have to disconnect feedback, which is about learning, and marking, which is about evaluation (and not a very good form of evaluation at that). If students are “marks driven” it’s because we’ve put marks at the centre of our curricula. How do we de-emphasise marks…well, by not marking (it’s radical, I know).
Feedback and reflection
In order for feedback to be effective and of any value, we must first identify the relationship between the task, the feedback, reflection on the task and feedback, and finally, acting on the feedback. Without first making sure that the receiver understands this, the feedback is of no value. We know that reflection drives deep learning, understanding and professional development, yet we leave little space in the curriculum for structured reflection (and forget about teaching students how to reflect). It was great to read the comment, “we do not learn from experience, but rather from reflecting on experience, and feedback must facilitate this reflection for the student”. I would argue that unless the feedback results in a behavioral change, it is ineffective. Of course, if the student cannot focus on anything but the mark, we clearly haven’t established for them the relationship between the task, the feedback, the reflection and the action.
“No feedback” as feedback?
There was a question of whether “no feedback could also be feedback”, and I agree with one response which stated that it was “…the most negative and most useless form of ‘feedback’ in that it borders on pure and simple indifference”, as well as being “regressive and inhibiting”. I’m reminded of a line from “A man for all seasons]]”, in which Thomas More states that …”the maxim of the law is ‘Silence gives consent'”. When I was a student and was not explicitly told to improve (and to do this), then it meant there was nothing to improve, which I found disturbing, knowing what kind of student I was. I worry that if we give no feedback, we risk the student believing that their performance is exemplary (which it may very well be, but then tell them that), or worse, that they don’t know what to believe, leading to anxiety and confusion.
Feedback as a form of academic literacy
I’ve also been thinking about feedback as a form of literacy, which was touched on by one participant, who suggested that “…conversation is a form of feedback, a sort of negotiation of understanding in which mutual feedback becomes recursive leading to shared understanding. In this way, feedback is not one person who ‘knows’ helping another person who doesn’t ‘know’, rather it is mutual. By asking myself questions before and during the feedback, I am learning at the same time the other is learning”. I would take this in a more general direction and suggest that feedback is useless unless the student is at least familiar with the culture of the tribe, which includes the language and conventions we use.
We can give as much feedback as we like, but if we’re speaking a language the student doesn’t understand (I don’t mean English, etc.), we’re wasting everyone’s time. And in case you think that by final year, our students understand our “tribe”, think about this simple example: The first year student is starting out in the culture of higher education, the second year student is starting out in the culture of physiotherapy, the third year student is starting out in the culture clinical practice, and the final year student is starting out in the culture of being a physiotherapist. We need different languages and approaches for each of these different cultures / literacies / “tribes”.
- For most of the discussion, feedback was treated as a “thing”, rather than a process or interaction. My own view is that feedback is neither “given” nor “received”, but is a process that people participate in
- How many of us ask our students for feedback on our feedback?
- How many of use ask our students for feedback on our teaching? One participant had this to say “Should each of us offer the students who receive our teaching the opportunity to give feedback on our teaching as part of their learning? This may be a little threatening, but on the occasions that I have done so in the past it has mostly been encouraging and affirming. Occasionally uncomfortable.”
- If we do ask for it, how many of us reflect on it and make an associated change in our teaching practice?